Rake or Leave the Leaves? It All Depends

It seems that if you scratch the surface, almost any aspect of gardening can generate some controversy. On the question of leaves, controversy was apparently sparked by a post on the website of the National Wildlife Federation entitled “Why You Should Leave the Leaves”.

The NWF advocates using fallen leaves as a resource instead of bagging them to be carted away like trash:

Let leaves stay where they fall. They won’t hurt your lawn if you chop them with a mulching mower. 
Rake leaves off the lawn to use as mulch in garden beds. For finer-textured mulch, shred them first. 
Let leaf piles decompose; the resulting leaf mold can be used as a soil amendment to improve structure and water retention. 

Keeping your leaves around enriches the soil, insulates plants, and helps insects and other wildlife to overwinter.

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Piles of leaves ready for removal in the Back Garden. Surplus leaves end up in compost or spread around behind that Siberian Elm in the upper right. By the way, this corner is where I’m trying to develop my mini “sedge meadow”.

But not so fast, says Elizabeth Licata on Garden Rant. She points out that NWF’s advice does not work for her urban neighborhood with its many mature shade trees and consequent surfeit of leaves. Too many leaves can form a dense layer that smothers grass and perennials. And what about leaves accumulating in gutters and on sidewalks?

Ms. Licata makes some valid points – though I think she is a little bit unfair to the NWF, which qualified their advice more carefully than she recognizes. For instance, they do say that leaves left on grass must be shredded first.

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More piles of leaves. Leaves on beds remain in place if no more than 2 or 3 inches thick

Personally, I’m sympathetic to the “leave the leaves” approach, but there are limits. I rake the leaves on our lawn but mostly leave them on the perennial beds. The leaves from the lawn end up composted or spread on a hidden spot behind the Siberian Elm that grows in our Thicket Corner.

The leaves on our beds and borders generally form a layer a couple of inches thick. If there is much more than that, I spread them around or move them elsewhere.

The size of the leaves is also a factor. Smaller leaves (such as Elms, Hackberry, or Silver Maple) make a better mulch in my experience. Concentrations of large leaves like those of Norway Maple need to be shredded or moved to where there is no danger of smothering plants.

2014-04-06 13.18.28 yellow crocus
A thick layer of leaves will delay Crocus and other spring blooms.

I would dearly love to have my own shredder, but I don’t like using gas-powered equipment in the garden. I tried an electric shredder but it wasn’t up to the task – and neither is my push mower. These days I hire trusted landscapers to do my spring cleanup, and they take care of whatever shredding of plant debris is needed (but I have to remind them to leave the shredded stuff with me).

One thing about a layer of leaves is that it will delay the warming of the soil in spring. That means delayed bloom times, which is a problem for those of us suffering from BDS (Bloom Deprivation Syndrome) by the time April rolls around. So in early spring I tend to shift the leaves around where I know there are Crocus and other spring flowers.

What’s your approach to autumn leaves in the garden?

66 Comments on “Rake or Leave the Leaves? It All Depends

  1. Like you, I leave the leaves on the beds. Some I shred, some are left whole. A few loads will go in the compost. I find that by spring, most are well on the way to decomposition.

  2. GREAT POST! I normally bag the leaves with the riding mower but it gets stopped up often. Last fall, on the south side of the house, I mowed over the leaves and had them blowing toward where I needed them. It worked pretty well. I think this fall I am going to run over the leaves to get them shredded them put them in a garbage can and take them where I want them. Constantly having to stop the mower and unclog it is a pain in the neck. I had nine HUGE garbage cans in Mississippi for clean up, but here I only have one… Someday I am going to buy a couple with wheels. I think it is very important to shred the eaves with a mower before using them as compost, mulch, or leaving them on the lawn. Unshredded leaves either blow away or pack too much.

  3. In my former neighborhood in town, there was SO much concrete and asphalt to rake the valley oak leaves from. I had to rake the roof of the carport sometimes. It is so nice to not need to do all that raking now! The forest is messy, but I do nothing about it. Plants that can not take it simply do not survive.

  4. I have no leaves and no yard, so this isn’t my issue, but I did take note of your comment about leaves delaying the warming of the soil and flowering in spring. Last spring I was on a prairie that had been half-burned the previous fall. The appearance of flowers on the burned portion was weeks ahead of those on the side that remained unburned — an interesting proof of your point.

  5. Most of my leaves get raked into piles, then moved to a corner of the woodland to rot down. In just a year they turn into the most wonderful leaf mould which gets used as a mulch on my snowdrops and hellebores, also I use the leaf mould in new planting holes, the plants certainly seem to appreciate it. One year I didn’t rake them up and my snowdrops were smothered, never again! If I don’t rake them off the front of the borders, the blackbirds toss them all over the lawn. They are left in the centre of the flower beds to rot down in situ where they are no little plants that could be smothered.

