In the US, the beginning of autumn has led to a minor media outbreak warning people not to let their children or dogs jump in piles of leaves. There could be sticks, dirt or creatures in there, after all. One source suggests that kids make a scarecrow instead.
I have nothing against scarecrows, but silly fears could rule out making scarecrows, too. Little spiders might lurk in the straw used for stuffing, and you could get a splinter handling rough-cut wood. It’s also a poor substitute because jumping in leaves involves active running, jumping and rolling, which are not required to make a scarecrow. Have these writers and producers never heard of nature deficit disorder in an age when much of children’s lives take place on screens?
As it is, I feel compelled to defend leaf jumping or stomping as a healthy and joyful experience for kids and their families that is also good for gardens. When a lofty mountain of fresh leaves is jumped upon repeatedly, the leaves get broken into smaller pieces, which makes them easier to use as garden mulch, bulky material for composting, or winter bedding for the chickens.
Fresh Leaves Are Clean Leaves
First, I challenge the premise that fresh leaves that fall on lawns and driveways are dirty. My second-floor office window looks out into the treetops, and for weeks now I’ve been watching underemployed, somewhat frenzied wasps feed in groups when they find small insects among the poplar, pine and oak foliage. The winter birds are back, too, which includes titmice and other species that glean trees for surviving insects. By the time the leaves fall, the insects that used them as food or habitat have been harvested or entered dormancy. They are pretty much gone.
Then there is the fact that leaves come from the upper canopy, which is clean and dry compared to space close to the ground. Every gardener knows the difference height makes in the cleanliness of home-grown produce. Ground-hugging leafy greens always require meticulous cleaning, while a tomato or sugarsnap pea picked from a trellised plant needs only a light rinse. Rain showers wash down tree leaves over and over again, with sun-drying in between, so until they hit the ground, autumn leaves are pretty clean.
Many people are concerned about ticks in leaf piles, but here we must note the difference between crunchy, new-fallen leaves and “leaf litter,” which we will define as moist layers of leaves that accumulate on the forest floor. The leaf litter in woodlands inhabited by deer and mice do provide habitat for the tiny ticks that transmit Lyme disease, which is why hikers are wise to stay on the path. But ticks do not inhabit the treetops, so a colourful pile of dry leaves should not host ticks (or other terrestrial creatures) until its jumping phase is long gone.
The Benefits of Using Crushed Leaves in the Garden
Regardless of what you plan to do with them, crushed leaves are easier to handle and faster to decompose compared to whole ones. I like to store several bags of dry crushed leaves for use in winter composting projects, and using crushed leaves requires far fewer bags. Crushed leaves also stay in place better when used as mulch over garlic or asparagus. A recent study from Connecticut found that leaf mulch may suppress common diseases of asparagus, so why not try it?
Crushed leaves decompose faster because each new crack and crumble increases the surface area that can easily be penetrated by water. Moisture sets the stage for work by fungi and bacteria, which change with the weather and the condition of the leaves. Sometimes I use my mower with the blade set high to give leaves a light crush before raking them up, but there are days when the noise of mowers or blowers would be wrong, so I rake up big ridges of leaves and tromp through them wearing heavy boots. I think of it as the adult version of jumping in leaves.
Safe Leaf Jumping
My brothers and I jumped in leaves for hours every fall, and a generation later my daughter and her friends served as human leaf-crushers for several years. Nobody needed treatment beyond cartoon bandages for minor scratches. They were quite good at it, too! After only a half hour of running and jumping, three little girls can reduce the size of a leaf pile by half. Then an adult has to rake up another pile.
Note the importance of adult participation here. Kids should never play in leaves piled along streets, and the safest leaf pile will always be your own. Children also should be taught proper leaf-jumping form, which is heads up, bottoms down, like a long jump cushioned with leaves. I have seen upsetting videos of kids being allowed to dive into leaf piles head first, which makes me wince at the likelihood of eye, head or neck injuries.
I hope I have made my case: Jumping in leaves is a special seasonal pleasure that should be enjoyed while it lasts. It’s good for kids, and good for the garden, too.