What to Do With the Leaves Piling Up in Your Yard

No matter the season, leaves can show up and stack up. Discover low-maintenance ideas for leaf removal.

September 16, 2020
Fall Leaves

Maple And Oak Leaves

If left whole, colorful maple leaves tend to stick together, forming a water repellant mat. Whole oak leaves tend to be brown and dry, blowing about easily on winter winds.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Colorful autumn leaves inspire everything from poetry to vacations, but ultimately all those fallen leaves add up to chores. In fall leaves tumble from trees by the minute, while winter winds corral loose leaves under shrubs and in corners of your yard. Spring brings showers of evergreen leaves, along with autumn leftovers.

If you've ever scratched your head wondering what to do with leaves in the yard, try a few of these easy-going ideas that make the most of leaves with the least effort on your part.

Rake 'Em Up

Raking is probably the most back-breaking approach to leaf removal. It works best in small yards or planting beds. If raking is your method of choice, check out new ergonomic rakes — lightweight and designed to limit back fatigue. Select a wide rake-head for lawn areas and small rakes for planting beds and reaching under shrubs. To haul leaves away, consider a bendable tarp, pop-up leaf hauling containers, handheld leaf claws and other leaf-specific gizmos designed to make leaf gathering a breeze.

The only time you don't want to rake leaves is if they're wet and matted. Try to time raking so leaves are dry. If it's winter and the ground is frozen, it's better to use a leaf blower and stay off the grass as much as possible. Walking on frozen grass crowns can damage them, which in turn can lead to brown spots after soil thaws in spring.

Fall Chores

Raking Leaves

Raking is an easy way to get fall leaves off the lawn while you enjoy pretty autumn weather. A thick layer of leaves on grass can damage—and even kill—turf crowns.

Photo by: Fiskars.com

Fiskars.com

Chop Leaves for Compost

Convert leaves into organic matter for your garden by composting them. Organic matter is the silver bullet for building healthy garden soil that grows gorgeous, productive plants. It helps with soil aeration, moisture retention and even disease fighting.

When making compost, leaves break down at different rates depending on how thick they are. Thick oak or magnolia leaves may take up to two years to break down completely, while thinner leaves like birch or dogwood can rot over winter. To speed up the process, chop leaves before adding them to your compost pile. Chopping leaves also prevents them from matting together to form a waterproof surface, a common problem with maple, sycamore, tulip poplar and other large leaves.

The easiest and fastest way to chop a lawn full of leaves is by mowing them. Use your mower's grass catcher to bag the chopped leaves, emptying it into your compost bin. For smaller areas, a leaf vac works well. Chopping leaves is dusty business. Wear a dust mask and eye protection, especially if you have allergies.

Mowing Fall Leaves

Mowing Leaves

Retire your leaf rake and use your mower to clear fall leaves from the lawn. Use a grass catcher bag attachment to catch leaf pieces, which you can add to the compost pile or use as mulch on planting beds.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Make Leaf Mold

The average tree stores up to 80 percent of its nutrients and minerals in leaves. Recycle these leaves into your garden, and you're harvesting a nutrient-rich resource. One way to preserve those nutrients is by making leaf mold, a type of organic matter. It's what makes a forest floor feel spongy when you walk on it. Leaf mold acts like a sponge, holding 300 to 500 percent of its own weight in water. It also makes a terrific mulch.

To make leaf mold, follow the same techniques for chopping leaves, this time stuffing them into a makeshift bin (a cylinder of chicken wire or wire fencing works well) or black garbage bags. Pack leaves down as you fill your container. Wet the leaves once the pile is complete. Seal and poke holes in garbage bags to provide airflow, and stack them in an out of the way place in your yard. Flip bags over in six months, and in 12 to 18 months check for finished leaf mold (small, flaky, brown bits).

Use Leaves For Mulch

Leaves make a terrific DIY mulch that's free, and it's probably the fastest, easiest way to use leaves. If leaves are small, rake them directly onto planting beds. For large leaves, it's a good idea to chop them before using them as mulch. Like any mulch, you don't want to pile leaves directly against shrub or tree trunks. Instead arrange them around stems like a donut, leaving some space around stems for airflow.

Leaf Mulch For Shrubs

Raking Leaves For Mulch

Use a rake to shift leaves onto planting beds to help provide protective mulch through winter. Placing a leaf layer beneath shrubs can offer winter shelter to beneficial insects.

Photo by: Fiskars.com

Fiskars.com

Let Leaves Offer Shelter

Leaves that collect beneath shrubs and in planting beds provide winter protection for beneficial insects. If possible, let leaves collect and stay in these areas until spring arrives and frosty weather is finished. Warm spring afternoons wake insects from winter slumber and they'll crawl, flit or fly out of leaves to begin a new life cycle.

Blow Leaves Away

A leaf blower is your best tool for moving leaves off walks, driveways, decks and other hardscapes. Choose a model that includes a leaf vac function, and you have a way to gather and chop leaves. Otherwise, blow them onto a lawn area where you can chop them with a mower or scoot them into planting beds for mulch.

Blowing Fall Leaves

Cordless Leaf Blower

A cordless leaf blower makes it easy to move fall leaves from walks, driveways and patios. Use the vacuum feature on your leaf blower to chop leaves into small pieces that work well as mulch. Or add leaf pieces to the compost pile.

Photo by: Troy-Bilt at Troybilt.com

Troy-Bilt at Troybilt.com

Add Leaves to Planting Beds

If you have a vegetable garden, new planting bed or area that you always grow annuals, adding a leaf layer is an easy way to improve the soil. Chopping leaves is ideal. If you need to add whole leaves, cover them with straw or shredded bark mulch to keep them from blowing away over winter. Use a broad-fork, digging fork or tiller to break up leaves in spring.

Adding Fall Leaves To Vegetable Garden

Oak Leaves With Straw

Whole fall leaves make an excellent addition to new planting beds or existing vegetable planting areas. Cover leaves with a layer of straw or other mulch to keep them from blowing away on winter winds.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Use Leaves for Art Projects

Leaves that have fallen at the peak of their color can be preserved in a variety of presentations. You can make a leaf decoupage, a colorful seasonal wreath or a fall foliage centerpiece for decoration. You can also use leaves as stuffing for a scarecrow or Halloween yard figure.

Community Recycling

If you are not a gardener or do much yard work, you should consider offering your bagged leaves to neighbors who use mulch and compost. You can also contact your local county or township to see if they will remove and compost your leaves at a municipal facility for redistribution in the community.

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