RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The last of the fall leaves are starting to hit the ground and are probably piling up in your yard or garden. You may want to rake them up, throw them away, or burn them, but the Virginia Department of Forestry is encouraging another solution — leave them alone.

According to the Department of Forestry, when leaves are left alone and have the chance to naturally decompose, they can greatly benefit nearby plants and animals.

Leaves left on the ground can be particular valuable to gardeners. Dead leaves can become free mulch, which reduces weeds and provides nutrients to plants. This can be great for gardens and flower beds, especially if you’re growing shrubs, perennials and even some vegetables. Dead leaves can also become part of a compost pile to add to soil in the warmer months.

If you leave your leaves, not only will your plants thank you, but so will the local wildlife. Leaves provide a great spot for insects waiting out the winter cold, like butterflies and bumblebees. If you have any dead limbs in your yard, you can also add them to leaf piles and create a perfect winter habitat for small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.