To rake or not to rake is something that comes up every autumn, with proponents of both the pros and cons rarely offering a literally middle-ground solution.
We gardeners deal all year with everyday conflicts that are normally easily resolved, and we move on. Is it a weed to be pulled, or a wildflower? Prune shrubs into round balls or angular boxes? Leave a few caterpillars eating our plants so they have a chance to become beautiful butterflies? Do we commit crape murder, or pillory others who do? Pine straw or bark as mulch?
But sometimes we’re faced with a condition called cognitive dissonance — a “do or not-do” situation in which either way has equal and opposing pros and cons. Darned if you do, darned if you don’t.
That’s where leaf raking falls for most folks.
On one hand, raking is labor intensive for you or expensive lawn maintenance crews, and, as different trees drop leaves irregularly, it usually needs doing more than once. Sometimes it’s actually required by neighborhood covenants.
On the positive side, raking makes things neater, giving instant gratification as we go. Decaying leaves recycle nutrients and feed critters in the soil, from beneficial bacteria and fungi to earthworms which keeps soil healthy and aerated for better, deeper lawn and tree roots. And it reduces the likelihood that a heavy layer of leaves will pack down, smother the lawn, and create disease conditions.
By the way, this includes grass clippings as well as tree leaves. Normally, as long as you mow regularly enough so clippings don’t clump and look bad or cause buried grass to turn yellow, they quickly fulfill the benefits in the preceding paragraph. Most lawn experts agree that collecting clippings makes lawns look better temporarily, and is very beneficial in compost piles. So leaving small clippings in place is normally a good thing.
But what about tree leaves, which can pile up quickly, bury the lawn, look objectionable to some neighbors and may keep the lawn underneath too tender to withstand hard winter freezes? If you go to the trouble of raking or blowing them, you end up with a lot to use either as a thick mulch under shrubs or trees, as bulk for the compost bin, or in bags to be hauled away somewhere else at some expenses to society.
Either way, make it a done deal; live with your decision. Or, in a less palatable third solution to dissonance, change the parameters — get rid of the lawn, or all nearby trees (OK, I had to throw that in as a long-shot possibility).
How about a happy medium? Mow what you can, as long as you can, living with a somewhat-acceptable short term haze of brown atop the lawn that’ll be consumed and recycled by worms; when or if they amass so thickly you end up with more brown than green, rake or blow what can’t be mowed.
In a win-win combination, use it under shrubs as a practical, nutrient-recycling mulch, or create a neatly edged border beneath and between trees as a yin-yang design element in areas that are probably getting too shady for grass to grow well anyway. This works as well for slow-to-decompose pine needles and thick, slick magnolia leaves as it does for oaks and maples.
It’s a kind of natural thing anyway, having leaves underneath trees at least part of the year, and as long as you do it in a way that looks purposeful, even the most neatnik of your neighbors will be OK with it.
So, mow and rake or blow. Best of both worlds.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.