The cooling temperatures of autumn offer a long-awaited break from summer’s scorching heat, but you won’t relax for long—the beautiful colors of the leaves also signal that yardwork for homeowners is bound to pick up again. Hey, they don’t call it “fall” for nothing.
If you have trees—or if you’re within even a quarter-mile of your neighbor’s trees—those leaves will inevitably gather in your yard. But should you rake them or leave them alone? Your best bet may actually be somewhere in between.
“Raking and removing leaves is one of the most common seasonal yard care practices; however, there are benefits to keeping the rake in the shed this autumn and leaving the leaves where they fall,” says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Landscape Professionals.
Below, an honest look at the pros and cons of raking your leaves, so you can determine how to best care for your landscape.
To rake or not to rake
The decision to rake your leaves or not is ultimately up to you. It’s your yard, after all! However, letting fallen leaves lie can have surprising benefits for your lawn.
“Fallen leaves can provide physical protection for wildlife; the organic materials provide food, shelter, and nesting,” says Susan Brandt of Blooming Secrets, an e-commerce gardening website. Providing safe harbor for a bunch of critters may not sound like a benefit to many homeowners, but Brandt explains that these actions can help keep your yard healthy.
Disadvantages of raking leaves
However, some landscaping experts argue that letting a layer of leaves sit on your lawn can be detrimental to its health. Steven Voss, owner of Voss Landscape & Tree in Columbia, MO, says even when the weather turns cold, your lawn needs the essentials: sunlight, water, and air.
“Leaves and snow can smother your lawn, which will invite pests, brown patches, and snow mold,” he says.
Clint Waltz, turfgrass specialist in the Turfgrass Research and Education Center at the University of Georgia, agrees. “If you just leave your leaves on the grass, those leaves hold moisture and facilitate the likelihood of disease,” he says.
However, Waltz is not a fan of raking and bagging leaves and then sending them to a landfill. So, what’s the alternative? Mulching.
Benefits of mulching your leaves
Mulch is a layer of ground organic material, such as leaves or bark, put down to insulate plants—including the grass on your lawn—and protect them from drastic temperature change and moisture loss. The first benefit of mulching your leaves is the opportunity to avoid the headache and back pain of grueling yardwork. When you mulch your leaves, you’re providing free lawn food.
“The soil can benefit from fallen leaves as they compost over time into valuable nutrients that feed the grass and microbes in the soil,” explains Brandt.
So, how does that work?
“Nutrients contained in the leaf litter can be recycled into the soil and utilized by the lawn or other plants, basically free fertilizer, expediting spring green-up,” says Brad DeBels, director of operations at Weed Man USA Lawn Care. “Leaf litter contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, all critical to lawn growth and commonly found in lawn fertilizers.”
Mulching your leaves can also lead to reduced weed pressure.
“Bare or thin areas in the lawn are prime areas for weed germination,” DeBels says. “The small bits of mulched leaves cover up these areas and work into the lawn canopy, reducing weed germination.”
In addition, mulching your leaves can help the environment. Henricksen says it reduces the amount of organic material that can release phosphates and nitrates into waterways.
The right way to mulch leaves
For your lawn to enjoy the benefits of mulched leaves, you have to mulch them the right way. Using the highest setting on your mower, mulch several inches of dry leaves at a time (it’s important they’re dry!) by running your mower over them, and then leave them in place, DeBels says. You should always mulch with a sharp blade.
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