Every season raises its own sustainability questions. In summer, we stress water usage and local vegetables; in winter, we must keep our homes insulated for more efficient energy use (and lower utility bills). Some solutions, like using LED lights, are year-round. But the days are getting shorter and the migratory birds are flocking and autumn is well underway. You might be asking yourself what an Earth-conscious fall looks like for your family. And the answer is in the changing fall colors.
Leaf them alone!
What typically happens when gold and red leaves fall upon our green monocultures of manicured lawns? First, we might rake them into a pile. Then, we put them in plastic bags that will never go away (fun fact, no piece of plastic ever created on Earth has decomposed yet) and the decaying leaves in the bag will just release carbon into the atmosphere slowly in a landfill somewhere, not to mention the fossil fuels burned in the transport of the leaves.
Though the leaves and sticks themselves are biodegradable, their valuable composted nutrients are totally lost when piled into a landfill with other garbage where no grass grows at all. Those are the consequences if you just rake your leaves and bring them to the dump.
It may come as a surprise, but if you clear those fallen leaves with a leafblower (or pay someone to do it), it may be one of the most significant portions of your annual carbon footprint. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are shockingly bad for the environment.
In her New York Times opinion piece, "The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Leaf Blowers" Margaret Renkl referenced a 2011 study by Edmunds that found that a two-stroke gas leaf blower coughed up more pollution than a 6,200-pound Ford F-150. In short, the hydrocarbon emissions from a half-hour of yard work with a leaf blower are about the same as a 3,900-mile drive from Texas to Alaska in an F-150 SVT Raptor pickup truck.
We’re talking an insane amount of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides (that form the smog we see hanging over big cities like L.A.) and carcinogenic hydrocarbons.
And all for what? The beautification of our front yards? To keep up with the Joneses? Have we ever stopped to confront this annual habit and wonder if it’s still serving us?
If you’ve begun to question the environmentally-costly removal of all the natural leaf litter in your yard, you still might be wondering what are the alternatives and how you can be an Earth steward this autumn. I’m glad you asked.
The first and easiest option is truly to leave the leaves where they are. More and more homes are converting lawns to things like native plant gardens, vegetable gardens and pollinator gardens.
Front yards are just beginning to trend toward low-maintenance, habitat-providing native species. The soil nutrients in your yard are like a bank account. When you remove leaf litter from the topsoil, it’s like making a withdrawal on the naturally occurring nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other micronutrients that plants require to thrive.
Your beautiful trees rely on their own decomposing leaves to grow their new leaves in the spring; this is the nutrient cycle, a complete circle. But withdrawing from that bank account year after year will deplete your soil over time such that you may find yourself spending money on store-bought, petroleum-produced, artificial fertilizers to replace the natural ones you bagged up and threw away.
Leaves also provide homes to all kinds of native insects, including bees, that we often don’t even think about.
If leaving the leaves alone is simply not an option for you, be it HOA regulations or the wandering eyes of neighbors -- I get it. We’re accustomed to certain lawn standards as a mark of societal success and it’ll take time to change these habits.
In that case, at least consider giving up the gas-guzzling leaf blower and enjoy some precious outdoor yard work in the gorgeous palette of autumn. There is something admittedly magical about kids jumping in leaf piles and a little manual labor in the crisp air. Let it get you in the holiday spirit.
But whatever you do, don’t take those leaves to the landfill. Leaf litter makes amazing, free mulch for home gardens. Keep your leaves for your own garden, find a local grower who might take them (the Grow Bemidji Facebook group would be a wonderful resource) or donate them to the Bemidji Community Food Shelf Farm for next year’s growing season.
If anything, at least question the yearly routine of collecting and dumping leaves. What seems normal in the 21st century is actually a relatively new phenomenon in the course of human history. Are all habits and traditions worth keeping? Is it time to take a new approach or turn over a new leaf?
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.