Should you rake leaves off of your lawn? No, but yes. It's complicated

Daksha RanganDigital Reporter

It's complicated, so we asked an expert.

As fall nears, so does the recurring question about autumn lawn maintenance: Should I rake dead leaves off my lawn?

The short answer? No, but yes.

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"We have this idea that goes back generations that the leaves need to be raked out of our yard and either put in a compost pile somewhere or disposed of somehow," says Canadian gardening expert and best-selling author, Mark Cullen.

In recent years, the environmental impacts of raking have become increasingly well known. In the U.S., a heaping 33 million tonnes of yard debris is disposed of per year, totalling more than 13 per cent of the nation's solid waste.

It doesn't help that most yard debris -- including fallen leaves -- are disposed of in plastic bags or non bio-degradable packaging, contributing to landfill build-up that can take decades to break down. While the leaves sit in landfills, lacking adequate oxygen to decompose, they release the greenhouse gas methane. In the U.S., solid-waste landfills are the biggest source of man-made methane, the National Wildlife Federation reports.

If that isn't enough to deter you, raking leaves also takes time and money, Cullen says.

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"Think about how much work this would save you. If you're not raking leaves up and putting them into a plastic bag or a kraft-paper bag -- that we so often use now for disposing of our leaves -- and then hauling those bags down to the curb of the driveway and leaving them for the municipality to pick up. You just saved yourself all of that work, and you saved the municipality the expense of doing it."

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It's true, dead leaves do act as a fertilizer for soil, providing a natural source of carbon for the earth. It's the reason why some people choose to leave the leaves where they fall -- but according to Cullen, you shouldn't do that.

"Don't leave [dead leaves] on your grass, because when leaves fall on your lawn they cut out rays of the sunshine and cause brown spots to occur," the horticultural expert explains.

The idea that leaves need to be removed altogether is where we're wrong. Instead, Cullen says raking the leaves and putting them into your garden is best.

Mark Cullen raking

Mark Cullen carrying out fall maintenance on his lawn. |

"[S]itting on the surface of the soil, [the leaves] become a meal for earth worms. They come up from about a metre deep in your garden, and they come up to the surface of the soil ... and they pull those leaves down into the ground and they consume them. They literally eat them.

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The worms then convert the leaves into nitrogen-rich earthworm castings, adding both nitrogen and very valuable microbes to the soil, which, Cullen says, is excellent for the overall health of garden soil.

"Now if you really want to be efficient about this, you'd run your lawn mower or power mower over the leaves a couple of times, break them down into tiny little pieces, and rake the mulch of the leaves onto your garden," Cullen says. This way, the leaves break down and become incorporated with the soil much quicker.

So yes, it's important to rake the leaves off your lawn. But you don't need to remove them altogether. Just relocate dead leaves to a garden space where they enhance the natural plant cycle while saving you time and money.


This article was originally published in 2018, and has been updated.