If you’ve ever strolled through a deciduous forest in the colder months you’ve probably noticed that, unlike the average lawn, no one rakes up the leaves. Instead, these fallen former solar panels accumulate on the forest floor and persist for many months to come. The leaves not only reintroduce carbon and other nutrients into the soil as they decompose, they also harbor their own little living world. For the smaller critters of the forest, the layer of leaves, also known as duff, can provide shelter from the elements, much-needed microclimates, camouflage, and even a crunchy, carbon-rich snack.
Spiders, worms, nematodes, snails, and other invertebrates also occupy this under-appreciated microcosm. However, the role of fallen leaves extends even further. Leaf litter provides a crucial food source for birds that need larvae to feed their young. Even herbaceous perennial plants, waiting out the winter underground, benefit from the insulation the leaves provide their root systems. Like any other facet of an ecosystem, when the leaves are taken away, the effects radiate outwards impacting far more than just the critters that call them home.