Should You Rake Your Leaves?
It’s that time of year again: Leaves are changing color and falling to the ground, and in the back of your mind is a nagging voice telling you to rake them up. But there’s another voice too, one that says to leave them right where they are. Should you should seek psychiatric help?
Maybe, but your hunch is correct.
Trashing leaves is pointless. There are better ways to use them in your yard, and it doesn’t mean leaving behind a mess of dead stuff to decompose next year.
Leaf Trees Alone
Earth is a closed ecosystem, meaning that whatever goes into it comes back out in some way or another. Trees are an incredibly valuable part of that ecosystem, and they have evolved to protect themselves all year long by growing leaves during the spring and shedding once the year gets cold and dark.
When a leaf falls to the ground, it immediately assumes a new role for the insect kingdom as food and shelter. Insects break down the leaves, returning important nutrients to the soil that help trees grow stronger. Along with that, the leaves strengthen the ground cover to prevent erosion for other plants.
There are plenty of reasons not to spend hours each week raking and bagging leaves in plastic. It’s a perfectly good option to let them fall where they may and let nature run its course.
…But I Don’t Like Dead Leaves!
For some people, letting the leaves alone just isn’t an option. Fear not! There are plenty of ingenious ways to put them to work in your yard.
Start with compost: some of the most popular tree leaves are packed with nutrients that your garden will love. Maple, fruit trees, ash, birch, beech and other soft leaves are among the best to compost. By shredding them first, they will decompose faster and start giving back to your yard quicker.
If you’re combining kitchen compost with leaves (veggie scraps, fruit peels, coffee grounds, etc.), keep your nitrogen/carbon ratio around 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen (30:1). Tree leaves are about 60:1 while veggie scraps and other greens are about 25:1. “English, please!” Basically, mix two parts ‘greens’ to one part ‘browns’ (leaves). If the leaves are shredded, there will be less air and more volume so you would mix in a bit less.
Other leaves work better as mulch to cover soil and retain moisture. Oak leaves, for example, are usually too acidic for compost, but shredding them up and spreading them around shrubs and flowerbeds can prevent weeds and maintain soil temperature. Pine, magnolia and other waxy leaves/needles work great too, as they take years to break down.
If You Gotta Toss ‘em, Do it Right
Whatever you end up doing with your leaves, avoid plastic bags at all costs. Use large paper bags where needed, as plastic keeps leaves from reaching the soil while shedding microplastics into the groundwater.
Raking leaves is great exercise, so if you have to do it, at least you’ll be raising your heart rate and making your body happy. Have fun!