Q: It’s that time of year. The wind is a blowin’ and the leaves are a fallin’. Every fall, I spend hours raking my lawn clean, mostly because everyone else in my neighborhood does it and I want to avoid their glaring, condescending looks when they pass a lawn that hasn’t been raked. But I wonder, is it really necessary? What’s more, I was recently taking a walk in the forest behind my house, and I wondered — no one rakes the leaves in there, and yet the trees and shrubbery seem to be doing just fine. Could I just leave my leaves, too?
A: Ahhh, raking the leaves, an age-old fall tradition I could really do without. Back when I was young, we used to rake the neighbors’ lawns for money. The fall left no shortage of leaves in my wooded neighborhood, and my industrious friends and I were going to milk it for all it was worth. We’d charge $5 an hour. Five dollars. That was a measly thirty bucks for spending an entire afternoon shoving an old metal rake back and forth till our hands were raw. Nowadays, you couldn’t pay me $30 to fold your laundry (well, maybe you could — depends how close I am to the end of my credit card billing cycle). But I’m not going to lie — seeing a lawn free from leaves at the end of a long Sunday afternoon definitely appealed to my anal-retentive sensibilities, and the hot cocoa some folks offered to us afterward wasn’t bad either.
Most people rake their leaves because they were taught that leaves suffocate a lawn. That's usually not the case, unless you have a ton of leaves or 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 — yick. So yes, you can leave the leaves. But there are other alternatives to raking that might be better for your lawn and for the environment.
Instead of raking the leaves, wait until they’re good and crunchy (ripe for jumping into), and then mow the leaves into little pieces. Then, you can just leave them! The leaves will serve as mulch and will protect the soil around your trees, shrubs, or garden. Research done at Michigan State actually shows that leaving the leaves on your yard in such a manner not only does your lawn no harm; it can actually impede weed growth.
Another option you have is to compost your leaves, but you simply can’t rake up all your leaves into a big pile and expect them to compost themselves. Composting requires regular turning of the leaves as well as the right amount of moisture. For a more detailed guide on how to compost your leaves, check out the Tom Oder story below that explains how it works.
You should consider both of these options, especially if your town doesn’t offer leaf composting as part of its leaf removal program. You definitely don’t want all those perfectly good leaves to end up in the landfill, where the only thing they can nourish is a few pizza boxes and soda cans. And leaves in the landfill are actually worse than you think because, believe it or not, leaves in landfills can generate harmful gases.
Don’t get me wrong though, if you’ve got a teenager at home who’s just asking for a character-building Sunday of lawn raking, more power to ya. It certainly did me and my friends good.