With Spring encouraging us to spend more time in the garden, it is important to hold back on the temptation to sweep up the leaf litter that may have piled up over the winter months. Hidden beneath these leaves and in the soil below is a world teeming with life.
In the garden, leaf litter is the base of the soil food chain. It is home to all manner of lifeforms including microbes, mites, beetles, spiders, cockroaches, ants, earwigs, millipedes, snails, slugs and many more organisms the eye cannot see.
These critters love dead things – whether it be dead leaves, twigs and logs or dead animals and animal droppings buried in soil. But they also like each other. Organisms feeding on one another mark the beginnings of food chains.
A simple example of a soil food chain in your garden starts with fungi growing on leaf litter. The fungi provide food for the springtails which in turn make a tasty treat for centipedes. Before long you have a soil food web and a hub of activity in the dark spaces of your backyard.
It is not just the bugs, worms and insects who get a good feed, either; native animals such as magpies and blue-tongue lizards will also pop in for a visit and stock up on food before the cooler weather sets in.
Your plants don’t miss out on this goodness either. Soil organisms feed off the litter, but in this process they also release nutrients into the soil. Your native plants or vegies will thrive on this organic fertilizer.
What lies beneath?
Worms: Worms can drag dead leaves into their burrows. When tunnelling through soil, they make it loose and crumbly, making it easy for roots to grow through. By dragging dead leaves into their burrows and eating it there, they add organic matter to the garden soil, which helps retain keeps soil moist. Among the birds that will love your healthy worms are the Kookaburras which will visit for a harvest before the lean pickings of winter.
Cockroaches: Australia has many native cockroaches, most of which are brown or black, wingless and live outside in gardens and the bush. Australian cockroaches are unique in that they burrow in soil. They only emerge to collect dead leaves to eat in their burrow. These roaches are an important part of the food web and form part of the diet of animals such as frogs and reptiles.
Beetles: You probably already know Ladybirds and Christmas beetles. But did you know that beetles make up a quarter of the animals on earth? And that potentially 30,000 are at home in Australia? Beetles make great backyard buddies as they munch on unwanted critters like aphids and mites.
Snails: The leaf litter in your garden is perfect for snails who need a moist atmosphere to live in. Snails can be infuriating when they graze on your newly planted veggie patch. But they also like to feed on dead plant and animal material and fungi. On top of that, they can play an important part in decomposing organic matter in your compost bin. This all leads to a healthy snail which is devoured by crows, ravens and blue-tongue lizards.