Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
Everyone has raked a gargantuan pile of leaves in their yard to ensure the return of a pristine lawn for spring, only to have it scattered by the hapless play of a child or dog. Often overlooked is the genius design behind the dark blanket of autumn which covers the ground.
January in Wakulla County can run the gamut when it comes to weather. The day’s length has begun to increase ever so slightly, but a consistent warming is still months away. It is not unusual to have the rain, which has set in recently, or the occasional hard freeze that arrived two weeks ago. Fortunately, both rarely arrive together, the last time being the late 80’s when snow accumulated and I-10 was closed to traffic. Each cold weather event functions as an influence on the seasons to follow by preparing the environment with the moisture and materials, to foster or impede, the awaiting warm period. In the county’s natural areas leaf litter conversion is a major component of the spring and summer to come.
For the homeowner who feels the need to rake the leaves and pine needles, they can be something of a minor nuisance. The showers of earth-toned leftovers appear suddenly and at inconvenient times, and there removal is never added to a chore list without dispute. Disarray aside, these organic remnants provide far more benefits than problems. Their suburban untidiness becomes an insulating blanket which nurtures plants, animals, and insects with time released provisions for use by the efficient and fortunate in the forest.
First and foremost, leaf litter is critical to the water holding capacity of the woodlands. The dried leaves, needles and twigs absorb and shade rainwater from the evaporative effects of the sun and wind. When rains become an inundation with flooding and runoff, it is the leaves which acts as part of the natural delaying system to minimize the negative impact on streams, creeks and rivers. The delayed or halted runoff has time to be absorbed by the soil and is filtered by the natural screening capacity of this organic material.
The moisture works in conjunction with native bacteria and fungus to convert the leaf litter into nutrients usable by plants and trees. While not as concentrated as commercial fertilizers, many of the same plant nutrients are present in the decaying leaf litter. The decomposition is aided by a variety of insects and worms which nest, eat and overwinter in the debris. The bug activity breaks up and stirs the elements along with inoculating microbes in the matter which speeds nutrient availability to the seed, plants and trees during ideal years.
Luckily, the region’s leaf drop is spread over months with the plants and trees responding to the solar cycle and weather. Autumn, winter and spring each have specific trees and plants defoliating. During dry years the bug and bacteria activity slows in accumulated leaf litter, but the naturally occurring fire cycle continues the nutrient recycling under the tree canopies. The easy to burn material aides with controlling insects and plant which can aggressively overpopulate an area.
Regular fires also prevent destructive wildfires which are harmful to all Wakulla County residents. While these uncontrolled fires do deposit nutrients, they have many negative effects which far outweigh this benefit. January’s weather is part of a continuing natural succession which the native plants and trees incorporate to continue the wild beauty so common in Wakulla County. The current cold and rain will combine with the leaf drop to produce much in a few months.
To learn more about leaf litter in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/