Why to Leave Your Leaves

Fall leaves_Songbird Cottage porch_2038

Fall leaves descend on Songbird Cottage porch

Every fall, as our trees and shrubs begin preparing for their winter sleep, we watch leaves morph from green to yellow (or orange on our Basketbush Sumac and Japanese Maple). Soon after, each leaf lets go of its supporting branch and drifts down to earth. Piles of fallen leaves collect along our pathways, porches, and patios. But we don’t see this annual event as more work to do in the yard — because we never move the leaves any farther away than off the porches and decks with a broom. We know how valuable these leaves are to the health of our yard, and we are excited to watch the cycle of rebirth they are entering.

Fall color on California native shrub, Basketbush Sumac

Fall color on California native shrub, Basketbush Sumac

Plants that go dormant in winter are closing down the sugar factories before frost would freeze the water inside each leaf, which would cause cells to burst and lose all the hard-won nutrients inside — not to mention killing the leaf tissues. After sending all the precious sugars and nutrients from leaves down into the roots for winter storage, the branches snip off each leaf with a special acid, closing the door on the scar with a cork-like covering. You might think the role of the leaf is over, but it still has a vital task to perform for the plant — and for the landscape around it.

Just like a warm blanket against the cold, fallen leaves help to insulate the ground around plant roots from chilling weather. As the leaves slowly decompose, they liberate their remaining nutrients into the soil, while providing food for many beneficial fungi, bacteria, insects, and a host of tiny organisms. This team of soil creatures transforms the decaying leaves’ nutrients into usable food waiting for roots when their dormant plants wake up in spring. These soil magicians ultimately convert the dead leaves into valuable mulch, which helps to retain precious moisture in the soil throughout the coming dry seasons.

Both evergreen and deciduous plants benefit from a cover of fallen leaves blanketing the ground.

Both evergreen and deciduous plants benefit from a cover of fallen leaves blanketing the ground.

Fall leaves are an asset to future generations of your yard plants.

Fall leaves are an asset to future generations of your yard plants.

This important saga in the life-cycle of fallen leaves not only benefits deciduous plants (those that lose their leaves in winter), it also benefits nearby evergreen plants. Even though evergreens have mechanisms to withstand freezing (including a plant version of anti-freeze), evergreens profit from the work that deciduous leaves have accomplished in their death: contributing fertilizing nutrients, soil-insulating properties, and soil-moisture-saving paybacks. Evergreen and deciduous plants alike also benefit from the weed-deterring job carried out by a blanket of fallen leaves.

So the next time you think about hauling off your piles of fall leaves, remember the role these heroic leaves still want to achieve in your yard. Put down your rake, and enjoy the rhythm of the leaves.





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Home Building in Birdland

Cactus Wren Nest Building

Cactus wren with paper shred to line its nest in a cholla

Suddenly, all the wayward string, sticks, fibers, feathers, paper, and cushion stuffing have become hot commodities around our yard. Now that nest-building season has arrived, what was earlier considered debris has become treasure to the birds living throughout Songbird Cottage’s yard.

Verdin Nest in Wild Plum

Spiny fortress woven by Verdins in our Wild Plum, made from stems of the same plant, with the entrance hole at the bottom right side of the nest

The path-side, spiny trimmings from our wild plums (Ziziphus parryi, also known as Parry Abrojo) that we had temporarily set beside the pathway have now been picked over by a pair of industrious verdins, and incorporated into their nest – smack in the center of the thorny plant’s protection. How such a tiny bird could so adeptly weave spine-armored twigs into a tight, round nest is amazing…with only one spot left unwoven: the entrance hole at the very bottom of the whole heap. No predator would dare venture into this spiny castle.

The seat cushion on the porch with a small hole at its seam has just become deflated where the stuffing has been repeatedly pulled out to line the new nests of cactus wrens, antelope ground squirrels, and likely other mothers-to-be.

