Dear Dot: Should I Rake My Fall Leaves or Leave Them Alone?

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Dear Dot,

I always wrestle with this fall question: Should I rake when I'm tired of the clutter on the lawn, or should I wait until all the leaves have fallen? Is there any benefit to leaving the fallen leaves in place for a while?

–James, via email

Dear James,

Put down that rake, my friend. For far too long, living an eco-life has been equated with more work, more expense, more effort. That, of course, is a total misconception, but it’s a stubborn one. Your question brings about a perfect example of how choosing to live more lightly on Mother Earth also lightens our workload.

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Part of the challenge is casting aside our ideas of tidiness. A neat lawn is too often an unhealthy one. By leaving leaves on the ground, you’re essentially putting out a buffet of nutrients — primarily carbon, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus — that nourish your grass and plants, and feed the worms that enrich your soil. You can expedite that nutrient handover by mulching your leaves with a mower (consider a manual or an electric, for more eco-cred). If you have a veritable forest in your yard with lots of leaves falling through the season, as I do, you might want to do that in stages. And then, if rake you must, move some of those mulched leaves onto your gardens where they will act as a blanket for your plants and offer a cozy home for many beneficial overwintering bugs, such as butterfly larva. You can pile leaves up to four inches deep but leave space around plant stems to avoid rot.

If you’re worried that the leaves will smother your grass, leaving you with a soggy yellowed mess in spring, again, mulching reduces the likelihood of this. I have so many trees in my yard, James, that I’m knee deep in maple and oak leaves by the end of October. I’ve fenced off a tucked-away corner of my backyard with chicken wire where I pile my leaves and let them biodegrade over months and years. I also add some, in smaller batches, to my composters, which balances my “brown” and “green” ingredients to produce great compost. 

There is one exception to my No Raking rule: Please move leaves away from sewers and drain pathways so rainwater doesn’t back up.

Otherwise, let the leaves fall where they may, James. The worms and I thank you.

Unrakishly,

Dot

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