South Fork Outdoors: Leave the leaves

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While on a 16-mile-long hike through the streets of Springs, Amagansett, and East Hampton Village last month, I realized that at no point during those nearly two and a half hours was I out of earshot of a leaf blower.

Although ecologists use the term “litter” to describe the carpet of leaves and small twigs that comprises the upper portion of our soil community, they never envisioned that we would confuse the term with trash and garbage. But it seems we have. Although a natural product deposited every year by plants, we treat it as we would any other type of litter: an eyesore to be picked up and carted off to the dump as soon as possible. In fact, one could argue that we as a community are more concerned about cleaning up the leaf litter than we are about the plastic litter on our beaches and roadsides.

I’m not sure that people were so anal about leaves before the widespread use of leaf blowers. Today, not only are the lawns swept clear of leaves, but the flower and shrub gardens, ivy beds, privet hedges, and even the forest floor is getting the full treatment in November.

Noise, the gas they consume, and the exhaust they produce, are some of the most obvious problems associated with leaf blowers. Perhaps less obvious to homeowners and those who get paid to round up leaves outside of lawn areas, is the potential damage this practice incurs on our flora and fauna.

Leaves are nature’s long underwear, donned anew every fall as one of many processes to prepare for the rigors of winter. The light, freshly fallen leaves form a spongy layer that traps heat radiating up from the earth and insulates the soil, soil organisms and plant roots from cold winter temperatures. They also protect the soil and plant roots from desiccation by trapping in moisture. And in the event of a hard rain, the leaf litter protects the soil from erosion.

The latter functions of leaf litter are recognized by many, but only during the growing season. So every spring the bare soil around trees and shrubs is recovered with mulch purchased at garden centers. Ironically, every spring some gardeners repurchase the leaf mulch that they paid to cart off and deposit at the Wainscott sand pit the previous fall.

Leaf litter also functions as an important wildlife habitat, and this can be valuable even among the developed areas of Long Island. For example, among the creatures that reside and forage in the leaf litter on my third of an acre lot in Springs are red-backed (gray phase) salamanders, spring peepers and gray tree frogs, Eastern box turtles, garter snakes, Eastern chipmunks, rufous-sided towhees, and a variety of other ground-feeding birds, including the recently reintroduced wild turkey. Many of the reptiles and amphibians in this group also rely on the leaf litter as a winter hibernaculum.

The next time you look at your leaves, consider them from a different angle. See them as “gracing” your property, creating an interesting mosaic of colors and textures, and as free mulch that protects your valuable plants and soil. And LEAVE as many leaves as possible.

Mike Bottini is a naturalist and author of “The Southampton Press Trail Guide to the South Fork,” “Exploring East End Waters: A Natural History and Paddling Guide,” and “The Walking Dunes: East Hampton’s Hidden Treasure.” Check www.peconic.org for Mike’s field naturalist classes.

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