Autumn is here, and with it, the annual crunch of fallen leaves underfoot. If you live anywhere near a tree—or near many trees—you are likely inundated by gold, orange, and red leaves scattered across the ground. As the leaves pile up, one common question from homeowners is whether they have to rake the leaves in their yards. There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, and it can be hard to sort it out. So do you have to rake the leaves in your yard? Let’s find out.
The Argument for Raking the Leaves
You’ve probably heard all of the various arguments for why you must rake all the leaves off your lawn. In fact, raking the leaves every fall is something of an American tradition, akin to tossing around the old pigskin or gathering with the family for Thanksgiving. It’s just a thing you do. In some families, kids are given the task as a way to build character and learn the value of hard work, or to earn a few bucks. But is this tradition anything more than an obsession with cleanliness? Is there any reason you have to rake the leaves?
Here are some of the reasons you’ve probably heard for raking your leaves:
- If you don’t rake them, the leaves will smother your lawn.
- When leaves get matted down by rain, they can prevent new growth in the spring
- A layer of leaves invites pests that will eat your lawn over the winter.
- Leaves block your grass from getting enough sun, water, and nutrients.
While all of these are legitimate concerns, they are not necessarily applicable in every situation. Yes, your lawn needs access to sun, water, and nutrients. Yes, it is best to avoid an impenetrable layer of wet leaves matted down over your lawn. But there are many ways of dealing with leaves, and raking may not be the best solution.
The Argument Against Raking the Leaves
While there are real reasons to avoid a lawn covered in leaves, there are also some very compelling arguments against raking leaves. The arguments mostly have to do with the benefits of leaving leaves and the harm caused by disposing of the leaves after they are raked. However, if you need to rake, either because you really want a clean-looking lawn, or because local ordinances require it, there are better and worse ways to dispose of the leaves.
It’s a little backward, but let’s start with the harm done by raking and disposing of the leaves in your yard. Once you’ve raked the leaves, they usually have to go somewhere. If you just leave them in a large pile, the wind will likely scatter them right back onto your lawn. Also, a pile of leaves, matted down by rain and snow, can definitely kill off any growing plant trapped beneath it.
The Best Options – Composting Raked Leaves
There are a few options for disposing of the leaves. The first, best option is to compost them in your own compost heap. This takes some planning since a pile of leaves will not compost itself. To compost leaves, you need an existing compost heap rich in organic material. A portion of your compost heap should be made up of dry material, including fallen leaves, but it needs to be mixed with other types of material. A compost heap also needs to be turned regularly to encourage proper decomposition. If you’re willing to put in the effort, a compost heap is a great way to dispose of yard clipping, food waste, and other organic material that would otherwise become landfill. And you will be rewarded with some wonderful organic fertilizer. But not everyone has the time, space, or willingness to compost on their own. In that case, there is another second-best option.
If you can’t compost your leaves yourself, the next best option is to send them to a municipal composting center. You gain all the same benefits in terms of avoiding creating more landfill. The leaves will become new fertilizer, and many composting centers will actually give you some fertilizer in exchange for your yard waste. But municipal composting requires more resources and creates more pollution than home composting. The material needs to be transported to the center, usually in trucks, and then it has to be ground into suitable mulch for inclusion in high-capacity compost bins. All of this has a carbon footprint. Still, it is far more preferable than the next two options.
The Worst Options – Disposing of Raked Leaves
Options number three and four are both pretty bad, and you should avoid them both. Option number three is to burn your leaf pile. This is more common in rural areas where houses are more spread out. Many counties, municipalities, and local governments ban or tightly regulate leaf burning. The main reason is that it causes pollution. Leaves create smoke and gases that can harm people with breathing sensitivities such as asthma, bronchitis, or allergies. The smoke also contributes to smog and pollution. Finally, burning leaves is dangerous. It is quite easy to lose control of a leaf fire and end up damaging property and endangering lives with an uncontrolled burn. Floating embers can easily spark a fire in a neighbor’s yard, especially if it is full of dry, dead leaves.
