What to do with leaves instead of raking?

As fall approaches, one of the inevitable tasks for homeowners is dealing with fallen leaves. Raking and bagging leaves can be tedious and time-consuming. But what if there were better options than raking up all those leaves? Here are some eco-friendly ideas for what to do with leaves instead of raking them.

Why are leaves considered a problem?

For many homeowners, fallen leaves are seen as messy and a nuisance. If left to accumulate on lawns and gardens, thick layers of leaves can block sunlight from reaching grass and plants. They can also provide a damp environment for fungal growth. Aesthetically, some people prefer a pristine lawn and landscape free of fallen leaves. The traditional solution has been raking up leaves and disposing of them as trash. However, this can be labor-intensive and creates a lot of yard waste.

What are the benefits of leaves?

While leaves are often seen as a waste product to be disposed of, they can actually be a valuable resource in landscaping and gardening. Leaves provide a number of ecological benefits:

  • Enrich soil as they decompose
  • Provide habitat for insects and other wildlife
  • Protect plant roots from cold weather
  • Reduce erosion and runoff by covering bare soil
  • Suppress weed growth

Rather than bagging up leaves as waste, many homeowners are seeking ways to take advantage of these benefits by keeping leaves on their property.

Alternative Uses for Fallen Leaves

Luckily, there are many ways to make use of autumn leaves around your landscape. Here are some eco-friendly ideas to consider instead of raking and bagging all your fallen leaves this fall.

Compost Leaves

One of the best things you can do with fallen leaves is add them to a compost pile. Leaves make an excellent carbon source for composting. They balance out wetter green materials like food scraps and grass clippings. A ratio of 2 parts dry leaves to 1 part greens is ideal. Chopping or shredding leaves first speeds up the composting process. You can add leaves to an existing compost bin or pile throughout fall.

Mulch Leaves

Chopped or shredded leaves also make a great biodegradable mulch around garden beds and trees. A 2-3 inch layer of leaves applied as mulch helps suppress weeds, moderates soil temperature and retains soil moisture during dry periods. Mulching leaves is beneficial for perennial garden beds, vegetable gardens, and around the base of trees and shrubs. For trees, avoid piling deep layers of leaves right against the trunk which can lead to rotting bark.

Leaf Mold

Leaf mold is dark, crumbly humus created by fungi slowly breaking down leaves over time. To make leaf mold, rake leaves into a pile or wire enclosure in a shady location. Keep the pile moist but not sopping wet. Allow the leaves to decompose over a year or more, turning or chopping the pile on occasion. Finished leaf mold makes a wonderful soil amendment, adding nutrients as well as helping clay soils drain better.

Leaf Packets

Make mini leaf compost packets around flowers and vegetables in garden beds. Gather dry leaves and moisten them slightly. Place a 6-8 inch mound of leaves on top of and around each plant, about an inch from the stems. You can also stuff leaves into chicken wire cylinders. Over winter, the leaves will compost down around the plants and suppress weeds.

Insulate Potted Plants

For potted plants that will remain outdoors in winter, surround pots with bags or cauffins filled with leaves to insulate the roots and prevent freezing. Leaves stuffed into wire frames or bamboo hoop cages can also protect vulnerable plants.

Leaf Blanket for Lawn

Rather than picking up every last leaf, you can allow some leaf litter to remain on the lawn. Mulching leaves into the grass with a mower helps nourish the lawn. Leaves left on the lawn over winter also provide insulation, protecting roots from hard frosts. Remove excess leaves clumped on the lawn by sweeping gently with a broom.

Leaf Drop Zone

Create designated leaf drop areas in your landscape where fallen leaves can accumulate naturally as a habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. These might be out of the way spaces under trees or shrubs. The leaves can remain in place over winter. Come spring, the leaves can be collected for compost or mulch if desired.

Leaf Ferneries

Make simple leaf displays by stuffing leaves into baskets or vases. Start by lining the container with chicken wire or plastic canvas to hold the leaves in place. Pack in whole leaves in a decorative pattern. Situate leaf ferenries on porches, decks or under trees. Once the leaves shrivel fully, add the contents to garden beds or compost.

