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Autumn Leaves: Rake ‘Em or Leave ‘Em?

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Autumn Leaves: Rake ‘Em or Leave ‘Em?

It’s that time of year when the days are getting shorter and the leaves are falling. And fallen leaves means lots of backbreaking, blister-forming raking. Or does it?

Most people rake their lawns because they were taught that a covering of leaves will suffocate it. That is usually not the case, unless you have a bed of leaves covered by mounds of snow all winter. Then you have a chance of growing snow mold, which is a pink or gray fungal disease that can attack your grass. So yes, it’s OK to leave the leaves. But there are other alternatives to raking that might be better for your lawn.

Whether it’s lawns, or any garden bed, success depends heavily on the prep work.

Fire Up The Lawnmower

As the leaves first start falling, use your lawnmower and mulch them in place as you cut your lawn. Scattering those chopped up leaves all about accomplishes a few things. First, you are adding a natural, free, nutrient-rich composted material to your soil that helps break up the cohesion of the soil so the 4-inch root bed of your lawn can go deep. As you feed during the cycle, the nutrients are easily absorbed at the base, making the top growth stronger. Second, you are adding a “thatch” material, which breaks down very fast, and helps prevent weed seed from germinating. That will lessen your usage of weed chemicals, and provide a thicker lawn.

Start your quest by first having the proper mower. If you are in the market, search out the “3-way” mowers that bag, recycle, and side discharge. All three steps will benefit your gardening, and save you time and money.

Bag ‘Em

When the leaves start falling more heavily, covering your lawn, then you will want to bag them and use them elsewhere, in other beds. I always stress re-seeding a lawn around Labor Day, for a few reasons. Leaf fall is one. By the time your leaves are falling heavy enough to bag, your new lawn seedlings are rooted deep enough to stay put, and you will be cutting them, adding greens to your browns in your composting efforts.

Make sure to always finish your leaf recycling in the fall, because in the spring, the leaf material won’t compost down fast enough and becomes nothing more than a harbor place for insects. Also, if using any “weed and feed” products, do not use the collected materials in your edible beds, as the herbicide 2-4D is still in them, which will make you very sick, and will kill off any broad leaf plantings.

Composting your leaves saves time and money. In the time it takes to mow, you have fed, amended, and added moisture-retaining mulch, without buying more. You can still feed during the active feeding season, but you can back off on the amounts. Using the collected material makes great top dressing for your veggie beds during the winter and will be “cooked and ready” by late winter. You might very well see the steam rising from the pile on one of those late March mornings. Worms will be included!

If you are raking each week, you are destroying a valuable thatch bed, creating more problems, and if you are feeding, you rake up your product as well, negating your efforts.

I encourage those without the benefit of leaf litter to seek out those that just blow them to the curb. I have helped some neighbors bag those leaves, which I take home, scatter them all over my lawn, and mulch up with their mower. Newly built homes that were sodded or just seeded will benefit from this greatly.

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19 comments

1 October's Gardening Chores - Farmers’ Almanac { 09.29.19 at 10:13 pm }

[…] As leaves start falling, simply mulch them in place — the composting leaf litter will benefit your soil greatly. As leaves start […]

2 Chuck T { 10.23.15 at 4:46 pm }

For the past 2 years we have mulched our leaves on site on our heavily forested lot and it does work. It doesn’t look as neat as many of us like our lawns to look, but the leaves go away, and the grass lives. I would say to mulch your leaves with a lawn mower you will have to mow at least 3 times to get the leaves broken up enough to start breaking up in the spring. Mowing in the spring continues the process.

3 Yolanda { 10.23.15 at 2:28 pm }

I wouldn’t mind leaving the leaves on the ground if I didn’t have pecans on the ground, which has the squirrels burying them everywhere, and later on I have pecan seedlings popping up because the squirrels didn’t come back for their nuts! So blowing leaves makes it much easier to gather unwanted growth, if anyone has any solutions that don’t require cutting down my trees, please let me know.

4 Ginny { 10.23.15 at 11:35 am }

I don’t like leaving wet leaves up close to the house, especially when they are wet, due to allergies.

