This time of year, your trees are sending you a message.

Although I grew up in the Midwest, I’m experiencing it anew. After spending eight blissful years in California, I’ve returned to a state where people wear hats shaped like cheese and where leaves turn colors and drop off the trees.

Kid Playing in Leaves


I’m not completely ignorant of the weather here in Wisconsin. I remember having to pick a Halloween costume that could fit over a heavy jacket when I was a kid, and I know to expect the first snowflakes around the first week of November.

I’m also well aware that I need to purchase an ice scraper and a brush for my car’s windshield rather soon — and that I’ll have to use them regularly until at least March.

But my childhood experiences in the frigid north had little to do with yard work. Except for the times I was forced — very much against my will — to mow the lawn, I got off scot-free. The leaves fell from the trees, then the leaves went away. Someone else got rid of them — grown-ups, I suspect — and I didn’t know where they went.

Playing in leaf piles was something I did as a kid. Raking leaves was not.

As an adult, I now see the bounty of leaves the trees are heaping on my street through a gardener’s eyes. These leaves are a gift.

Trees, it turns out, are strategic in their leaf shedding. Fallen leaves decompose to feed fungi that in turn nourish tree roots. So our trees are, in effect, making their own mulch and dumping it all over the very spot most beneficial to them: their root zones.

Unfortunately, to a suburban homeowner eager to get a head start on next summer’s manicured lawn, mounds of dead leaves are unsightly. Mulch is a bagged product you might buy, or have delivered in a pickup, and it must stay within a garden bed lined with plastic or bordered with bricks. It’s not something some tree ought to dump all over your yard.

For cities, the problem goes beyond aesthetics: Leaves that fall in the street can clog storm drains. So each fall, millions of homeowners clear their lawns of leaves and local governments then dispose of them.

Where do all these leaves go? If we threw them all away, leaves and other yard trimmings would account for 13.5 percent of all the trash in our landfills. Fortunately, over half of this yard waste is diverted away — for example, into composting programs.

Some cities, like my new hometown of Madison, take care of the composting for their residents. They only ask that we rake our leaves into piles on the curb for pick-up. Fort Collins, Colorado goes one step beyond that, connecting the people who want leaves with others who want to get rid of them.

But that’s not true everywhere. Thanks to budget cuts, New York City’s leaves are headed for the trash.

Most cities, even those with composting programs, instruct residents that the best thing to do with your leaves is to leave them be. If you don’t want leafy mulch covering your lawn, place your foliage in a compost pile, or run it over with the mower. Nature will take care of it by spring.

Your trees will thank you.

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Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

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