Bird and leaves photo by Laura Frazier

Wait! Don’t rake up and toss those leaves. You may be wasting good resources for your garden and for wildlife. Instead, rake and bag them because they make great mulch to protect your plants from winter freezes. They’re also a great addition to your compost heap.

And if you don’t want to rake them at all, the National Audubon Society recommends leaving at least some of them on the ground. The birds will appreciate them as a source of shelter and even food.

For the birds

Trimming back your perennials, such as coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and other seed-bearing blossoms will deprive birds of a natural food source. They’ll feed on the seeds, even if they’re so small you can’t really see them. Other plants, such as pampas grass and muhly grass with their tall feather-like blooms, provide a veritable picnic for birds as the weather turns cold. No need to trim them back until late winter.

Leaving some leaves on your lawn also gives the birds a place to shelter. They can nestle under them, and along with the heat from the ground, this will help keep them warm. Consider building a loose brush pile of leaves and trimmings from plants to create protection from predators for your birds. With bare trees in winter, they have fewer places to hide.

Be sure to keep your feeders filled, and thoroughly clean them at least once a month to removed stale seeds and mold.

For your garden

Fall’s a good time to start composting, especially with a large amount of leaves in your yard. Rake them and pile them, alternating with non-meat kitchen scraps and grass clippings, to get a head start on making rich soil to use in spring plantings.

You can also collect leaves using your lawnmower set on “shred” or mulch, then bag them. Use them to protect tender plants and those that go dormant, such as hostas, elephant ears, caladiums, half-hardy and perennial salvia, and dahlias. Pile them on lightly to a thickness of about three inches and they’ll help hold in the ground’s heat. Brush them aside when the weather warms back up and you’ll be adding nutrients to the soil as the leaves decompose next year.