Households begin to bustle with plans and preparations for the approaching holidays. But along with the anticipation and enjoyment come some seasonal challenges.

To Rake Or Not To Rake: That Is The Question

One of the biggest challenges this time of year is yard work. Leaves begin to fall, and there are usually plenty of them. Getting some outdoor exercise during colder weather is good. But it's also very easy to injure yourself while cleaning up your yard.

The colder weather already puts people at risk for muscle strains. Muscles contract and shrink in cold weather and are more prone to cramping and strain. In addition, there's all the bending, reaching, twisting, pushing, and pulling we do while raking.

Seasonal activities may use muscles that are not as limber as you thought they were. All these factors can contribute to an injury. Upper and lower back strain, shoulder pain, and neck soreness are some of the injuries that frequently occur while raking.

child playing in autumn leaves

Why You Shouldn't Rake Your Leaves

Seasoned gardeners know that fallen leaves on their property have numerous benefits for wildlife and the environment.

Usually, leaf removal means raking or blowing leaves into piles, putting the piles into bags, and hauling those bags to a landfill. However, conservationists tell us these actions actually harm the environment and rob your garden of a primary source of free nutrients while at the same time destroying wildlife habitat.

So what can you do instead? Let your fallen leaves remain on the ground.

Green Waste In Landfills: A Big Problem

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris account for more than 13% of the nation’s solid waste. That totals about 33 million tons a year. Yes, that's tons.

Without enough oxygen to decompose, this organic matter releases the greenhouse gas methane. Landfills are the largest source of man-made methane in the United States. Additional pollution caused by yard work comes from carbon dioxide generated by gas-powered mowers, blowers and the trucks used to transport "yard waste" to the dump.

Beneficial For The Ecosystem

box turtle in leaf litter

(Photo: Stephen Friedt, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

For gardeners, fallen leaves provide a double benefit. They form a natural mulch that helps suppress weeds and at the same time fertilize the soil as they decay. You don't need to spend a lot of money on mulch and fertilizer when you can easily generate your own.

Removing leaves also eliminates habitats vital to wildlife. Critters such as turtles, frogs, birds, mammals, and invertebrates rely on leaf litter for food, shelter, and nesting material. Many moths and butterfly caterpillars overwinter in fallen leaves before emerging in spring.

frog hiding in leaf litter

(photo mine)

What To Do Instead

What can you do with all those fallen leaves you're not sending to the landfill? Let them remain where they fall. They won't harm your lawn if you chop them with a mulching mower. Use them to mulch garden beds as well. Let leaf piles decompose naturally. The resulting leaf mold can be used as a soil amendment.

Make compost by combining fallen leaves with grass clippings and other "green" materials such as coffee grounds, tea bags, vegetable and fruit scraps, plant prunings, annual weeds that haven't set seed, eggshells, and manure (no dog or cat). Keep moist and well-mixed. The result will be rich compost for next year's garden.

family raking leaves

Still have too many leaves? Share with friends and community gardens. Some municipalities will pick up leaves and make compost to sell or give away.

Keep in mind when making compost, temperatures of 150°-180° F (hot composting) are necessary to kill most plant diseases. The internal temperature of the average home compost pile usually doesn't reach that, thus disease organisms are not destroyed. It's important to turn a hot compost pile regularly. For many home gardeners, it’s better to bury or haul away diseased plant material.

Along with branches, sticks, and stems, leaves can be used to make brush piles to shelter native wildlife. Animals that use brush piles regularly include rabbits, chipmunks, skunks, raccoons, foxes, birds such as towhees, thrashers, cardinals, sparrows and quail, reptiles, and amphibians such as fence lizards, snakes, box turtles, tree frogs, and a large number of insects.

And what child doesn't like to play in a big pile of leaves? Just make sure it's safe for them to do so. Piles that have been sitting for a few days could have ticks and other insects, frogs, and even snakes hiding in them.

