Skip the raking? Deciding if a fall mainstay is necessary

Homeowners can usually enjoy a brief respite from a backbreaking seasonal chore before remembering that the next season has a different arduous task in store for them. Not long after retiring the mower, your lawn will be littered with fallen leaves that require your attention.

Raking up leaves is a time-consuming job. Is it possible to avoid this task, simply allowing the leaves to stay where they fall?

Leaves aren't raked away in undeveloped areas, after all, and they can be an important part of the ecosystem. Terri Williams, writing for Realtor.com, says animals use leaf cover for food, shelter, and building nests. Paul Hope, writing for Consumer Reports, says natural leaf layers in wooded areas are several inches thick and help support chipmunks, earthworms, insects, and turtles.

One option for disposing of leaves on your lawn is to rake or blow them into nearby woods or fields, where they can offer these benefits to wildlife. Lisa Kaplan Gordon, writing for the home improvement site HouseLogic, says you'll still need to cart the leaves fairly deep into these areas to keep the wind from blowing them back onto your grass.

Whole leaves can also be used to create small habitats on your property, minimizing the work of raking or shredding them. You might pile them up in garden beds, under shrubs, or near the trunks of trees without touching them. The partially decomposed leaves will form a substance known as leaf mold, which is beneficial for the garden; in the spring, you can simply collect these leaves and turn them into the soil.

A layer of leaves can also provide protection for plants. Campbell & Ferrara, a landscaping company based in Alexandria, Va., says the leaves will insulate the soil and retain moisture, providing protection against frost in the later part of the growing season.

The disadvantage of keeping the rake in the garage is that trees will usually drop a large quantity of leaves, which will form thick, damp mats. Hope says these can clog storm drains, make walkways and driveways more slippery, and promote rotting when left on wooden decks.

These mats will also be harmful to the grass. Williams says lawns still need sunlight, water, and air during colder temperatures; too many leaves on the grass will block access to all three, smothering the grass and promoting diseases.

Snow mold can easily form if leaves are not removed from the grass. Jenny Green, writing for SFGate, says this pink fungus will form on decomposing leaves before spreading to the lawn.

While leaf layers will support beneficial animals and insects, they can also help creatures that will harm your lawn. Mice and voles may shelter in the leaves during the winter, then cause damage in the spring by burrowing holes in your yard.

Mulching leaves has become a popular alternative to raking and bagging leaves. Sam Bauer, writing for the University of Minnesota, says shredding leaves with a lawn mower or mulcher allows the tiny pieces to filter into the grass, helping to provide nitrogen and stifle weed growth. Green says leaves should be mulched when they are dry, and that multiple passes with a mower may be necessary to be effective.

You may want to limit the frequency of this mulching, however. Angie's List says adding too much shredded leaf litter to the grass may overwhelm it rather than help it, especially in lawns that get a lot of leaves from nearby trees. If you skip raking entirely, you can also miss leaves that fall later in the season, leaving bare spots or yellowed grass.

The level of leaf cover can be an important factor in deciding whether leaves should be mulched or raked. Bauer says leaves that cover only 10 to 20 percent of the lawn are less likely to cause any problems and easier to mulch into the soil. David Beaulieu, writing for the home design site The Spruce, says smaller leaves are less likely to form harmful barriers than larger ones.

One alternative to raking or mulching leaves is to use leaves in a compost pile. Leaves are a useful form of brown matter, a carbon-rich material that must be mixed with nitrogen-rich green matter like fruit and vegetable scraps to form compost. Starting a compost pile with leaves collected from your lawn, or adding to an existing one, will help prepare a good organic supplement for your garden in the spring.

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