Some of you may need some party conversation material to break the ice this holiday season. Since we are a bit out of practice, consider the subject of leaves.

Fall is here: the temperature is delightful, the mosquitoes have finally stopped biting, and the trees are at their most colorful. Winter is just around the corner, and soon those beautiful leaves will carpet the streets and lawns. Gardeners and tree lovers will not curse the trees, as no one should. 

Instead, let us celebrate and be thankful: we have a reason to bundle up and spend the day outside, something too many of us avoid in the winter months.  The beauty of gardening in November is that the plants are slowing down and we can as well. You can get a bit of exercise removing leaves off your sidewalks and driveway and out of your gutters.  

While raking leaves is a great way to burn off your fried turkey, you really don’t need to get all of them up. You have permission to let them be. I know you don’t need anyone’s permission, but sometimes it helps.

For years I have shouted, almost gospel-like, to leave your leaves to save your trees. I realize some of your neighbors and spouses will not agree; even my own father can’t leave them be. Well, they are all wrong (Sorry, Dad!). It is so important to the trees and pretty much all of your garden plants to leave some leaves and branches, too.  

Leaves insulate, protect, and rejuvenate the soil. When leaves and small branches rot and break down, they release much-needed nutrients back into the soil, promoting healthy root growth. Leaving leaves and branches can reverse previous compaction from feet or cars to send sick, dwindling plants on their way to recovery. Not only that, but leaves also retain moisture, prevent erosion, and reduce weeds. You’ll save money by buying less mulch, soil, and fertilizers, and you’ll reduce waste in landfills.

Kids love to jump in them but hate to pick them up. So, after raking them into piles, there is more creative fun to be had.  Here are a few ways to use your leaves and improve their appearance in the garden:

  1. Mow over dried leaves with the bag attachment to collect them and you will be left with a beautiful, fine-textured mulch.  When I walk my dogs, I am always looking for the bags of mowed leaves and always happily find them. Trash to treasure!
  2. Pile the leaves up in the corner of your yard and let them break down into a compost.  If you flip them a couple of times, they will break down faster and you can burn off the stuffing as well.  
  3. Bag them. Twenty-five years ago, my neighbor Maggie showed me how she bagged up her leaves in plastic bags, adding a bit of water. She just left the bags under her deck, occasionally turning them over. She basically made her own soil and hardly did a thing. 

So, relax, have a beer, and watch the neighbors rake while you save your trees, energy, and back. Another perk? You will have plenty of time to think about planting the following trees and plants in your garden:

Native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana): This tree can vary greatly in height, some growing to just over 30 feet while others grow to 70. The subtle fall color is eclipsed by their very sweet fruits that look like little pumpkins, smaller than a golf ball but bigger than a quarter. Persimmon fruits are only edible when they appear to be over-ripe. If you eat the fruits too early, they will make your mouth pucker! Don’t worry about them going to waste, as all mammals love to eat the little persimmons. It is a dioecious tree, meaning a tree is either a female or a male. Selected cultivars are not readily available, so planting a few trees will improve your chance of getting fruit. 

Mount Airy fothergilla (Fothergilla intermedia  ‘Mt Airy’):  A dense deciduous shrub reaching four feet tall. Their fall color ranges from red, orange to yellow.  This shrub can take nearly full sun but needs well-drained, moist soil. Its white, honey-scented April flowers resemble the spherical flower protected by Dr. Seuss’s Horton the elephant.

Narrowleaf sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius):  Blooms October to November. It can reach eight feet tall and makes a great perennial statement for your back border.  It stands above and lasts longer than almost all the other fall bloomers. Its yellow flowers are bigger than a silver dollar and are loved by bees, birds, and butterflies. Makes great cut flowers, too.

Happy Thanksgiving and get out in the garden!

Greg Levine

Greg Levine is Co-Executive Director & Chief Program Officer of Trees Atlanta.