Alternative Method Benefits
Compost Leaves Chop and add leaves to compost bin or pile Creates nutrient-rich organic matter for gardens
Mulch Leaves Shred leaves and apply 2-3 inch layer as mulch around plants Suppresses weeds, retains moisture, insulates soil
Leaf Mold Pile leaves and allow to slowly decompose 1+ years Excellent soil conditioner improves drainage
Leaf Packets Mound leaves around individual plants Composts down to nourish plant roots
Insulate Potted Plants Pack leaves around pots Protects roots from hard freezes
Leaf Blanket for Lawn Mulch some leaves into grass with mower Insulates and fertilizes lawn over winter
Leaf Drop Zone Allow leaf litter to accumulate in designated spots Creates habitat for insects and wildlife
Leaf Ferneries Display leaves in vases, baskets, containers Attractive seasonal decorations

Tips for Managing Fallen Leaves

When putting autumn leaves to use around your landscape, here are some tips to make the process easier:

Mow over leaves on lawn

Rather than raking up every leaf, use a lawn mower to mulch leaves directly into the grass. This will shrink the volume of leaves and allow nutrients to feed the lawn.

Chop leaves first

Dry leaves compress into a tight mass but resist breakdown. Shredding leaves with a chipper shredder, lawn mower or weed whacker makes them easier to compost, apply as mulch or transport.

Avoid thick layers of leaves on lawn

While some leaf litter can be beneficial, excessively thick piles of leaves on your lawn for extended periods can lead to bare spots and mold issues. Sweep off piles deeper than 1 inch.

Use fallen leaves promptly

For best results and usability, it’s ideal to use up fallen leaves right away in the fall rather than storing large piles of leaves for long periods. Excess leaf clutter can get messy.

Store some leaves as needed

If you don’t have an immediate use for all your fallen leaves, keep a manageable amount of bagged leaves for future mulching, composting or insulating plants. Just avoid creating a huge backup of leaves.

Mix different leaf varieties

For composting, leaf mold and mulching, combine different types of leaves rather than segregating by species. A diversity of leaves like oak, maple, beech and sycamore compost well together.

Keep leaves damp

Dry leaves will tend to blow around and leave deposits well beyond your intended piles. Lightly moisten leaves to prevent drifting and sticking in places you don’t want them.

Protect storm drains from leaves

When managing leaves on your property, take care not to let large amounts enter nearby storm drains where they can cause clogging and flooding issues. Use barrier fences or screens if needed.

Allow leaf litter in low-traffic areas

Rather than feeling compelled to remove every last leaf, consider allowing controlled accumulations of leaves in peripheral areas of your landscape. These leaf piles can create habitat for many birds, pollinators and other wildlife over winter.

Should Some Areas be Kept Clear of Leaves?

While leaves can be a welcome resource in your yard, there are some places where you will want to prevent or remove accumulations of fallen leaves:

– On walkways, driveways and patios: Clear leaves regularly to prevent slick, slippery conditions underfoot. Compost or transport leaves to storage.

– Near foundations: Excessive damp leaves piled against foundations can lead to moisture issues. Keep fallen leaves cleared several feet away from house foundations.

– On turf grass: Thick mats of fallen leaves left in place indefinitely on lawn areas will kill grass by blocking sunlight and promoting mold growth. Lift deep piles after allowing leaves to mulch into lawn for a week or two.

– Around pools: Prevent volumes of leaves from accumulating in swimming pools and hot tubs where they can clog filtration equipment. Use pool skimmers and nets to remove any fallen leaves promptly.

– Near roof gutters: It’s important to keep gutters clear of leaf accumulations that can cause them to overflow and result in roof and wall leaks. Install gutter guards to simplify gutter cleaning.

– On vegetable gardens: Most vegetables benefit from removing fallen leaves to allow for sunlight penetration (although leaf side-dressings can be used). Till cleared leaves into garden beds at the end of the growing season.

– Around decorative paving: For aesthetic reasons, frequently sweep or blow leaves off stone pathways, patios and ornamental paved surfaces. Compost or transport leaves rather than allowing accumulations.

– Against house walls: Large piles of damp leaves allowed to remain against exterior walls can lead to mold, mildew, moisture damage and pest infiltration around a home’s foundation. Keep leaf litter back several feet.


Raking and bagging up every fallen leaf on your property for disposal can be avoided with better understanding of the benefits leaves can provide. Leaves are a valuable free resource that can enrich soil, fertilize lawns, create wildlife habitat and decorate gardens when used properly. With some planning on where to allow or restrict leaf accumulation, and taking time to chop and redistribute leaves around your landscape, the fall leaf drop doesn’t have to be dreaded or dealt with as mere waste. Consider adopting some eco-friendly alternatives to traditional leaf removal this autumn. Your gardens and yard will reap rewards.

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