Not only are the birds doing their own housekeeping, they are helping us with ours. I was delighted to see an Anna’s hummingbird hovering at the top of our window outside, collecting spider webs in its long bill. Webs are the perfect cement to glue together all the insulating materials that hummingbirds gather to line their nest to keep mom and babies warm at night as she slips into her nightly torpor to conserve energy. It is vital that she captures her daytime body warmth in her nest at night, so she uses cobwebs to secure all the insulating leaves, lichens, cast feathers, and other cuddly treasures to make sure she and her brood get through the night.

Yucca leaves with fibers

Mojave Yucca leaves waiting for fiber collection

But the big mystery – the migrating yucca leaves on our back porch – has finally been solved. I had neatly stacked a bundle of trimmed Mojave Yucca leaves on a porch table, as I wanted to peel off the long, curly fibers that give the plant its specific name (Yucca schidigera, Latin for “bearing a splinter of wood,” referring to the fibers along the edges of the leaf blades).

Yucca Fibers in bouquet

Curling yucca fibers add whimsy to this bouquet of California buckwheat flowers

These fibers give wonderfully artistic accents to any bouquet, gift bow, or arrangement, so I set the leaves aside until I could harvest the fibers.

Over the course of a week, whenever my husband and I passed by the patio table, we would find several of the three-foot leaves on the ground. We were puzzled, but kept restacking the errant leaves on the table. This morning, I heard my husband break out laughing as he called to me, “Hey, Robin! Come see who is tearing into your yucca leaves!” The culprit: a cactus wren, wrestling long fibers off the leaves, sometimes following the fibers down off the table in its tug-of-war to glean coveted material for its new family’s nest in our nearby cholla.

Cactus Wren Nest - Yucca fibers in Cholla

Cactus wren nest in cholla, woven mostly with Mojave Yucca fibers

With all this homebuilding activity, it won’t be long before we see all this hard work produce a new generation of songbirds.


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White-crowns bathing

White-crowned Sparrows bathing in our wildlife pond

We know it’s really chilly outside when we see the White-crowned Sparrows bathing in the bird bath. They never seem to bathe in warm weather. But the colder it gets, the more white-crowns jump into the water and energetically bathe. It’s mind boggling.

White-crowns bathing

Could you pass the shampoo over here?

These pint-sized travelers show up in our yard from their summer homes to the north when fall finally breaks the back on our summer heat. My coastal-grown husband, who withers in the desert heat, literally jumps for joy when he spots the first white-crown arriving in our yard each fall. We have a special celebration on that momentous day each year.

We keep track of the day the first white-crown arrives each fall and the day the last one leaves to fly back north as the weather heats up each April. In between those two dates, my husband comes alive in his excitement about the arrival of winter – keeping a fire stoked in the woodstove, stacking firewood out of the rain, simmering hearty soups on the stove, and hoping the white-crowns stay for a LONG winter’s rest.

The usual suspects hanging out at the feeder.


Welcome to Songbird Cottage

This is my personal blog, about my own garden, and what happens there.

Songbird Cottage signI am amazed every day at how much happens on our half-acre of High Desert property. Whether we are simply looking out the window at our bird feeders, working in our yard, or sitting on our deck watching the sunset, my husband and I get the biggest kick out of seeing the dynamics unfolding between our resident covey of a hundred quail, dozens of songbirds, rabbits, antelope ground squirrels, lizards, friendly snakes, occasional coyotes, bobcat, fox, and even hungry hawks. It’s hard to believe how much activity can be packed into such a small yard when it has various levels of “living spaces,” like a multi-story hotel, creating homes galore in ground covers, branches, and canopies of plants. Added to the backdrop of a seasonal procession of color from flowering plants, fruiting shrubs and trees, the happenings in our yard provide continual cause for delight, surprise, inspiration, and celebration.

I hope you enjoy following the fascinating cycle of life that plays out in a yard dedicated to wildlife, water-wise native plants, and other delights of a hopeless plant lover.