little boy playing in leaves

Can I Compost Diseased Plant Leaves? Composting diseased leaves is a controversial subject. Some experts will say throw everything in your compost bin, but then contradict themselves with “except…” and list off all the things you shouldn’t compost, like foliage with pests and disease. Other experts argue that you really can throw EVERYTHING on the compost pile as long as you balance it with a proper ratio of carbon rich ingredients (browns) and nitrogen rich ingredients (greens) and then give it enough time to heat up and decompose. By hot composting, pests and diseases will be killed off by heat and microorganisms. If your yard or garden is full of fallen leaves with tar spot or other fungal diseases, it is essential to clean up these leaves and dispose of them somehow. Otherwise, the fungi will just lay dormant through winter and as temperatures heat up in spring, the disease will once again spread. To dispose of these leaves, you only have a few options. You can burn them, as this will kill off the pathogens that cause disease. Most cities and townships have burning ordinances, though, so this isn’t an option for everyone. You can rake up, blow and pile all the leaves and leave them at the curb for the city to collect. However, many cities will then put the leaves in a city run compost pile, which may or may not be processed correctly, can still carry disease and is sold cheap or given away to city residents. The last option is you can compost them yourself and ensure pathogens are killed off in the process. Using Diseased Leaves in Compost When composting leaves with powdery mildew, tar spot or other fungal diseases, the compost pile must reach a temperature of at least 140 degrees F. (60 C.) but no more than 180 degrees F. (82 C.). It should be aerated and turned when it reaches about 165 degrees F. (74 C.) to allow oxygen in and to mix it around to thoroughly heat up all the decomposing matter. To kill off fungal spores, this ideal temperature should be kept for at least ten days. For materials in a compost pile to process correctly, you need to have the proper ratio of (brown) carbon rich materials such as autumn leaves, corn stalks, wood ash, peanut shells, pine needles, and straw; and the proper ratio of (green) nitrogen rich materials such as weeds, grass clippings, coffee grounds, kitchen scraps, vegetable garden waste and manure. The suggested ratio is about 25 parts brown to 1 part green. Microorganisms that break down composted materials use carbon for energy and use nitrogen for protein. Too much carbon, or brown materials, can slow down decomposition. Too much nitrogen can cause the pile to smell very bad. When putting leaves with fungus in compost, balance these browns with the proper amount of greens for best results. Also, be sure the compost pile reaches the ideal temperature and stays there long enough to kill off pests and diseases. If diseased leaves are composted properly, the plants you place this compost around will be far more at risk of contracting air borne fungal diseases then catching anything from the compost.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Using Diseased Leaves In Compost: Can I Compost Diseased Plant Leaves https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/composting/ingredients/compost-diseased-plant-leaves.htm
When composting leaves with powdery mildew, tar spot or other fungal diseases, the compost pile must reach a temperature of at least 140 degrees F. (60 C.) but no more than 180 degrees F. (82 C.). It should be aerated and turned when it reaches about 165 degrees F. (74 C.) to allow oxygen in and to mix it around to thoroughly heat up all the decomposing matter. To kill off fungal spores, this ideal temperature should be kept for at least ten days. For materials in a compost pile to process correctly, you need to have the proper ratio of (brown) carbon rich materials such as autumn leaves, corn stalks, wood ash, peanut shells, pine needles, and straw; and the proper ratio of (green) nitrogen rich materials such as weeds, grass clippings, coffee grounds, kitchen scraps, vegetable garden waste and manure. The suggested ratio is about 25 parts brown to 1 part green. Microorganisms that break down composted materials use carbon for energy and use nitrogen for protein. Too much carbon, or brown materials, can slow down decomposition. Too much nitrogen can cause the pile to smell very bad. When putting leaves with fungus in compost, balance these browns with the proper amount of greens for best results. Also, be sure the compost pile reaches the ideal temperature and stays there long enough to kill off pests and diseases. If diseased leaves are composted properly, the plants you place this compost around will be far more at risk of contracting air borne fungal diseases then catching anything from the compost.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Using Diseased Leaves In Compost: Can I Compost Diseased Plant Leaves https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/composting/ingredients/compost-diseased-plant-leaves.htm

Need More Convincing?

If you need another reason to leave your leaves where they fall, consider that the less time you spend raking them, the more time you have to enjoy the beautiful fall weather and the wildlife in your garden.

woman raking leaves

If You Rake

Stretch before and while doing yard work.

Practice good posture by standing as straight as possible.

Always bend at the knees when lifting, never at the waist.

If possible, buy ergonomic tools. An ergonomic tool has been engineered in such a way as to protect you from injury.

Avoid repetitive twisting and turning.

Take breaks, allowing your muscles to rest.

Carole's brush pile

(my brush pile)

Safety Tips

Stand with one foot forward and one in back, then alternate.

Hold the rake handle close to your body.

Switch arms frequently to avoiding overusing one side of your body; avoid twisting movements when you change.

Pull leaves straight back toward you.

bare trees at sunset

(photo mine)

Yes, I have leaves ... lots and lots of leaves.