Is It Better to Rake or Leave Leaves?

The author used to rake leaves for $5 an hour. Now she knows better.

woman rakes leaves outside

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Q: It’s that time of year. The wind is a-blowin’ and the leaves are a-fallin’. Every fall, I spend hours raking my lawn clean, mostly because everyone else in my neighborhood does it and I want to avoid their glaring, condescending looks when they pass a lawn that hasn’t been raked. But I wonder, is it really necessary? What’s more, I was recently taking a walk in the forest behind my house, and I wondered—no one rakes the leaves in there, and yet the trees and shrubbery seem to be doing just fine. Could I just leave my leaves, too?

person stands on grassy lawn with leaves and rake

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

A: Ahhh, raking the leaves, an age-old fall tradition I could really do without. Back when I was young, we used to rake the neighbors’ lawns for money. The fall left no shortage of leaves in my wooded neighborhood, and my industrious friends and I were going to milk it for all it was worth. We’d charge $5 an hour. Five dollars. That was a measly thirty bucks for spending an entire afternoon shoving an old metal rake back and forth till our hands were raw. Nowadays, you couldn’t pay me $30 to fold your laundry (well, maybe you could—depends how close I am to the end of my credit card billing cycle). But I’m not going to lie—seeing a lawn free from leaves at the end of a long Sunday afternoon definitely appealed to my anal-retentive sensibilities, and the hot cocoa some folks offered to us afterward wasn’t bad either.

Most people rake their leaves because they were taught that leaves suffocate a lawn. That's usually not the case, unless you have a ton of leaves or you have a bed of leaves covered by mounds of snow all winter. Then you have a chance of growing snow mold, which is a pink or gray fungal disease that can attack your grass—yuck. So, yes, you can leave the leaves. But there are other alternatives to raking that might be better for your lawn and for the environment.

Keep in mind that fallen leaves are home to countless important insect larvae, butterfly pupae, and other small animals like frogs and toads that rely on the leaves for shelter and nourishment. When you're quick to rake them up, you destroy the animals' habitat. The longer the leaves remain untouched, along with any plants that are past their seasonal prime and have gone into winter hibernation, the greater those little critters' chances of survival. Furthermore, their presence provides food for birds in the spring.

hand holds autumn leaves in front of pile

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

If you feel compelled to remove the leaves, instead of raking, wait until they’re good and crunchy (ripe for jumping into), and then mow the leaves into little pieces. Then you can just leave them! The leaves will serve as mulch and can protect the soil around your trees, shrubs, or garden. Research done at Michigan State actually shows that leaving the leaves on your yard in such a manner not only does your lawn no harm; it can actually impede weed growth.

You can also rake leaves off grass into garden beds, where they'll provide mulch to the beds and winter insulation, or mounded at the base of trees. You may also be able to transfer some of the insect larvae to safety by doing this. This could be a way to get around any homeowners' association requirements that you not leave leaves on your lawn.

Another option you have is to compost your leaves, but you simply can’t rake up all your leaves into a big pile and expect them to compost themselves. Composting requires regular turning of the leaves as well as the right amount of moisture. For a more detailed guide on how to compost your leaves, check out the Tom Oder story below that explains how it works.

person's feet with rake and piles of leaves

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

You should consider both of these options, especially if your town doesn’t offer leaf composting as part of its leaf removal program. You definitely don’t want all those perfectly good leaves to end up in the landfill, where the only thing they can nourish is a few pizza boxes and soda cans. And leaves in the landfill are actually worse than you think because, believe it or not, leaves in landfills can generate harmful gases.

Don’t get me wrong, though; if you’ve got a teenager at home who’s just asking for a character-building Sunday of lawn raking, more power to ya. It certainly did me and my friends good.

boots walk by a piles of leaves

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic