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To Rake or Not to Rake: Answering the Question

October 11, 2023

By Steve Dishman, Interpreter

One of the most exciting things about autumn is the changing colors of leaves. But as the leaves fall from the trees, many people’s first instinct is to grab the rake or leaf blower. But once you know the benefits of leaves, you may rush to put them in your garden!

All spring and summer long, leaves have been growing on trees, collecting nutrients from rainfall and sunlight. When they fall and temperatures fall, leaves begin to decompose, transferring these nutrients to the soil, including to perennials in gardens. Soil naturally has a lot of nitrogen in it, and leaves are packed with natural carbon, so the soil health will be improved by decomposing leaves.  A natural mulch begins to form as autumn turns to winter.  It is recommended that you make a mulch pile with the decomposing leaves. Then, you can take this natural fertilizer and use it in your spring garden plantings.

Fall leaves can also add insulation to your garden. If you grow any root vegetables, i.e., carrots or beets, which can be susceptible to frigid temperatures, wet fall leaves can keep them warm and safe for the next growing season.  Also, important to note is to get your leaves wet. So, if it’s a dry winter, you may want to soak the forming mulch with water.

Another reason naturalists say to skip raking leaves is to not disturb animals that use leaf litter. Everything from earthworms and pill bugs, box turtles to toads use fallen leaves to forage for food.  Moth and butterfly caterpillars will use leaf litter to hibernate in. And some animals will collect leaves to use in their shelters/homes.

A final reason you may want to skip the raking and leaf-blowing this year will save on energy costs, both in energy you spend raking or blowing, then bagging leaves and the amount of money used on gasoline costs to run equipment. Being mindful of the amount of fossil fuels we add to the air is key to protecting the environment.  Burning leaves adds many pollutants to the atmosphere. Of course, using a leaf blower also may add to noise pollution. So, this autumn, resist the urge to rake up all your leaves and put them in landfills. Rather, rake leaves into your garden, let it be used for animal foraging and a great natural mulch that will have your spring garden be the talk of the neighborhood!

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