5 Composted Leaf Mold Starts in Your Own Yard | Kevinthegarden's Blog { 11.16.14 at 9:02 am }
6 Kevin { 11.07.14 at 2:12 pm }

nanette murphy
Which NL? Mine or the Farmers Almanac? What are you trying to do? It’s time to get dirty!! Either way you start, now is a great time to get it ready, Seed catalogs will be here before you know it. An overwintered garden bed is a fantastic start for March, Can I help? you can email me from my site in the bio above. I’ll seek thru the Almanac archives also, get you growing!

7 Kevin { 11.06.14 at 11:59 am }

Jan Asay,
Those long Ponderosa needles can smother a lawn if left in thick masses over winter. I use mine in the beds and in a garden path on top of the leaves that get cleared off the lawn. Holds everyone in place and looks nice. Ma Natures “weed block”!! I have a lot of clay where I live now, and tilling left over pine needles in my new veggie garden worked great for keeping that soil from tightening back up. As far as the acidic point Ali, yes there is an issue there, which is why I always promote liming in August and mid March with the cheaper slow release products. Liming correctly, as your lawn is actually feeding, allows it to take up any nutrients. Oak, actually is more acidic than Pine. I use shredded Oak in my Blueberry and Azalea beds.
Chrstine Bossler, you’re right, I thought I had mentioned the “fungal” part and cited the issues with Flowering Pears this year, those fungus problems ARE transferred. Yep, those ugly leaves need to go away.

8 Ali { 11.06.14 at 1:20 am }

I always thought that pine needles, spruce tree needles or any of those are so acidic to the soil.

9 Diane { 11.05.14 at 9:08 pm }

We’re on over an acre with 3 huge White Oaks and 2 “scrub” Maples and surrounded by woods. We’ve mulched our leaves every year with great results. This year, we’re unable to do so because our tractor refuses to start due to carburetor issues. Planning to buy a new tractor in the Spring, but those leaves lying on the lawn over the Winter has me feeling very uneasy. I certainly hope our grass survives!!! :/

10 teresa hamilton { 11.05.14 at 8:52 pm }

Leaves make a great worm bed,if you go fishing the following year.

11 Chrstine Bossler { 11.05.14 at 8:11 pm }

Also… if you have pine needles they make an excellent mulch! Let them be.

12 Chrstine Bossler { 11.05.14 at 8:10 pm }

If you have clean leaves, meaning non diseased leaves. You should definitely mulch them in your lawn, or work them in to your garden bed, or compost pile or insulate your roses with them. If your leaves are diseased you should bag them and get rid of them.

13 Carol Dauer { 11.05.14 at 5:38 pm }

I don’t worry about raking leaves. We live out in the country, and the wind blows so hard that the leaves don’t stick around.

14 nanette murphy { 11.05.14 at 1:33 pm }

there was two articles in this newsletter, one was on building a raised garden and I think the other was on how to “create”a garden. I think something happened with my service provider as those two articles disappeared before I could read them. Would it be possible for you to resend the newsletter as I am very interested in learning about both??

15 Jan Asay { 11.05.14 at 12:46 pm }

I have tons of ponderosa long needles, can they stay over winter? We have snow here also.

16 Jan Asay { 11.05.14 at 12:44 pm }

I have ponderosa needles deep every where, can those be left over winter? We have snow in winter also.

17 Ali { 11.05.14 at 11:18 am }

My dad was always opposed to raking the leaves in his yard, must have had a good reason for that. My husband has always mowed leaves with the mulcher attached and we do have a beautiful old lawn. Whatever leaves fell after that we raked up and spread over my garden to be rotor-tilled in the spring, and some just raked into my flower beds and compost bin. I’ve always found snow mold in the spring under the snow while it melted so I guess we can’t get away from that completely.

18 Kevin { 11.05.14 at 10:17 am }

MaryJaneRissberger ,
And FREE TOO!! In the beds, I mostly do the same, and after they “cook” over the Winter, fantastic stuff. I mulch them into the lawn, and add them with bagged greens into my veggie gardens. Ever make your own potting mix with them?

19 MaryJaneRissberger { 11.05.14 at 9:04 am }

I have mulched the dry leaves in the fall, and have also raked them onto flower beds. Both methods work well – it depends on the quantity of leaves and the space to spread the leaves. I also heap the remaining leaves in the back corner of the yard and use the composted material in the spring flower beds. It’s the BEST recycling.

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