Every fall my neighbors’ towering Lombardi poplars and quaking aspens shed thousands of leaves, golden streamers of the past summer. Before long mobs of these crispy botanical chips skitter over the asphalt, nestling against my perimeter butterfly bushes and forming silvery skirts around them. During the winter when a foot or two of snow compresses them, or the subfreezing nights harden them, I wonder what happens under the leaves – what new life is beginning there. This spring I decided to find out.
In April after most threats of frigid temperatures have passed, I performed the ritual of spring cleanup, curious about what surprises of nature awaited. Light on my feet and always wearing gloves, not because of an aversion to dirt or icky things, but because of what biting, pinching, or stinging denizen I might startle, I gently peeled back the sheets. The top stratum was dry and crunchy, having been exposed to the elements for several months. Arachnids inhabited this section, particularly immature harvestman (also known as daddy long-legs) and grass spiders, not yet full-size, and vagabonds without webs. Overwintering ladybugs were also found here, along with their alligator-shaped larvae on the hunt for aphids coating the upper stories of irises and salsify. The layer of leaves hugging the ground was decomposed, and in some sections skeletonized into transparent, leaf-shaped silhouettes. This zone was the most exciting as mobile flashes of rust and steel – young centipedes up to an inch long – scurried for deep cover to the butterfly bushes. Other creatures including earwigs and red wrigglers darted, dashed, or slithered every which way to escape my invasion. Somehow they all had shared space under the leaves. It is also here that I expected to encounter the shyest of the shy – black widow spiderlings cloaked in their youthful white and orange stripes. Another good reason for the gloves.
Under leaves falling next to their source plants, other fauna awaited my visit. Dozens of shiny black ants, approximately 3/8 of an inch long, raced away as I removed deposits of lambs’ ears turned to matted fluff over the winter. Sometimes this natural batting insulated an ant colony, which boiled out of the ground as the adults carried off their brood, and just as quickly vanished into the ground. As I ripped up the abundant shoots under the wild roses, I discovered something otherworldly causing me to leap back in alarm. It was a delicate 1-1/2 inch long organic shell, with concentric rings traced around the abdomen - the molt of a hornet, perhaps from the one that had been buzzing me and the flowering white yarrow for the last week or so. Tiny green and yellow crab spiders, also known as flower spiders, rappelled around the wild rose canes out of harm’s way, alternatingly flexing their “claws” and tucking into petite green and yellow spheres underneath the roses’ bright green growth. They were undoubtedly waiting for flowers to bloom in order to ambush pollinators. Other insects sighted nearby and given a wide berth, included a paper wasp resting on its new nest at ankle level, and a red velvet ant evading the commotion caused by myself and the budding naturalists next door.
Spring happened a lot faster than my spring cleanup efforts. Grasses grew up to six inches a week, overtaking my efforts to have a beautiful and interesting landscape. I sped up my yard work, gently shaking the litter to return its residents to their origins before hauling it to the backyard compost bins. Only bindweed, dalmatian toadflax, and cheat grass were exempted from composting because of their tendency to outgrow and overwhelm native flora.
The shelter provided by the decomposing leaves of our high country’s deciduous trees acts as a nursery for immature insects and spiders. Often beneficial, and usually later found in the garden, these creatures require surroundings that mitigate our temperature extremes and provide protection from predators until they can appear in the open with a fighting chance. Given all that happens under the leaves we may not look at that yard debris in quite the same way.
Freddi Steele is a Master Gardener and a former naturalist with the National Park Service. This article was published in the column GARDENING ETCETERA in the Arizona Daily Sun 7/7/12. Dana Prom Smith edits GARDENING ETCETERA. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.