Lawn & Garden Lawn Care

The Do’s and Don’ts of Cleaning Up Leaves

This unavoidable fall chore can be best tackled with a dose of knowledge and an ounce of preparedness.

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There’s a reason we call it “fall”—that is, after all, exactly what the leaves of most deciduous trees and shrubs do as the days grow shorter and cooler. And while all those colorful autumn leaves are a glorious sight when they’re still on the trees, they aren’t nearly so spectacular scattered in drifts all over your lawn, waiting for you to rake them up. Although some people enjoy this quintessential fall activity, for most it’s just one more chore to squeeze into an already packed weekend. But you can make the task easier, and even more enjoyable, by following a few practical guidelines. Here’s what to do—and what not to do—when autumn takes hold of your garden.

Don’t skip it

While it might be tempting to skip fall leaf cleanup altogether—after all, no one rakes in the forest—if you want a healthy and lush lawn next year, you need to break out the rake. Leaving a thick layer of fallen leaves on top of your lawn—particularly bluegrass and fescue—prevents sunshine from reaching the turf and provides a cozy home for mold, bacteria, pests, and weed seeds. If you don’t deal with the leaves at all, come spring your lawn will be patchy and less healthy. It is OK, however, to hold off on raking until most of the leaves have fallen; otherwise, you’ll have to rake multiple times throughout the season.

Related: 10 Leaf-Raking Lessons No One Ever Taught You

Do shred leaves

If you’d like to improve the health of your lawn but hate the bother of actually raking up leaves, don’t despair. Instead, turn those fallen leaves into mulch. If your lawn mower doesn’t have a mulching function, adjust the blades to the highest setting and mow right over the leaves. The resulting shredded foliage will slowly break down over the winter, providing nutrients to the grass underneath.

Don’t hurt your back

It’s a common scenario: By the time you finish raking, your yard looks great, but your lower back is on fire. Prevent back pain by working smart, starting with a rake that’s long enough so you don’t need to stoop. Keep your knees slightly bent and your back straight as you work, reaching with your arms rather than bending from your waist. Rake in small movements toward yourself rather than pushing the rake away. Every 10 minutes or so, pause, stand up straight, and then gently stretch backward for several seconds to release tension in your back muscles.

Related: The Best Things You Can Do for Your Yard This Fall

Do use the right equipment

A leaf rake is the basic tool for leaf cleanup. These rakes have long, somewhat flexible lightweight tines, as opposed to garden rakes, which have short, rigid tines suited to moving dirt, not leaves. The best leaf rakes have ergonomic handles to ease the strain on your hands, a tine spread of 24 to 30 inches, and “no clog” tines that move leaves without spearing them. Also make sure the rake you choose is long enough for you to work comfortably without hurting your back. But rakes aren’t your only option. If your property is large and has lots of fallen leaves, a leaf blower might be a worthwhile investment. These noisy but effective tools make quick work of blowing dry fallen leaves into piles for easy cleanup.

Related: 7 Tools to Wage War Against Leaves

Don’t forget to wear the right gear

While leaf raking isn’t dangerous, it’s dirty work that kicks up a lot of dust—and pollen. If allergies are a problem, ward off sneezes and sniffles by wearing a dust mask while you work, and take a shower once you finish to wash away pollen and dust. You’ll also want to don a pair of gardening or work gloves to prevent blisters.

Do rake onto a tarp

Make things easier for yourself by raking leaves onto a tarp rather than into a large pile on top of the grass. Once the tarp is full, you can drag the entire bundle over to your compost pile, or to your trash cans for disposal or bagging.

Don’t burn leaves

While setting leaves on fire might seem like the easiest way to get rid of them, it’s illegal in many areas. Leaf burning is not only a huge fire hazard, as even a light wind can easily spread the flames, but it also releases a great deal of smoke and pollutants that can irritate eyes and lungs, and harm the environment.

Related: 6 Things to Know Before Burning Leaves

Do include your kids

While most adults view raking as drudgery, many kids think it’s a blast. If yours fall into that category, get them involved by providing them with leaf “claws,” such as the sturdy pair from ReLeaf (available on Amazon), which make it easy to scoop up and move large piles of leaves. Once you see how much fun your kids are having, you’ll want to try them yourself.

Related: 15 Tricks to Know If You Hate Fall Yard Work

Don’t forget to check the weather

The perfect day for raking leaves is dry, cool, and still. If rain is in the forecast, clean up the leaves before it starts, if possible, as wet leaves are heavy and clump up when raked. And while it’s best not to rake if the wind is blowing hard, if there’s just a gentle breeze, let it work for you by raking in the same direction the wind is blowing.

Do compost leaves

If you have a compost pile, don’t throw out those fallen leaves with the trash! Instead, add them to the heap, where they count as carbon-rich brown matter that provides food for the microorganisms busily turning the green matter—vegetable or fruit scraps, plant and grass clippings, eggshells, and coffee grounds—into nitrogen and other plant-boosting nutrients.

Leaf Pick up

Fall chores don’t have to be a bore.