  6. I am a leaf mulcher. I mulch all I can. Get them off of the grass paths and either put them in flower beds or the compost. There are plenty of places for bugs to hang out over winter. I don’t have so many that I have to bag them or store them. Actually I wouldn’t mind having a few more. Maybe I will plant another tree. 😉

  7. I have tried for years to figure out the best way to deal with leaves because I have LOTS of them. For the past several years, I’ve raked mine into piles and then run over them with the mower. It take several runs before they are shredded well enough to then be raked in to flower beds. One of my oaks has large leaves, and some of them escape the mower, and they are my least favorite leaf to see laying around.

    A disadvantage for me in raking and shredding so many leaves is that the leaf dust gets in my lungs and creates lots of coughing. I sometimes wear a mask but find it uncomfortable. This year I done a little mowing and shredding and a little bagging. There seems to be NO easy way to deal with them.

    I think shredded leaves are great for mulch and great for the soil in places that one day might become planting spots. And I don’t like using gasoline and the fumes it generates, but I’ve decided I have to protect my lungs from leaf dust/dirt. I guess we all have to do what works best for us.

    Another thing I tried is raking the leaves into a huge pile within a wire fence and waiting for them to decompose. Maybe I’m not patient enough, but it takes more than a year for them to breakdown. I’d have to partially shred them to make a difference.

    I also learned the lesson this year about getting the leaves off the ground where my crocus are planted. I missed seeing some of them this year due to my lateness in cleaning up.

    • Others have said that oak leaves are very slow to decompose. Sounds like your quantity of leaves is a different order of magnitude and a much bigger challenge than what I face.

  8. Because of jumping worms our botanical garden is no longer selling shredded leaves. This was a great resource and I let the city take my leaves to the garden and then essentially bought them back all shredded from the gardens. I have sugar maple, oak, and stripe bark maples all of which have very big leaves. Spent the better part of yesterday getting these off my back garden beds and then putting down my own chopped leaves (11 bags). After last winter with no snow cover, I am putting down a fall leaf mulch.

    • We don’t have jumping worms in our garden but I have heard that they are in the woodland at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Sheesh, there’s always a new problem.

  9. Ha, I just read your post ‘confessions of a leaf thief’ last night and knew your leaf obsession ran deep!
    With more lawn and a larger garden I rely on the mower for nearly all the rough work. Whatever ends up in the bag gets thrown back onto the beds and the only thing it interferes with are the self-seeding annuals and some of the biennials like the gloriosa daisies. On the plus side it smothers the hairy bittercress.

    • Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a power mower but I think I’ll just stick with the annual shredding by the landscaper in spring.

  10. We use them as mulch, shred them with our electric lawnmower, and return to the woods, just on the edge of our yard, any that we don’t use. Nothing is wasted.

  11. I have never bagged fallen leaves. Being lazy, I find it easier to mow the grass and leaves where they lay and therefore get chopped. The leaves that fall on the flower beds stay where they land.
    Gutters are another matter and I need to find a “gutter cleaning man” because I’ve yet to hear of gutter “guards” being totally successful.

  12. I don’t have an issue with excess leaves as the wind usually blows them away – in fact, if I want to add them to the compost (which I always do), I have to get out there and collect them within a day or two otherwise most of them are gone….and I’ve also been known to ask neighbours for any they may be collecting 🙂

  13. The shape and orientation of the property here result in most leaves being blown off the lawn areas by wind — variously into garden borders, onto a “woodland floor” area, underneath a big magnolia, and piled up against a fence at the bottom of a hill (a long-term leaf mold windrow). The leaves that end up in planting areas are largely beech, which take more than a season to break down, so some get removed to the compost pile during “spring” cleanup (a drawn-out process that starts in winter with the hellebore patch and continues through March as weather permits).

  14. I, too, rake the leaves just off the lawn, and compost everything I can fit but still fill my bin for the city landscape waste pickup. I leave lots of leaves in my perennial beds and on my raised beds for spring cleanup – except in the backyard where a neighbor’s cottonwood leaves tend to smother things. I dispose of those as much as possible.

  15. It depends on the leaf. Oak leaves shed / repel water and take forever to break down. Others like catalpa are huge and a mature tree full of them can smother a neighborhood. In general though I’m all for using them in the garden so I talked many clients into letting me build them compost bins in the past.

    • We don’t have any oak or catalpa around our garden so I have not had to contend with that. The worst I have to deal with is the Norway Maple.

  16. I agree with the previous comment .. Eucalyptus trees shed leaves in windy weather but take forever to breakdown .. leaves from fruit trees are our best mulch.

  17. We save all of our leaves, but remove them from the front sedum bed, where they’d smother them over winter. Thankfully, we don’t have a lawn, but they’re not compatible with overwintering leaves, either.

