Is Leaf Litter Good For The Soil In Your Lawn?

By Brian Mounts | Nov 17, 2020
Is Leaf Litter Good For Soil

In most people’s yards grass covers the soil and the nearby trees shed their leaves on the grass every Autumn resulting in a month or two of leaf collection and disposal leading into the winter season but is this the right thing for us to do? Is leaf litter actually good for the soil and have we been doing it all wrong every year by raking it all up and hauling it off to the dump?

I think the answer to this question is slightly more complex than most people realize. It is clear than in a natural environment leaf litter is very good soil structure and nutrient delivery to both the annual and perennial plants but in residential settings the positive affects of leaves left on the grass may only be important in a few cases at best. Let’s looks some of reasons why leaves may be worth leaving on your lawn in the fall and when they should be removed.

Leaf litter is good for soil structures because over time the leaves form a thick mat on the ground shading the soil surface and holding moisture near the root zone of surrounding plants. Lower layers of leaf litter slowly decomposes depositing nutrients back into the soil while stimulating the propagation of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and worms, all of which are desirable in both lawns and in nature.

In natural environments such as forests and parks leaf litter is very important for retaining moisture in the soil and for feeding the plants over time because there is no person to do this regularly throughout the year, it’s how mother nature get’s the job done.

In a residential lawn setting however the leaves will have the same positive effects on the soil as they do in the forest however they will also choke out the turf grass that is there resulting in spotty areas in a lawn. When the leaves come down in large quantities they act like a mulch applied to the surface of a lawn just when the growth of grass is stalled by the dormancy of winter. Due to snow accumulation, compaction, and blocked sunlight the grass under the leaves may not recover in the Spring.

It’s easy to expect the leaves to decompose naturally on a lawn just like they do in a forest but a lawn isn’t nearly as natural of a setting as the forest is and the leaves just don’t compost down as quickly as you might think.

Even still, there are some reasons to let leaf litter accumulate on a lawn and feed the soil so let’s cover some of these scenarios throughout the rest of this article. First however I’d like to show you this quick video I made on this topic over on the Turf Mechanic YouTube channel.

When Should You Not Pick Up The Fall Leaf Litter From Your Lawn?

First Let’s define what we’re talking about:

What is leaf litter?

Before learning about the importance of leaf litter, it is essential to know what it really is! Leaf litter is the layer of leaves that fall from the trees and cover your lawn. The larger trees (and the smaller plants too) drop a lot of leaves that actually stay there on the ground. This tree-leaf-debris on the ground is known is Leaf Litter.

Litter basically means garbage, and since these are mostly leaves, the term leaf-litter is used to describe it. We could go on and on about this, but you must have gotten the idea by now!

How does Litter form?

Leaf Litter takes a while to form, but it’s naturally formed by the plants over time. Leaf Litter is formed with the leaves that drop from the plants, as well as twigs and pieces of the bark that fall down. All of these turns into a compost heap, which is finally known as Leaf Litter.

It takes a lot of time to develop, but it’s one of those things you can’t miss once it does. If you want to see a leaf litter, you might want to visit a forest. Please keep in mind that you should not confuse a leaf litter with humus. A leaf litter is just the waste lying on the ground, it turns into humus after it is decayed.

Why is Leaf Litter Important?

One of the foremost questions that might arise in your mind is, “Why is Leaf Litter Important?” and that’s perfectly natural. Honestly, until I came to realize how important it really is, I couldn’t really have even imagined in the wildest of my dreams that it could be anything of use!

However, it really is important. While there are way too may reasons why it is so, here are some of the chief ones that you might want to know:

  • Leaf litter is not just waste matter, it is organic waste of the plant, that gradually decomposes near its roots. Once it does decompose, it turns into minerals and salts again that the tree can easily absorb. Thus, in a sense, it serves as a long-term fertilizer! This is one of the most important reasons why Tree Litter is thought be beneficiary for the plants.
  • Again, tree litter also serves to keep the soil moist! Exposed soil has transpiration rates that are way higher than the ones covered by tree litter. So, it actually helps the soil retain moisture for a longer duration by preventing evaporation by blocking the direct solar heat and sunlight. Quoting Sundayfarmer:

Litter aids in soil moisture retention by cooling the ground surface and holding moisture in decaying organic matter. The flora and fauna working to decompose soil litter also aid in soil respiration. A litter layer of decomposing biomass provides a continuous energy source for macro- and micro-organisms. As litter decomposes, nutrients are released into the environment.

  • Leaf Litter also serves as a great spot for animals and insects to make home. And that’s precisely why several kind of animals and insects can be found in regions with higher amounts of tree litter.  At the same time, it also protects the animals from predators because it acts as a good hiding spot.
  • Since a lot of insects live there, the birds that live on the trees can also find their food in a comparatively easier way. This is another benefit that the Leaf Litter provides in the long run.
  • And finally, leaf litter increases the overall humus content of the soil in the long run. It helps the growth of trees, which ultimately results in a higher number of trees, and that is beneficial for the environment. So, that’s yet another benefit that’s worth mentioning!

What are some of the problems with Leaf Litter?

Now, nothing can be only positive, everything has a negative side as well. And Leaf Litter is no exception to this, however unlikely as that might seem. So, here are some of the main problems that are connecting with Leaf Litter:

  • First of all, the leaves need to rot in order to become humus. This gives out a really stringent odor, which a lot of us might want to avoid. It’s fine in a forest, but it might just not be fine in your lawn. And that’s one of the cases where you might want to remove your Leaf Litter.
  • Next, a lot of harmful gases are emitted while these leaves decompose. If it’s happening in your own lawn, you might end up inhaling this, and you want to avoid that. So, cleaning your leaf litter becomes a good idea in that case as well.
  • Again, as we remarked earlier, it becomes the home for a lot of insects. While it might not be a problem in nature, it most certainly poses a problem if it happens in your own lawn! You obviously don’t want all sorts of insects to be present in your lawn- no lawn-owner, including me, ever does. So, you might want to clean your Leaf Litter if you don’t want that nightmare to come to life.
  • Also, one of the major problems you might face, that deserves a special mention because I faced it myself, is mosquitoes. If you have let the Leaf Litter stay there, you’ll soon find that there are a lot of mosquitoes living around you! And trust me, you wouldn’t really love the Leaf Litter once the mosquitoes make it hard for you to go and sit for five minutes in your lawn peacefully.

What Should I do?

Well, there’s really not much that you can do about it. Now that you know Why is Leaf Litter Important and why it’s actually pretty harmful, you have to decide whether or not you want it in your lawn.

Personally, I’d recommend not having it in your lawn. I say so because there’s no other option in nature, and no one’s living close enough to it to be harmed. But in your lawn, you’re going to be putting yourself at risk if you let leaf-litter stay there. You might just shift to using fertilizers to give your lawn most of the extra benefits that the litter was- this way, you’d be able to ensure the safety of your family’s health as well!

Conclusion
I also understand that you might still have a few questions, that’s to be expected. I am always on the lookout for new opportunities to present you relevant information so make sure to check out a few of the following articles to learn a bit more about sustainable lawn care: