Gardening Lawn

Getting Those Fall Leaves Off Your Lawn 

When I was a kid over 50 years ago, there was only one way to pick up the fall leaves that covered our lawn—with a steel-tine leaf rake.  

Child playing with leaves
The age-old tradition of raking leaves and then jumping into the pile. Photo: Scott Webb, pexels.com.

It was a family affair. Dad would rake the leaves into big piles, the kids would jump into said piles, scattering the leaves, and Dad would rake them up again. Then we burned the whole mess. Yep, right out there on the lawn. I can remember how proud my father seemed of his dirty, dusty family and the project they worked on together.  

And we weren’t the only ones! The entire neighbourhood would smell of burnt foliage for weeks at a time. 

Plastic rake
You can find lawn rakes made of all kinds of materials including plastic. Photo: Santeri Viinamäki, Wikimedia commons.

No Fires, New Rakes 

Well, times have changed. In most towns, you can’t burn leaves anymore—it pollutes the air, annoys the neighbours and even constitutes a fire danger to fields, forests and homes. There are still a few people who choose to continue to do so, but it’s illegal in most municipalities. And why risk a fine for doing something we now know is environmentally unfriendly anyway? 

Lawn rakes have changed as well. Nowadays they’re just as likely to be made of resin, plastic or aluminum as steel, and the old wood handle is now anything but. Find one that suits you (try a few in the store and use them in a raking movement to see how they feel). Plus, fewer and fewer people are using rakes at all—there are now so many other ways to clean up leaves. 

Paper bags filled with leaves linning a street
Find out what type of bag your municipality requires you to use before petting your leaves to the curb. Photo: Lorianne DiSabato, flickr.com.

Curb, Mulch or Compost? 

Before deciding what to use to pick up your leaves, determine if you still intend to have them carted away.  

The most popular option is still to bag fall leaves and put them on the curb for your municipality to handle. An increasing number of towns are composting fall leaves, but many still send them directly to the dump or the incinerator. This is information you’ll want to find out, because if your municipality does compost them, you’ll want to identify compostable leaves and garden refuse to distinguish it from plain trash. Check and see what your town recommends: it may be orange or transparent plastic bags or paper ones as opposed to dark plastic for waste. And recyclable wastes may have to be put out on special days. 

garden bed covered with leaves
You can use your leaves as mulch in your garden. Photo: Oregon State University, flickr.com.

Many gardeners, however, now use their fall leaves as mulch or material to feed their compost bin. Rather than overwhelm my compost pile with too many leaves in the fall, I always bag up a decent supply—4 or 5 trash bags full—to store away until next summer. That way I have some to add to my compost throughout the season. And nothing decomposes better than a mix of fresh green summer garden waste mixed with dry brown shredded fall leaves! 

Man putting leaves into plastic bag
Putting leaves into a bag can be harder than it looks. Photo: Jim Bryant, nara.getarchive.net.

Getting Leaves Into a Bag 

It isn’t easy getting leaves into a bag, especially a plastic one. Bags notoriously collapse in on themselves just as you arrive with an armful of leaves. Ideally, you’d have someone to hold the bag open for you.  

There are also all sorts of ingenious devices designed to hold bags open, but they never seem to work as advertised. I prefer the old-fashioned trash can method: line a trash can with a bag, fold its top back over the rim and it will stay open. 

The next step is picking up the leaves. You can grab armfuls of them, dumping them in the bag, but it’s impossible not to miss a few (or a lot). Then you’ll have to rake them up again. Plus, that’s a lot of bending, which isn’t always good for the back.  

Man picking up peaves with a leaf grabber
There are all sorts of leaf grabbers to help you put leaves into bags … some work better than others. Photo: todayshomeowner.com

You’ll find various leaf grabbers on the market. Usually they look like a pair of paddles with teeth you can clamp together, though I’ve also seen rakes that fold in two and various other forms. I find them all a bit awkward and not too efficient. In the end, you often still find yourself do a lot of bending. 

I prefer the sheet method for bagging whole leaves. Lay a fairly heavy plastic sheet (or a drop cloth or a tarp) on the ground (6 × 8 feet/1.8 m × 2.4 m is a practical size) and rake the leaves onto it. A blower is also efficient for this task. Grab three of the corners, lift and dump the leaves into the open bag via the remaining corner, and voila! Simple! 

Lawn sweeper
A lawn sweeper moves leaves into its hopper when you roll over them. Photo: www.eurotops.fr

There are also a variety of lawn sweepers available. The push-types use a rotating brush to move leaves into a hopper as you push it over the lawn. Other models can be pulled behind a lawn tractor. Ideally, the hopper would be easy to detach and light enough that you could pour the leaves into a bag with little effort.  

I find this option better suited to professional lawn companies or landowners with large acreages rather than the typical home gardener. This equipment can take up a lot of space in the garage. 

Shredded leaves in bag
Shredding leaves has several advantages. Photo: https: joegardener.com

Why Shred Leaves? 

If you intend to use your leaves as mulch or compost, you need to shred them. There are several reasons why. Here are the main ones. 

  • Shredded leaves have smaller air spaces and so take up less space. Often half as much as whole leaves. That makes them easier to store. 
  • Chopped leaves make better mulch, as they don’t mat down and create an impervious layer that doesn’t “breathe” well or let water flow through. 
  • Shredded leaves have more edges and edges offer beneficial microbes more space to work from.  
  • Nor do chopped leaves blow away readily. After an initial watering, they tend to remain where you put them. 
  • Shredded leaves compost more rapidly and few minerals are lost.  
  • There is greater air circulation and therefore less risk of slow-working anaerobic organisms setting up shop. Aerobic ones are preferable for home composting. 
  • Shredding leaves kills many of the unwanted animals, weeds, diseases and seeds that might still inhabit the fallen leaves. 
Man riding tractor mower on lawn
You can mow your leaves right on your lawn with a lawn mower. Photo: Linnaea Mallette, publicdomainpictures.net.

No Need to Move Thin Leaves 

There is often no need to move leaves on a lawn. If they fall thinly enough that you can still see the green grass, just run the mulching mower over them and let them lay where they fall. That will reduce them to tiny pieces that fall to the ground between grass plants, so your lawn won’t be starved for sun. Then they decompose there, enriching the soil … and reducing your need to fertilize! And if Ma Nature offers you free fertilizer, I say take her up on the offer! 

Of course, you’ve certainly seen lawns so thickly covered in fall leaves that not a blade of grass is visible and that may be the case in your yard. It certainly is in mine! If so, yes, of course, you should apply the methods explained below, under Moving and Shredding. Because your lawn is still growing late in the fall and the turf plants need their sun! Remove the overly thick layer of leaves the first time. If a thin layer of leaves is redeposited on the lawn, simply shred them the second time, leaving them to decompose on the spot. 

Leaf blower/vac in grass
Leaf blower/vacs suck up leaves, shred them and deposit them into the attached bag. Photo: chris, Wikimedia Commons.

Moving and Shredding 

There are several ways of shredding fall leaves. 

Leaf blower/vacs in vacuum mode will shred leaves. They suck up the leaves, chop them up and deposit them in the attached bag. You can then empty it when it fills. There are electric, cordless and gas-powered models. Most are quite noisy, so be sure to wear earplugs … and for your neighbours’ sake, not to use them early in the morning.  

I use them mostly as a finishing tool, to remove leaves from flowerbeds, decks, paths and tight spaces that my preferred leaf picker-upper, the lawn mower, can’t reach. 

Pushing motorized lawn mower over a lawn covered in leaves.
You can probably use your rotary lawn mower to chop up the leaves. Photo: trongnguyen, depositphotos

Yes, the rotary lawn mower is my personal favourite for picking up leaves. To start with, you probably already have one, so there is no equipment to buy. There are mulching mowers designed to chop leaves, but you can add a mulching blade to any rotary mower, and mulching blades work fine when you’re mowing grass, too. 

The easiest mower to use for leaf collection is the bagging type. Just detach the bag when it’s full and dump the leaves where you need them, be it in the compost bin, in plastic storage bags or in your flowerbeds as mulch.  

My old lawn mower is a side-discharge model with no bagging attachment. I find I still get good results just by directing the blowing leaves into the surrounding flowerbeds as mulch.  

There are hand push, riding and tractor-pulled mowers in electric, cordless or gas-powered models. They all work fine, so take your pick! 

Reel mower on a lawn.
Reel mowers can’t be used to chop leaves. You’ll need some other tool for that. Photo: Eurotops.fr, depositphotos

Unfortunately reel mowers (typically push mowers without a motor) won’t chop up leaves. Since these types of mowers are usually used on smaller lawns, you might want to add a blower/vac to your repertoire for leaf pick-up. Blower/vacs take up little storage space and are ideal for small surfaces. 

Snowblower to the Rescue? 

I have a neighbour who uses a snowblower to chop leaves. He runs over the lawn with it and uses the adjustable chute to send the leaves into their flowerbeds as mulch. He’s been doing this for years with no problem. I’d personally be a bit worried that if the machine broke down. The warranty might not be valid, but it’s a lot of fun to watch. I suspect if ever I bought a snowblower, I’d probably end up trying mine for leaf pick-up as well. 

So have fun experimenting with some of these options. Just make sure you explain to your spouse that you’re experimenting with your leaf pick-up techniques on leaves before they call in the men with the white coats! 

Derived from an article appearing in the magazine Gardens Central September 2013. 

Garden writer and blogger, author of more than 60 gardening books, the laidback gardener, Larry Hodgson, lives and gardens in Quebec City, Canada. The Laidback Gardener blog offers more than 2,500 articles to passionate home gardeners, always with the goal of demystifying gardening and making it easier for even novice gardeners. If you have a gardening question, enter it in Search: the answer is probably already there!

10 comments on “Getting Those Fall Leaves Off Your Lawn 

  1. Mrs. Betty Knight

    Larry, while I appreciate what you are trying to do in this article, perhaps more time could be devoted to educating gardeners why they should not get rid of their leaves as they are nesting grounds for many of next years pollinators. Even just a paragraph in this article that mentions the best thing is largely to do nothing (ok, deal with the waxy leaves) and why. Also not to collect bagged leaves from others to add to your compost. Sadly, one of my master gardener colleagues did that and is now dealing with jumping worms. Stay well good sir.

  2. Oh, I do miss raking leaves. We get much more foliar debris here than in the old neighborhood, but redwood debris is not the same as deciduous leaves. Norway maples were the street trees where I lived in high school. The house I lived in was the only one that lacked a Norway maple, but the front yard was flanked by tall privet hedges, which filtered the leaves from the wind.

  3. Jt Michaels

    Amen, Sandra! Precisely what we’ve been doing at Sanctuary (my little farm home) for years. Bonus: my dog was taught to do her ‘business in the tall grass’ thus no doggie doo pick up. It doesn’t both the grasses or wildflowers.

  4. Leaves are Fall gold. My neighbours supply me with all of theirs. They are dumped into a large wire caged corral and allowed to break down. They are used for mulching and making excellent compost. We have lovely soil thanks to this end of season gift.

  5. Ann T Dubas

    We have a chipper/shredder that we use for leaves and fallen branches up to 2″ in diameter. We use the mulch for our beds and veggie garden. We have large native plant gardens and numerous trees. 0ur “lawns”, especially in the back, are mostly whatever grows. Our worst and constant battle is the ceaseless war to hold back the tides of invasive Japanese Stilt Grass. That we spray, pull, bag and take to the landfill.

  6. I pick up leaves because I still enjoy a clean lawn going into winter, but then I’m challenged by what to do with them because of the invasive jumping worms and their cocoons that overwinter. I’ve stopped putting them in my compost because they just provide me with infect compost. The worms are a problem that extends into other areas.

  7. Remember to dispose of certain leaves properly. We have a black cherry and some black walnuts in one area. Those leaves are bagged for city pickup.

    We have oaks in a different area and save the main raking of them for composting. Then we run over with the mower any subsequent rakings and let them stay put. Lawn has thrived on this system.

  8. I believe this older model is being replaced with a new way of thinking in our society: Help nature heal. Leave the leaves. Reduce and replace the lawn with a mix of native grasses and shrubs and so forth. LOTS of info on this! For example
    https://xerces.org/blog/leave-the-leaves

    • We take a “leaf” from Thoreau and have adopted the policy of suburban “civil disobedience”. Works very well. When manicured and managed lawns around us withered earlier in the summer due to semi-drought, our lawn, full of biodiversity, recuperated beautifully. Nothing was artificially watered. When the rains returned our lawn survived where others had large dead patches, burned to smithereens. Guy next door will need to completely start over. He’s been less than pleasant about our lawn going to seed and “infecting” his. Don’t think he’s keen on biodiversity, but it may be the way the neighborhood will need to go.

      With the exception of black cherry and black walnut leaves, everything else is kept, mulched, or gathered for composting. Why give landfills the best of the land? A natural slough behind our home is awash each year with toads, frogs, bird life, and small mammals. Have had to rope off our daylilies due to deer, but no chemicals anywhere. Nematodes, birds, ladybugs and praying mantis are great weapons! Get them established and they keep things balanced. A few bat houses placed in tall trees will manage mosquitoes better than citronella and sprays.

      Just a bare few perennials but loads of native plants. We experimented this year with local milkweed plants and were rewarded with several chrysalis. Missed watching them hatch, but are glad to help them have a healthy start. Can’t wait to see if they return. If we see predator insects attack the chrysalis, we’re prepared to take them indoors for incubation. Those predators are needed elsewhere!

      If molehills seem bothersome, be glad they’re eating the pillbugs and grubs that attack your lawn. Gently tamp down anything that’ll compromise the mower (which should be set high, not scalping everything), or trip up anyone. The more diversified our lawn became, the less moles bothered it. Not sure if this is true for others, but it works here.

      Don’t be intimidated by tidy neighbor lawns. Lawns for everyone is a modern bane. In the past, only the wealthy could afford a trimmed lawn. That’s why in Europe, gardens abound. “Lawn”, in England, only refers to a patch of trimmed grass. Gardens can often be easier to maintain, “Yard”, in England, often refers to tamped dirt, paved areas; often fenced or enclosed. Tell your neighbors you refuse to maintain a “yard”!

      Help ease the increasing cost of food and the pressure it puts on compromised land. Food plants do very well among flowers and small shrubs; they can be trellised and trained to look lovely.

      I do wish chickens were allowed in my area, though Hubby is a glad they’re not – he’s a REAL country boy and I guess he knows what he’s talking about. If you can have them and can take care of them, I give you heartfelt blessings!

      As long as it’s not an eyesore, please try to diversify. The rewards are worth the effort! Remember – suburban civil disobedience! ?

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