Fall is finally here! Wiki Carter recently mentioned how much she enjoyed watching the brightly colored leaves swirling around in the wind, dropping from the trees like huge snowflakes, scarlet and sunflower yellow and pumpkin orange. I love this vision.
Most folks complain about the leaves, all of them heaped in dark wet clumps on the lawn. Leaf blowers come to the rescue for many, the roars of gas-powered motors belting out over the neighborhood, harshing many a mellow Saturday morning.
I loved the leaf piles as a child, may parents raking them in massive piles and letting us use them as a soft, fluffy, safe playground. We jumped in them, moving the picnic table close to the pile to add drama, height and danger, things every child aspires to, especially in safe play areas.
Before anyone understood the value of fallen leaves, my mother took advantage of every one of them. She had my father rake them all to the back border of the yard where the soil was not so good. She wanted to plant magnolia and rhododendron and create an evergreen border between the neighbors’ yard, so instead of spending a fortune and contracting big moving machinery to dump truckloads of mulch and mushroom compost and other amendments, she made her own with dead leaves. And it didn’t cost her a cent. The border that ensued was lush and green and happy.
Now we know that those fallen leaves are vital to the environment. Dead leaves provide habitat to all the little things that, as E.O. Wilson states, “rule the world.” He was referring to the disproportionate role that insects and other invertebrates play in food webs, ecosystem services, generating and maintaining biological diversity. Insects form the base of the food web, feeding fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. Those pesky mosquitoes and gnats actually are food for fish, bats, and birds. Sixty percent of the world’s birds eat insects.
Called “six-legged lifesavers” by some, insects not only provide food, they also keep harmful organisms in check. One wasp can eat two pounds of other insects! Spiders eat 400-800 billion tons of insects a year! A ladybug is a voracious meat eater and may eat as many as a thousand aphids during its larval development, plus several hundred more as an adult.
It’s hard to fathom the importance of insects in pollination. They pollinate 85 percent of wild plants and 75 percent of agricultural crops. Certain insects are the only pollinator for some plants, like figs and the fig wasp.
Many insects disperse the fruit and seeds from plants so that they can spread across long distances without relying on wind pollination. For example, ants disperse the seeds of about 11,000 different plants!
Not only do insects feed us, they break down and clean up our waste, too. They clean up dung, dead plants, and animal bodies and return them to the soil as nutrient-rich organic matter. For example, blowflies and flesh flies eat dead animal and plant waste and recycle it into the ecosystem as they produce waste or are themselves eaten.
One of the most important things we can do is provide shelter for these tiny little rock stars. And shelter doesn’t include spending a single dime. If we can rake our leaves instead of blowing them, most all of the minute insects will be able to snuggle up for the winter on a different leaf and emerge in the spring. But the leaf blowers pretty much annihilate them.
If you can find a spot, maybe under the hemlocks or wherever you want good rich soil, try heaping your leaves there and letting them work for you. And in the spring and summer, you’ll be rewarded with lightning bugs galore and all manner of other little things who will think YOU rule the world!
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Ferris Robinson is the author of three children’s books, “The Queen Who Banished Bugs,” “The Queen Who Accidentally Banished Birds,” and “Call Me Arthropod” in her pollinator series “If Bugs Are Banished.” “Making Arrangements” is her first novel. “Dogs and Love - Stories of Fidelity” is a collection of true tales about man’s best friend. Her website is ferrisrobinson.com and you can download a free pollinator poster there. She is the editor of The Lookout Mountain Mirror and The Signal Mountain Mirror.