Fall Leaf Raking: Finding the Middle Ground

Fall Leaf Raking

All gardeners evolve. There is something about being outside and working hard in nature that inspires learning and growth. The issue of fall leaves is one I’ve been struggling with lately.

Last year I wrote about why you shouldn’t let your fall leaves stay, and all of those reasons are still true, but… This year as I’ve learned more about the importance of insects in our ecosystem (they feed the birds, pollinate, eat other “bad” bugs, and generally play an important part in the natural cycles that keep our food growing and our world pleasant), I’ve also learned that many insects overwinter in our fallen leaves.

If you use plants to attract birds, or put out a feeder, but you rake your leaves up, you are kind of sabotaging your efforts to care for wildlife, because the birdies love to eat bugs! In addition, leaves add nutrients and softness to the soil, and can be good protection from the frost in cold climates.

The problem? Leaves can also rot perennials, shade out sections of lawn or groundcovers, and can overwinter BAD bugs too! Not to mention, the wilder aesthetic of leaving the leaves where they fall isn’t right for every garden.

So what’s the conscientious gardener to do? I do think it’s possible to care for wildlife and the environment while still having a clean-looking garden and taking care of our ornamental plants. Here’s some of the middle ground I’m finding in the to-rake-or-not-to-rake debate:

Pro: Good bugs overwinter in our leaf litter.

Con: Bad bugs do too.

A number of garden plants are really susceptible to disease because they’ve been bred heavily for flowers or fruit instead of for disease resistance. Roses get all kinds of bugs and fungus, Camellias get petal blight (brown mushy flowers), Rhododendrons can get thrips, and fruit trees can get any number of insect and fungal diseases.

All of these issues can overwinter in the warmth and protection of leaf litter. In addition, if you have snails and slugs in your garden, they love to lay eggs in fluffy fallen leaves, particularly in fall.

The solution?

I rake up fall leaves from around anything that I have experienced pest problems with or that I know is susceptible to problems like that (Roses, Rhodies, Camellias, hybrid Fuchsias, peach and apple trees, citrus), and I take that leaf litter to my city’s compost, which I know will get hot enough to kill any diseases.

For snail reduction, you can remove the litter around susceptible perennials and compost it on site, or just spread the leaves around trees and shrubs. With other areas of the garden, leave things as natural as possible to promote the overwintering of salamanders and “good” bugs , both of which eat garden pests, and the native insects that so many birds love to eat.

If I need to rake in some areas, I try to compost it myself to avoid the gas, time and expense of taking leaf litter to the compost site and then bringing purchased compost back from there at a later date.

Pro: Leaves are great protection from frost.

Con: In wet climates, matted leaves can shade out sections of groundcover or lawn, and can rot sensitive perennials.

In my climate, we get a ton of rain and some frost. I’ve seen maple leaves mat down over large areas of groundcover or lawn and totally shade and kill an area in a month. In addition, so many perennials can be smothered and rot from a nearly impenetrable mat of fall leaves.

The solution?

Gently remove leaves that are directly on top of any plant, whether that’s lawn, groundcover, perennials, or even shrubs if you get a clump of leaves matted on them! Then shred the leaves, either in a shredder or by running on top of them with the mower a few times. Because shredding the leaves makes sure they can’t form a thick, killing mat on top of plants, you can then toss the  finely shredded leaves back into your garden beds, or just compost them for next year’s use.

Pro: Leaves are one of the best types of compost available for improving your soil.

Con: Landscape fabric and wood chip mulch don’t allow the composted leaves to contribute to the soil.

If you have wood chip mulch or landscape fabric in place to prevent weeds, the leaves will break down on top of the mulch or fabric and form a delicious growing medium in which new weeds will love to sprout. That makes landscape fabric in particular worse than nothing.

The solution?

If you want the soil-building benefits of your fall leaves, you can rake them up and compost them, then once it’s all broken down into actual non-bulky compost, you can move your mulch aside and spread it, then move your mulch back on top for weed prevention. If you have landscape fabric, you can move the wood chips aside around the holes in the fabric where plants are, get a good grip on the edge of the fabric around those holes, and lift it up so you can tuck handfuls of compost under the fabric to feed the plants.

If you do this, you’ll need to be careful to spread the compost evenly under the fabric and reach as far out under the fabric as possible so you don’t just dump soil on the base of your plants (plants don’t approve of that). It’s a bit of a pain, but slipping fresh compost under your landscape fabric can really help your plants thrive. If you want the wildlife benefits of leaving your leaves, I’ve found it’s fine to just rake them in spring and compost them then. I’ve never seen a significant buildup of compost on top of chips or landscape fabric from leaving whole leaves through one winter.

Pro: I love the benefits of leaves.

Con: I hate how messy they look!

Our personal aesthetics vary so much. The contrast between our garden and a neighbor’s, more crisp lines of architecture vs. the softer style of a country home, and the style of planting we do in our gardens all have an impact on whether or not fallen leaves fit in with our garden’s style.

The solution?

