Raking Leaves: There’s a Better Way to Do It

Raking leaves

Fall leaves bring such beauty to the scenery with festive oranges and yellows. But that splendor ends quickly, and something has to be done with all those fallen leaves.

Or does it?

The old thinking was that raking leaves was a part of Homeowner 101: Every leaf must be removed from the lawn. Not so anymore. Sure, it’s OK, if you want that golf-course perfection. But there are several other options for handling this chore. The advice today is that dead leaves, handled well, can help the environment, improve your lawn and give you time to enjoy a cocoa on a brisk fall day.

Here are the better ways to tackle fallen leaves:


The benefits to your lawn and the environment by mulching can be quite beneficial, says Rebecca Finneran, senior horticulture educator at Michigan State University Extension in Grand Rapids.

Mulching leaves is accomplished by breaking down the leaves into small pieces, usually by mowing them.

“Many landfills no longer accept leaves, and many municipalities do have offer compost systems where people can bring their bagged up leaves,” she says.

So, in the ’90s, Michigan State University began mulching the leaves on its tree-heavy university campus.

“Four years later, there was great lawn improvement. You basically are putting organic matter into the lawn,” she says.

The tiny particles of mulched leaves improve lawn care. The mulched leaves sit down around the turf plant, keeping the dandelion seeds from receiving sunlight. Plus, over time, better grass emerges with fewer or no applications of fertilizer.

The mulching not only helps cut your work time down but it puts nitrogen back into the soil as the decomposition happens, according to the University of New Hampshire Extension. The extension adds that this process works much better if you mulch several times during the season so one thick layer of leaves does not pile up.

Rake Leaves for Compost or Garden Coverage

You can still rake your leaves. But the environmentally friendly way to give them a second life is to compost them at home or drop them off at your municipal recycling center for composting, if your area still offers that service, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Some areas even offer to pick up the leaves for composting. Make sure you get the right bags specified by your town.

Finneran alternates from mulching the leaves one week, then bagging them the next to use to cover her perennial garden beds. You can sprinkle them among your strawberry plants or other vegetation areas. The decomposing leaves block weeds and improve the soil quality for these areas of your yard, too.

Let (a Few) Leaves Lie

A little bit of leaf litter is natural and helpful.  leaf layer offers certain specifies a habitat for the winter months such as box turtles, toads and earthworms. Some butterflies and moths use the leaves as their homes over the cold months.

However, a deep layer of fallen leaves could smother your turf, Finneran adds. She said most of the time the leaves will end up in a pile in your shrubs or up against to your neighbor’s fence because of the wind.

“But it does make for more cleanup in the springtime,” she says.

Do not let leaves lie if you see mold leaf spot or other diseases. Those leaves should be removed so they don’t spread disease.

It’s About Tines: Raking Leaves the Right Way

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 states. “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 yardwork including raking to avoid back, neck and shoulder strains. Consider wearing supportive shoes and standing as straight as possible and keeping your head up as you rake or mow. It’s also best to bend at the knees, not the waist, as you pick up equipment or piles of leaves. Make the piles small enough to avoid back strain.

Advice for Mulching Leaves

If you plan on mulching, then Finneran says to elevate your mower deck on the highest setting and crossing over the leaves once or twice to shred them. This can happen once a week unless it’s windy and you need to do it a couple of times a week to keep up with the flow of leaves falling down.

“I have plowed through 12-14 inches of fallen leaves with my mower. But you can’t do it when they are really wet or really dry,” she adds.

Finneran made a YouTube video about the correct way to turn leaves into leaf mulch:

Use your mulching mower early in the morning when there is a little dew on the leaves and grass or the first frost. That moisture holds the leaves and mulch down into the grass.

It’s difficult to mulch soaking-wet leaves. It becomes a brown gum that will clog your lawn mower or clump on the ground. Just wait until they become dry leaves you can run over.

“Everybody strives for that golf-course-looking lawn,” Finneran says. “But smart gardening is to lower the impact of using fertilizers, herbicides and emissions from the lawn mower. You can have a luscious lawn with mulching. It just takes time.”

Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson, an experienced freelance writer and former award-winning newspaper reporter, writes for National Association of Realtors and many state Realtor magazines. She lives in Illinois with her high school sweetheart and loves cooking, swimming, traveling and spending time with her grandchildren.