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Fall Raking Debate: To Leave the Leaves or Not?

Feeling rakish about fall’s impending yard work? Going rogue could be the best thing you do for your yard.

Contributing Garden Editor
Photography by: Juliana Sohn

If you've got more leaves than you know what to do with (and dread the thought of the legwork), we've got good news: Leaves piling up in lawns and garden beds don't have to be removed. In fact, it’s better to leave them in place! Leaves are good organic matter that will improve the structure and fertility of soil as they decompose -- and they provide extra insulation for plant roots in the meantime.


That said, laziness has its limits. If the following points hold true for you, you may want to consider doing some cleanup.

Your winters are brutal. Hardiness Zone 5 and above, you’re off the hook. (If you don't know your zone, find out here.) Unless the leaves fall super thick -- think 2 feet deep or more -- most (if not all) will biodegrade and disappear by spring. In colder climates, though, they may linger after the thaw. Better to do that cleanup now than later.

You eat what you grow. While landscape beds that hold perennials, trees, and shrubs will welcome leafy protection, the veggie patch is best kept clear for a fresh start come spring. If you do take your chances, try to work what's left into the soil as a form of sheet composting.

Your trees are high-tannin. No, we don’t mean they like to lay out in the sun. Leaves like oak and eucalyptus have extra compounds that make them tough and slow to decompose. But birch, maple, cherry, elm, and almost every other shrub or tree leaf will decompose quickly.

You’ve got more lawn than landscape. Recent experience has shown that you can leave the leaves in grassy areas, but they should be shredded by running a lawn mower over them several times. Smaller pieces will more readily decompose, making your lawn extra lush. Be sure to remove all leaves from driveways and other hardscape areas, though. They will rot and discolor the pavement if left alone.


What's your leaf-management method of choice?