Raking Leaves: 7 Things To Do With Them

red rake leaning against a wooden bench beside a pile of fall leaves

Well, you have the Instagram-worthy pops of gold, yellow, red, and orange fall color you wanted from your trees this year.

You also have a whole lot of leaves littering your lawn.

Not sure what to do with all that fallen foliage? No worries. We’ve rounded up a list of ideas, including composting, mulching, or simply tossing them out along your tree line.

An added bonus: Not all of the options involve raking, which can strain your back.

Read on for more details on each option of what to do with your leaves, and then, choose what works best for you.

7 Things to Do with Fallen Leaves

1. Make organic mulch

Photo Credit: Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Why spend hundreds of dollars on a truckload of mulch, when you can create it yourself?

This DIY project doesn’t take much — simply shred dried leaves on your lawn with your mower, collecting the bits in an attached bag. Then, spread a thin layer (about 3 to 4 inches) in your flower beds and around the bases of trees and shrubs to help maintain moisture, protect roots, and block weeds.

Or, if you’ve already raked the leaves, gather them into a plastic trash can and shred them using a weed trimmer.

Rebecca Finneran, senior horticulture educator at Michigan State University Extension in Grand Rapids, recommends mulching your leaves to feed your lawn. 

“Many landfills no longer accept leaves,” she says. So, in the ’90s, Michigan State University began mulching the ones on its tree-heavy university campus. “Four years later, there was great lawn improvement. You basically are putting organic matter into the lawn.”

2. Compost all kinds of waste

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Here’s the thing about composting: It can take up to two years for a brand-new pile to fully decompose and become usable. Composting, though, is a great way to keep all sorts of waste out of landfills — everything from food scraps to grass clippings to newspapers to raked leaves.

What’s more, according to the PennState Extension, fallen leaves from a large shade tree can provide around $50 worth of plant food. “Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as manure,” the PennState Extension site states.

Ready to start composting yourself? You can either purchase a composting bin or simply start a pile in your backyard.

Keep the blend of greens (grass clippings, coffee grounds, egg shells, food scraps) and browns (leaves, evergreen needles, paper) balanced and the pile moist to ensure your compost will work correctly. Turn your compost about once per week. 

A rule of thumb (or green thumb): “Greens” add nitrogen, while “browns” add carbon to the mix.

Raking leaves
Photo Credit: MaxPixel

3. Rake your leaves (and how not to strain your back)

If you do decide to rake all your lawn or just a portion of it, there are best practices to follow.

For instance, the type of rake you use can make things easier and not tear up the lawn.

“Don’t rake vigorously and deep. I see people out there with dirt flying just ripping put the crown of the turf,” Finneran says. “A light raking with a leaf rake rather than a garden rake is the best. Leaf rakes are more flexible.”

She also suggests using a tarp to rake your leaf piles on, and then dragging the tarp to where you want the leaves to go — such as onto a compost pile or your garden.

The American Chiropractic Association cautions those doing yard work, including raking, to avoid back, neck and shoulder strains:

  1. Consider wearing supportive shoes and standing as straight as possible and keeping your head up as you rake or mow.
  2. Bend at the knees, not the waist, as you pick up equipment or piles of leaves.
  3. Make the piles small enough to avoid back strain.

4. Amend soil with leaf mold

Like composting, leaf mold is made up of decomposing leaves. Unlike composting, leaves are the only ingredient, and alone, they don’t offer much in the way of nutrition. You’ll still need to use fertilizer or your own organic compost to fill those needs.

So, what is leaf mold good for? It acts as a natural soil conditioner and helps it hold on to moisture for longer. Various studies have shown using leaf mold in your garden can not only increase yield and plant health, but it can also make plants more resistant to disease.

For instructions on making your own leaf mold, watch the tutorial above.

5. Gather leaves for decorative purposes

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Another way to recycle fallen leaves is to use them in your seasonal crafting. Here are a few DIY project ideas to get you started:

  • Form a “flower” arrangement with twigs and leaves.
  • Adorn your mantel with branches and leaves.
  • Create a natural wreath using twigs, twine, and leaves.
  • Press leaves onto parchment paper, frame, and display.
  • Make autumnal garland for your stairway or door frames.

6. Mow and leave in place

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Even if you don’t plan on producing your own mulch or compost, your lawn can still benefit from the fallen foliage. Instead of raking, use your mower to shred the leaves scattered about your yard, allowing them to lie where they fall. 

The leaves will settle between the grass blades where microbes in the ground will start the decomposition process. As time passes, these shredded leaf pieces will emit nutrients into the soil.

Pro Tip: After shredding, you should still be able to see your grass. If your lawn just looks like a carpet of shredded leaves, there are either too many leaves or they just haven’t been shredded enough.

Solve the too many leaves problem by gathering up the pieces and bagging them for later use. If the issue is that the leaves aren’t shredded small enough, simply go back over them with your lawn mower until they are.

7. Help plants (and animals) overwinter

Photo Credit: Unsplash

As soon as you notice consecutive days or weeks of below-freezing temperatures, take some of the shredded leaves you collected and place them around your plants where the stems meet the roots. 

You can even surround your plants with wire and cover them with leaves that way. This process prevents the soil from thawing and refreezing over and over again, as that can damage plants.

Besides insulating your flowers, bulbs, and shrubs, you also can offer the same to the wildlife that calls your property home.

How to do this: Blow your raked leaves into your tree line where they can pile up (without harming your lawn and garden) and provide warmth and shelter for animals, such as box turtles, toads, earthworms, insects, and lizards.

What to Do with Fallen Leaves: Other Things to Know

Can the leaves of any trees be used as mulch?

The large size of a shade tree’s canopy offers an abundance of fallen leaves each autumn. However, there are a few — specifically walnut, eucalyptus, and camphor laurel leaves — that actually suppress growth of other plants you may have on your property.

Walnut leaves contain juglone, which stunts the growth of other plants.

Eucalyptus leaves have phenolic acids, tannins, and flavanoids, which have been shown to inhibit the growth of some plants.

Camphor laurel leaves contain camphor, which can alleviate pain and inflammation in people, but can prevent growth in some plants.

If you have any of these shade trees in your yard, it’s important that you compost the leaves before using the remains as mulch.

Why do I need to shred leaves before turning them into mulch?

If leaves are left whole, they can clump together and suffocate plants by inhibiting air and moisture from getting to the leaves and roots.

When to Call in the Pros

If you love the thought of recycling fallen leaves but not the thought of having to do all the work yourself, get help from a landscaping or lawn care services company.

As part of their leaf removal service, they will send a crew to your home armed with professional equipment (think leaf vacuums, backpack blowers, and rakes) to collect and bag your leaves much quicker than you could alone.

Added bonus: Letting a crew deal with your leaves spares you from possible backache, too.

Main Photo Credit: Pixabay

Freelance writer Lee Nelson contributed to this report.

Andréa Butler

Andréa Butler

Descendant of the Fulani tribe, Gettysburg-obsessed Marine Corps brat, and lover of all things writing and editing, Andréa Butler launched Sesi magazine and has penned articles for sites, such as LivingSocial, Talbot Digital, Xickle, Culturs magazine, and Rachel Ray. Andréa holds a B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an M.A. in magazine journalism from Kent State University.