Fall used to be the time for articles about which rakes to use and how to protect your back as you gather all the leaves on your lawn and send them to the curb. But over the last few years, there’s been a shift. What if you knew that you didn’t have to rake up and bag all those leaves? These days, organizations from the Nature Conservancy of Canada to the Audubon Society are recommending that you leave your leaves.
Find out why it’s beneficial to have a more laissez-faire attitude towards raking in your yard—and what you need to do to keep your neighbours happy.
Why are gardeners being told not to rake up their leaves?
Leaves offer free nutrients to your lawn and garden as they break down into healthy organic matter for the soil, so there are lots of uses for them that benefit the soil on your property.
“We call leaves Mother Nature’s gold,” says Karen McKeown, a horticulturist and the Outdoor Water Efficiency Program Coordinator for the City of Guelph. “Residents reach out to us for advice on how to have low-maintenance, water efficient and cost-saving lawns and gardens.” This means educating homeowners on why it’s a good idea to keep the leaves and emphasizing their role in building your soil. “Healthy soils make healthier plants that are more low-maintenance and need less water to survive,” she says.
Leaves can also provide shelter on your property for beneficial insects and amphibians over the winter, and help birds by creating a place to forage for food in cold weather.
So, wait—if I don’t rake my leaves, what should I do with them instead?
It’s important to note that in most cases you can’t just leave the leaves where they fall and call it a day. However, your property’s leaves can be put to very good use in multiple areas—and they can even be saved for later. One great use for them is as mulch: “A great tip for using leaves is around plants in late fall,” says McKeown. “Our winters now are causing trees, shrubs and perennials to become weakened in our gardens. I spend time in late fall putting a large amount of leaves over my favourite plants, to help insulate them for any winter thawing conditions. Leaves piled around roots will help maintain a more even soil temperature, which helps plants survive where alternating periods of freezing and thawing don’t provide consistent snow cover.” In the spring, when you tidy up your garden, you’ll want to clear some away from the plants if they haven’t broken down. You can spread the mulch around the soil, or move them to your compost pile to break down even further.
Besides being used as a winter mulch, leaves can be used to keep the weeds down in spring, summer and fall. Run them over with the lawnmower in the fall to break them up into tinier pieces to spread throughout your edible and ornamental gardens. You can also leave those bits in the grass. “The leaves will settle into any bare spots in the lawn, which will help stop weeds from germinating and add nutrients to your soil for the lawn to grow better,” says McKeown who recommends mowing the leaves when they are dry. (The small pieces should break down over the winter.)
Leaves can also be turned into DIY compost. If you have the space, McKeown recommends setting up an area in your yard to store them, perhaps in a chicken-wire cage or a protected corner where the wind can’t reach them. “In just a year, your leaf pile will break down a lot and be reduced to a fraction of its original size. When you need some compost, dig down to the bottom of the pile for some great material,” she says.
What if you have, say, a giant maple tree? Do you really want to leave thick mats of leaves on the lawn?
Big heavy piles of leaves will smother the grass, which is great if you want to create a new garden area. Simply rake a layer over your proposed site, and it will be ready come spring. Otherwise, give them a good mow to cut them up into tiny pieces, as mentioned above.
Landscape designer Candy Venning of Venni Gardens has several huge maples on her property, but no grass. That means she can allow leaves to be left where they fall in the garden to break down over the winter. “We also tend to stockpile some and invite people to help themselves to free mulch in fall or spring,” she says.
What should you tell your neighbours who think your leaves are just going to blow into their yard?
You may find this modern approach to fall cleanup isn’t universally accepted. There will still be those who want to adhere to their annual routine. And that’s okay—if they’re sending their leaves to the curb, in many Canadian municipalities they’re going somewhere to be composted! However, if you keep them, McKeown offers a few tips to try and appease your neighbours:
• Wet down the leaves when you rake them into your garden—or put them all in a pile and cover with a tarp.
• Mow them a few times to make the pieces really small.
• Rake the leaves onto your driveway or a tarp and mow them, then rake up the pieces into your garden or into a container.
How can you tell if a tree’s leaves are diseased? Can they be left on the lawn?
If you see big black polka dots on your maple leaves, you’re looking at tar spot, a fungal disease that doesn’t really harm the tree, but that you want to avoid spreading. Those leaves should be cleaned up and not saved for the garden. Composting them is not recommended, as most home compost piles don’t generate enough heat to kill the spores.
McKeown says it can be hard to clean up every single leaf, so a good approach is to try to keep the plant as healthy as possible so that it can fight infections. “Water, prune and fertilize properly to keep the tree in good health, so that it can withstand these disease and pest attacks,” she says.
Do I need to keep ALL the leaves from my tree?
If you think you’ll have a use for them, then yes! However if you want to scoop the ones you don’t need into a yard bag and send them to the curb, that’s okay, too.
McKeown says she’ll put leaves into an old garage container and then use her weed whacker to chop them all up. Those wee pieces will be put in the garden in the spring. “It makes a great, free mulch, especially for my vegetable garden,” she says.
Are there any other plants you can leave be until spring? And should you clear them up then?
You can further extend your yard maintenance break in the fall by saving your plant-cleanup to-dos for late spring (end of May). As McKeown explains, beneficial and pollinating insects overwinter in plant stems and plant debris on the ground and do not emerge until it is warm enough for them. “Previous years’ leaves and plant stems will help fertilize your soils and make the soil healthier, which results in less water needed to keep plants healthy,” she adds. “Healthy soils can also hold water longer for plant use.” (Seed heads left on perennials can also offer food for birds.)
Aside from any root or cool-season crops, like carrots, beets and kale, that are still in the ground, you should, however, clean up your veggie garden, sending spent tomato plants, cucumbers, etc. to the compost.
Originally published in 2019; updated in 2021.