Just mention the word “fall,” and images of brightly colored leaves dancing in a crisp breeze jump to mind. So does the image of those leaves falling gracefully to the ground – covering your lawn and blowing all over in an unsightly mess. In nature, these leaves would slowly decay on the forest floor, returning vital nutrients to the earth. But left on the sidewalks, they become a slippery mat. Left on the driveways, they camouflage the path. And left on your lawn, they can smother your grass.

Playing in leaves

Get the kids involved in raking, and let them play with the leaves as their reward!

Photo Credit: Sarah Landicho

Leaf rake

The flexible tines on a leaf rake make gathering leaves easy without pulling up the grass.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Leaf pile near garden

These leaves were mulched and bagged by the lawn mower – and are piled near the garden to start a compost mound.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

The fact is, fallen leaves create a barrier over the lawn. A leaf mat traps moisture, inhibits sunlight and harbors insects and diseases that can kill patches of even the healthiest grass. Sometimes Mother Nature lends a helping hand by blowing a sweeping breeze that carries your leaves over to the neighbor’s yard. But beware: That same breeze is probably blowing more leaves onto your lawn, too.

The bottom line is that leaves should be removed or mulched (finely chopped) regularly throughout fall to avoid lawn damage. While leaving the leaves on the lawn until they’ve finally all fallen from the trees may seem like a good way to deal with the problem, it isn’t. The longer leaves lay around and the thicker they accumulate, the greater the damage that could occur to your grass. Regular raking and mowing/mulching are the best ways to ensure a healthy yard come spring.

Leaf Removal: Growing up, I lived in a house with no trees in the yard. That doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty of experience gathering fallen foliage – my grandparents had lots of rakes and leaves to share. I can remember raking dried, brown leaves into a pile on an old white sheet, then dragging the sheet to a bigger leaf pile, where they were eventually burned. Our reward for filling a sheet with a pile of leaves was the chance to jump into it before we pulled it away. (Ah, the simple joys of childhood.)

Fortunately, burning leaves isn’t as popular today – and with good reason: Not only can it be dangerous if it’s been a dry fall and the fire gets out of control, it’s a shame to see all that leaf litter go to waste. You see, leaf litter is an essential component of compost, a well-recognized means of building organic matter in the soil. Adding that organic matter to your garden is important to support microbial growth – the key element in rich, fertile soil. Homemade compost is cheaper than commercial compost, and it’s generally a higher-quality product to boot. So if you don’t already have a compost pile, think about starting one this fall and put your leaf litter to good use.

If that doesn’t interest you, check with your municipality. Some towns pick up leaf litter from the curb, and some even use the leaves at their own composting facilities. And if that doesn’t work for you, send the word out to your area garden clubs that you’ve got lots of leaves to share – you might just find local composters eager to take the fallen foliage off your hands.

If raking your entire yard several times this fall seems like a daunting task, break it up. I know folks who spend all day, nearly every Saturday, watching college football. Halftime is a great opportunity to get off the couch, stretch your legs and get a little fresh air as you work on that raking chore. If the exercise isn’t for you, leaf blowers and baggers attached to mowers are other options for leaf removal.

Mulching

If you’ve got a large yard and you use a riding lawn mower, try leaf mulching. It’s easy: Just mow over the leaves. The mower chops them up and returns the smaller leaf pieces to the lawn. (If you’ve got some spots with a lot of leaves, you might need to make two passes to get finer leaf pieces that’ll decay faster into your lawn.) University research shows that leaf mulching with a mower doesn’t negatively affect turf performance, and it sure is a time-efficient way to get rid of those leaves!

But before you jump on your mower, here are a few tips:

  • Mow the leaves when they’re dry.
  • Survey the lawn for any sticks, branches or small tree limbs that may have fallen. Mowing over these can dull your blades and create dangerous projectiles.
  • Consider wearing a mask and safety glasses to protect your eyes and avoid breathing in the fair amount of dust that can come from chopping up dry leaves.
  • Bag your mulched leaves and use them for compost. (The smaller leaf pieces simply speed up the decomposition process.)

Maintaining a leaf-free yard this fall can help assure a healthy lawn come spring, and it provides a wealth of composting material to further your garden’s wellbeing. It may be disheartening to go out the next day only to find your yard littered with more leaves. But soon enough the task will be behind us all, as the bare trees dot the coming winter landscape – giving us plenty of time to prepare for all the gardening fun come spring!