Fall is here, and with it one of the most dreaded of chores: wrangling dead leaves. For any yard-owners thinking, “There must be a better way!”—fear not. We’ve talked to the experts to get recommendations for handling leaves with maximum efficiency (and minimal back pain).
Sadly, it seems that you really do have to do something with the debris falling on your yard. A few leaves here and there won’t hurt, but if you let them pile up and sit for months on top of the lawn, you’re creating the perfect dark and damp conditions for grass-killing snow mold, says John Kaminski, turfgrass researcher at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. As spring rolls around, you’ll have to remove all that dead material, plus you’ll need to plant fresh growth to replace the bare patches, says Kaminski.
So it’s time to roll up your sleeves and prepare for some raking. We’ve got advice that can help.
Choose the right tools
The tools you use can help make this chore far more manageable.
First, Kaminski recommends getting a leaf rake. There is more than one type of rake out there, and each one has its purpose. For example, a heavier steel implement can aerate your lawn in the spring, but it weighs too much to deal with lighter leaves. For this task, you’ll want a lightweight rake with a handle that’s long enough so you won’t have to repeatedly stoop over and possibly hurt your back.
An adjustable leaf rake can also help you nab leaves that may have fallen between flower beds, as well as the ones on your yard, without having to switch tools, says Matthew Cook, manager for arboretum and grounds at the New York Botanical Garden.
You can also use a leaf blower to blow the leaves into piles, says Kaminski. Many large blowers run on gasoline, which makes them less eco-friendly than the low-tech rake. However, there are electric and battery-powered leaf blowers on the market. A blower can also help people who are older or not as fit get out and take care of their yards, says Cook.
According to Cook, another higher-tech option is to mow over the leaves, effectively turning them into mulch right there on the grass. This lets the decomposing leaves absorb back into the soil. “I would say the best rake is a lawn mower,” he says.
Cook recommends taking the bag off your home lawn mower and letting the chopped leaves and grass clippings fall back down to fertilize the soil. He points out that grass grows the most during the spring and fall, when the days are warm and the nights are cool. As a result, many people will continue to cut grass through much of the autumn anyway. Might as well take care of the leaves while they’re at it!
However, Kaminski warns that too many decomposing leaves can throw off your soil chemistry. Healthy soil normally has a ratio of 20 to 24 parts carbon for one part nitrogen. Dead leaves hold a lot of carbon, anywhere from 30 to 80 parts carbon per one nitrogen. All that extra carbon floods the soil as the leaves decompose, which means decomposition uses up the nitrogen, so it won’t be available to aid plant growth in the spring.
Cook agrees that your lawn can only absorb so many dead leaves. Even if you do opt for the mulching method at first, you’ll eventually have to start picking up dead leaves and moving them somewhere else. But you can still do this with a mower: Just put the bag back on so you can collect those chopped leaves and dispose of them as you go, says Cook.
Think about timing
Now that you have the right equipment, it’s time to figure out when you’re going to tackle this monumental task. Your timing will depend on your schedule and how much raking you can handle in one day.
When he lived in a house with a yard, Kaminski says he would wait for all the leaves to fall and then finish all of his raking at once. This is the most time efficient method—but it’s also the most laborious.
If you can make the time to do a little bit every weekend, this will be easier on your body, because your leaf pile will always remain at a manageable size.
As for the mowing and mulching method, Cook says it’s better to tackle the leaves on a regular basis, just like mowing grass once a week. This also prevents the leaves from piling up and blocking the sunlight during a period of time when grass should be growing and thriving.
Finally, don’t forget to account for the weather. Rain will weigh down leaves, making them more difficult to move. Meanwhile, conditions on a windy day will make it much more difficult to corral the debris.
Every single yard and patch of grass is a little bit different, says Cook. As a result, figuring out what strategy will work best for each one becomes an interesting challenge.
Kaminski recommends raking toward your final leaf destination, be it a compost pile or a municipal bin. Start at the furthest point from that spot and then rake toward it. If it’s a windy day, however, Kaminski recommends raking downwind instead, so you won’t have to fight with nature.
Don’t rake all the leaves into one big pile, as this will be really difficult to eventually move. Instead, Kaminski says you should rake some leaves into a smaller pile on a tarp, drag or carry the ground cover over to your compost pile or curbside can, and dispose of it. Then repeat. This way, you can separate the task into discrete exercises, says Kaminski.
Taking regular breaks is another important part of this chore. Otherwise, the vigorous exercise will tire you out too quickly. “Similar to shoveling snow,” he says, “it’s a physical activity, so be really careful to pace yourself.”
Another way to avoid burning out is to use proper leaf-raking posture. That nifty full-size rake, for example, should let you keep your back straight. In addition, move your feet instead of bending over, and walk to the leaves with lots of little steps instead of leaning over and dragging them toward you, says Cook. As you move around the yard, switch which side of the body you lead with, so you work both sides—like you would with a gym exercise. And as always, lift piles of leaves with your knees, not your back.
Deal with the remains
It’s important to plan what will happen to the leaves you collect. Composting them yourself is best, says Cook, because in the spring, you can turn around and use that mulch for your yard, garden, or flower beds. If you don’t have the space or ability to compost yourself, many municipal governments or companies will come and pick up your leaves. Check your local government website to arrange it with them ahead of time.
“The worst outcome is if they wind up in a landfill somewhere,” says Cook.
To maintain a healthy lawn throughout the year, you’re probably going to have to go out there and rake awayf. But hopefully, you can deal with it as quickly and painlessly as possible—and get a good workout to boot.