Ever wondered what happens when you sweep fallen leaves?

As I write this, autumn has just passed us by. Every autumn, we see a spectacle of colors all around us. In most temperate regions, leaves change into many different colors. Then, they fall off.

The only irritating thing about autumn is the fallen leaves. It can clog up drains, create a mess in our gardens and roads, and make things uncomfortable for all of us. But, it is uncomfortable enough for us to do something about it. What do we do?

We sweep away these leaves and collect them in a pile. Here, the leaves are covered up so that they don’t fly and spread in the wind, and eventually they are burned. An innocent response to mess, you would say. But have you ever thought what it can cause?

Fallen leaves: Are they important?

Yes! Everything nature, even dead leaves, play a vital role in the functioning of an ecosystem. The fallen leaves are part of something called litter. Litter is the dead material of plants that fall onto the ground.

Dead plant material play an important role in a process called nutrient cycling.

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But they are dead! What use could it be?

It turns out, dead plant material, be it leaves, twigs, branches or roots play an important role in a process called nutrient cycling. Every living thing is made up of nutrients like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur, nitrogen, etc. These nutrients remain in the dead matter of plants (and animals). When this litter falls on the ground, they are immediately attacked by organisms that are nature’s decomposers. They convert this complex organic matter into simple inorganic forms; they bring out the individual elements out of the dead matter. This is released back into the soil, for the living plants to take back into their bodies and reuse for themselves.

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By sweeping away fallen leaves, we are cutting off the most important way in which soil nutrients are enriched. When soil nutrients get depleted by lack of nutrient cycling, eventually the plants and trees of that area will die (adding fertilizers has long been a way to counter this in agricultural ecosystems). By burning away the fallen leaves, we are merely adding precious carbon resources that could be used by plants into the atmosphere.

The side effects of this sweeping is felt in the detritus food chain of that ecosystem. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, this is the food chain that depends on dead material for food and survival. By sweeping away dead material and keeping it covered, we prevent these decomposers from getting to their food! The entire food chain, then, suffers.

This act of sweeping litter is widespread in communities living in the fringes of the forests. In fact, the most significant effects of sweeping litter are seen here. Forests produce massive amounts of litter that are used to sustain many generations of trees, not just one. By cutting off this cycling, the soil gets so depleted in nutrients over time that trees cannot grow. The forest communities do not realize this. If they did, they wouldn’t do it. Most of these communities survive because of the forest produce, after all….

One small, insignificant act for our comfort can cause so many negative effects. It is, if nothing else, humbling to comprehend this.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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