The fourth option is a terrible one, but very common, although that is changing. The worst thing you can do with raked leaves is to bag them up and send them to a landfill. But in 2017, the last year for which the EPA has data, nearly one-quarter of all yard waste ended up in landfills. This is bad for several reasons. First, it wastes space in landfills. Americans produce vast amounts of trash, and we usually don’t see where it ends up. But ever-expanding landfills pose environmental problems. Second, when leaves decompose in landfills, they release methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas that traps roughly 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide. They also create acidic leachate that can break down other waste and make it more mobile and thus more toxic. So bagging your raked leaves and putting them out with the trash is extremely harmful to the environment and should be avoided.
The Benefits of Not Raking the Leaves in Your Yard
In addition to the harm caused by disposing of raked leaves, there are actually benefits to not raking the leaves in your yard. First, it saves time and labor. Very few people enjoy the backbreaking work of raking leaves. So if you’re not looking forward to raking leaves this fall, let’s get this out of the way: You probably don’t have to rake the leaves in your yard. And you definitely don’t have to rake up all of them, unless you are bothered by their appearance. If a few leaves on your lawn drive you nuts, then you can definitely hunt them down and rake up every last leaf. Just remember to dispose of them in the least harmful way possible. But refraining from raking your leaves won’t harm your lawn in most cases, and could actually be beneficial.
Leaves Make Great Mulch
One of the easiest things you can do with fallen leaves is to turn them into mulch. Wait until they have completely dried out, then run the mower over them to chop them into very small bits. It may take a couple of passes, but the goal is to end up with pieces no larger than a dime. Then just leave the mulch on your lawn. The mulch will help protect your turf roots, maintain the temperature of the soil, hold in moisture, and—according to research from the University of Michigan—could even impede weed growth. Certain leaves, such as maple, seem especially good at preventing weeds from taking over.
If you have lots of trees and a very thick layer of fallen leaves, you may need a vertical mower made for mulching. You could also try using a regular mower weekly to control the heavy leaf buildup. Another option for lawns that are drowning under a surfeit of leaves is to use the bagger on your mower. Collect the chopped leaves and spread some of the mulch in other parts of your yard. The leaves make great mulch around the base of trees, bushes, and gardens.
Leaves Are Important Habitat
Over the winter months, many caterpillars—future moths and butterflies—shelter in leaf litter. So when you rake up and dispose of the leaves, you are also killing countless caterpillars. This has a double effect. First, it means fewer beautiful butterflies floating around your lawn in the spring and summer. (Most butterflies stay near where they were hatched as caterpillars.) But it also deprived birds of a favorite food source. So if you love to hear the sound of songbirds in your outdoor spaces, raking up and removing leaves from your property could send birds elsewhere looking for food. So if you can, leave at least some of the leaves on your lawn. Do it for the birds and butterflies.
Leaves Fertilize Your Lawn
When leaves decompose on your lawn, they return essential nutrients to the soil. To help the leaves decompose, you can mulch them with your mower. If you leave your grass clippings on the lawn, you get the same benefit. Leaving clippings and leaves on your lawn reduces the amount of fertilizer you will need. With less fertilizer, there is less chance for runoff that could harm local waterways. So by leaving the leaves, you are doing your local ecology a favor.
Still Wondering If You Should Rake the Leaves on Your Lawn?
Still unsure of what to do? Here’s a quick review. First of all, whatever you do, don’t send your leaves to a landfill. Burning them isn’t much better. If you need to rake the leaves, consider composting them yourself. If that’s too much work, which is understandable, see if there is a local composting program. However, if you don’t have to rake them, you can mulch the leaves. They will protect your turf roots and soil and prevent weeds. They also make excellent fertilizer. And leaving some leaves will create a habitat for caterpillars that feed birds and eventually become butterflies. So it’s up to you, but there are plenty of reasons to skip raking this fall.