If fallen leaves currently look out of place, you can help your garden and your own eye evolve to make them a better fit, or you can just do what you can to reap the benefits from them without having an impact on how things look. If you want to go the design route and help your garden be a place where you don’t notice fallen leaves, there are a few things you can do:

  • Plant year-round, evergreen plants in the foreground of your garden beds so that fallen leaves towards the back aren’t so visible.
  • Plant in larger groups so that the overwintering plants make a bolder, more intentional design statement. If your eye is drawn by a stand of red-stemmed Dogwoods or a drift of Hellebores, you’ll be less likely to see the drifts of leaves as a messy element and more likely to see the poetry in the way they fall.
  • Draw the eye upward with hanging bird feeders, structural or sculpture elements, and taller planting elements that bloom in winter, like the evergreen Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis darwinii) shrub, a Hardenbergia vine with purple or white flowers, Silk Tassel or Garrya elliptica with its hanging white tassels, or a Coral Bark Japanese Maple for tall stem interest.
  • Spend more time in nature and notice how the palette of browns and greens in winter has a relaxed sense of calm. Visit natural gardens and start to intentionally find the beauty in a garden left naturally.

If you love your garden as it is and prefer the neater appearance of fewer fallen leaves, but still want to help wildlife and get the benefits of healthier soil from your fallen leaves, here are a few things you can do to find a middle ground:

  • Rake up leaves from high-traffic areas and places that you can see easily; leave any leaves you can’t really see and let them compost naturally where they fall.
  • Try to avoid the gasoline-intensive cycle of using a blower or vacuum to pick up leaves, setting them out for the city to take, then going to purchase finished compost from them later on. Instead, rake by hand, compost on site, and re-use your compost in your garden in spring.
  • If you won’t be growing winter vegetables, you can layer leaves on your vegetable beds to hold down weeds all winter while supporting native bugs and improving your soil. In spring, the leaves will be mostly composted and you should be able to plant.
  • Plant a few natives in your garden to help support wildlife in other ways. Peter Haggard has some tips on the best wildlife-supporting native plants for coastal Northern California.

Where do you fall in the Great Leaf Debate? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure and check out what other gardeners are saying on this topic:

Kylee Baumle, The Problem with Leaves

Beautiful Wildlife Garden Who Lives in the Leaves?

Heather Holm, Leave the Leaves

Carole Brown, I am the Lorax I Speak for The Leaves

Debbie Roberts,  Weighing in on the Great Leaf Debate

19 responses to “Fall Leaf Raking: Finding the Middle Ground”

  1. Genevieve, Thank you so much for showing folks that this issue does not have to be an all or nothing proposition. Our choices fall along a continuum of doing nothing or raking them all up and having them trucked away.

    But continuum is the operative word here. And in thinking of our gardens not as one entity, but as the sum of the parts, will better enable each of us to make the best possible choices for each individual area of our gardens.

    If leaves are a problem in some areas of your garden, by all means remove them to be composted elsewhere on your site. But for the areas where leaves can be allowed to do their marvelous work in feeding the soil and providing shelter for so many critters (many of whom eat the bad guys)

    Your approach is a very solid middle ground. Thank you for sharing it!

    • Carole, the word continuum is a great one, and your point about how the garden should be seen as a sum, not as an entire entity, is excellent. That certainly gives a feeling of empowerment, that every action we take to help wildlife can be of benefit.

  2. Once again, Genevieve, you’ve written a passionate, smart and compelling post for thoughtful gardeners. The best thing to read with my morning coffee! Thank you.

  3. gardeners do evolve! i was about to rake up my leaves for the compost pile last week, but i read your (or someone else’s?) earlier blog about how some spiders and other bugs/critters overwinter in leaves. and so i decided to leave the leaves in my gardens (where they aren’t hurting anything). next spring, i’ll just throw more compost on top. thanks for going through all the pros and cons!

    • Gina, I am so glad the leaf discussion we’ve all been having has helped the critters in your garden! Carole over at Ecosystem Gardening wrote that post about the bugs overwintering in leaf litter and she’s the one who got me started thinking on the topic over here.

    • An excellent point, Heather! That is awesome, and a great way to “sell” people, if needed, on the benefits of leaving the leaves in places where it’s appropriate.

  4. My old neighbor used to mulch his containers with leaves in the fall. Doing that seems like a way that balcony gardeners could get some of the benefits of leaves and help out the ecosystem in the little way we can.

    • Fern, that’s an awesome idea. I have actually seen a native plant nursery mulch their woodland plants with shredded pine needles! Same idea except added mild acidity. I love that you’re helping spread the word about the ways urban and balcony gardeners can contribute to the environment and support wildlife. Very cool.

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  6. Love this post! It makes a change to see someone write about the cons as well as the pros of leaf collecting. I must admit, I haven’t collected leaves in a while though I do recommend it in the community gardens. We have dogs who like to poop in the garden and I’ve been caught out in the past 😮 They are a great source of organic matter though for gardeners who don’t have an easy supply.