    All of the ones that fall in the “restored” forest woodland below the house stay, of course, along with lots of collected leaves from the past.

    My gardening companion rakes up Eastern white pine needles locally to mulch our shrub and perennial beds — they’re quite nice!

  18. So glad you wrote this post…It does depend upon the leaf and one’s gardening circumstances. I have several dozen canopy trees and relocate my leaves to the way back gardens to decompose. It’s a lot of hard work and I sure wish I could just let them lay where they fall!

  19. We try and rake up as many as possible, but we are next to woods so we are fighting a losing battle! I have shredded them and spread them on my beds in the past. They do insulate well and protect plants from late frosts too. They get removed in spring as soon as possible then.

      • We have large leaves and LOTS! So that means my spring flowers struggle to get through the thick layer of debris which doesn’t rot down so quickly. That’s why I remove them – or most of them anyway- in spring. If I shred them first it is better.

  20. I love to collect the leaves and bag them up in plastic bags, they make lovely crumbly stuff in a few months. On the other hand I can’t be bothered to clear the whole garden, so some areas get left until I tidy up that bit of garden. The mower shreds the ones on the lawn and collects them.

  21. We’ve reseeded with tall fescue recently so I need to get out and rake up some soggy leaves so the young grass has an easier time. I like the idea of just mowing ang leaving them in place usually.

  22. Leaves – one of my least favorite topics. We have almost four acres with huge maple, oak, and chestnut trees. Leaves everywhere. We use the mower to blow them off the grass right before the snow starts flying. They sit on the beds until spring when I rake them off and haul them away. We border a wetlands full of trees so if I want leaf mulch, there is plenty. I always enjoy working outside except when it comes to leaves – hate it. 🙂

  23. I have a great lawnmower that shreds the leaves on the grass. I even use it to mow down perennial ground covers. The rest of the leaves stay until spring. I’ve never had perennials smothered by leaves. I have much more damage from four-legged creatures. As a NWF member, I wanted to forward that article to a friend who obsesses over every leaf in her yard.

  24. I don’t have deciduous trees anymore. I have to ask neighbors for theirs! People offer them bagged for free on Craigslist too! Then I’ll mulch with them, if shredded, or mow over them to chop them smaller.
    Growing up my father raked some, and composted them before that was a “thing.” He called the resulting product “leaf mold.”
    Another thing he did contrary to the neighbors, was to leave the lawn mowings on the lawn. Unless it’s too long (like my mess gets) it’s good fertilizer. I have a lot, and use that around the fruit trees.

  25. We are ‘lucky’ that the leaves from our woods stay mainly on the periphery of the property and most don’t make it into the garden. I only say I’m lucky because 80% of our woods is made up of oak and we all know those leaves- even when mulched- take FOREVER to break down. I tried for a few years to vacuum and mulch them for a big leaf mould pile, but we don’t have a high enough percentage of regular leaves to get it going. Ah well.

  26. We too use a lawnmower to shred the leaves on the grass, and rake or blow them away from our roads and pathways. Having woodland all around the yard, leaves are not a problem but a good resource for protecting perennials etc. Plus we mainly have birch leaves, which are small and soft.
    BDS… haha, I’m suffering from it already now.
    Happy gardening!

  27. I have a similar approach to you, we mow the lawn leaves and I leave the leaves in the border until spring, they protect tender plants. I use the broken down leaves as a spring mulch for the borders.xxx

  28. Ah, the perennial autumn dilemma! I don’t have a lawnmower and don’t like/have gas tools either, so my only option is to rake or pay a landscape service their pound of flesh (typically $550-$700 for a half acre) which is usually not do-able re: the budget. I used to leave most of them in place and would still do so IF not for my neighbor’s oak trees. 😦 Oak leaves take forever to break down, and to make it worse they are bigtime “stainers” because of their high tannin level. So I will probably rake them off the grass but leave them in the beds for a few years before biting the bullet and paying $$$$ to have a pro cleanup done.

    • Not a bad solution if you can’t pay them every year. I like oak trees but I suppose in a way I am lucky there are no oaks near our house.

  29. I take leaves off the borders and grass and put them on the compost heap. I don’t tend to mow/shred them as that would taken sheltering insects with them. The spent perennials and winter prunings also go into the mix. I like having “clean looking” borders that I can mulch and it makes for a lovely dark/uniform back drop for the late winter/early spring bulbs.

    • I see what you mean about the “clean” borders, though I prefer to have everything covered with plants once we’re well into spring. I do like the lines between borders and lawn to be sharp and clear.

  30. We’ve tried mulching our leaves and leaving them but they still smothered our lawn in parts. We live in a wooded area, though, and we get a TON of leaves in fall. If you have one or two trees, you could probably get away with mulching them with the mower.

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