MASTER GARDENER — Fallen leaves are nutrient rich and pollinator habitats

Published 12:02 am Thursday, January 12, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

As most gardeners know, many trees lose their leaves during the fall and winter months. This is a survival mechanism for the tree, in which going dormant allows the tree to conserve energy and water.

Can we all agree that raking leaves is a chore?

Using a lawn mower to corral leaves, or to shred them into pieces like mulch, does not provide this gardener with the aesthetic sought after, and the process is much too noisy! So, let us get started and “leaf” through some useful tips on the best way to gather leaves.

Autumn leaves were once beautiful, bearing vast shades of orange, yellow, red and bronze before plummeting to the ground. Carried by the wind, they form into leaf drifts, mounds or cascade into thick layers (thatch) in the yard.

These drifts have the capacity to prevent plant growth of nearby plants, attract unwanted pests and simply look uninviting. For most of us, raking leaves can easily become an exhausting, tiresome lawn maintenance chore.

Many gardeners may find the task of raking leaves tedious, but this gardener enjoys taking his time outdoors raking leaves, listening to the sounds of nature, while enjoying her music!

Many gardening experts state allowing fallen leaves to remain in place can benefit your yard, local wildlife, and the environment, while also reducing lawn and garden maintenance. But for some of us, it just makes sense to rake up some of the fallen leaves, especially from pathways or an overabundance of leaves smothering other plants. Note that thick layers of leaves let on lawns can spread disease if fallen leaves harbor fungus.

Leaves offer valuable and important nutrients which replenish the soil. If we chose to bag and remove them, we are tossing away these nutrients every healthy garden requires to the detriment of our environment, as we are filling landfills!

The debris generated by trees: leaves, stems, seeds, brush and other plant parts are vital for overwintering wildlife. Pollinators, such as bees, moths, and numerous others heavily rely on garden debris, brush piles and leaves to insulate them during the colder months.

Is your landscape filled with deciduous trees?

Tool choice and selection can either simplify or complicate leaf raking. Rakes are made from numerous material types: steel, polypropylene and bamboo.

Some leaf rakes are designed for several types of leaf removal, so it’s important to choose the correct one to meet your needs. Choosing a rake length and tine spread is important!

A rake with the correct handle length, which is comfortable for your height, means you do not have to stoop while using it. The tines should be close to 30-inches across, having a no-clog design.

Before you begin raking, locate a comfortable pair of shoes, dress for the weather and wear heavy-duty leather gloves to prevent blisters, and if using machinery chose hearing protection and safety glasses.

Often gardeners wait for leaves to stop falling, I am not one of them! Leaves continue falling over several months, meaning the lawn is going to look unkempt. Raking is not a once-per-season event, you will spend more time outside, since thick mats of leaves are difficult to remove, becoming back-wrenching, exhaustive work.

It never fails, when you finally have time to rake, it is going to be windy, but rather than thinking of this as an obstacle, count it as a blessing! Utilize Mother Natures’ gift (wind) to make raking enjoyable. If you rake with the wind’s direction, the process is much faster.

Gardeners short on time, wanting “get through” gardening tasks quickly will choose lawn equipment options for leaf removal. A leaf blower, when operated correctly can certainly cut down on the time spent raking (corralling) leaves. As does a lawn mower with mulching blades attached, which in turn speeds leaf decomposition.

You have mastered the art of raking leaves, now what are you going to do with them?

  • If you mow and mulch your leaves, you can simply leave them in place. This fertilizes the lawn over time. Or rake the mulched leaves around existing shrubs, trees, flowers, and other garden areas.
  • Create a compost pile if you do not already have one. Dedicate an area, start a compost pile, and incorporate leaves with other yard debris. Utilize the compost to fertilize your plants.
  • Compost bags are a great option for disposal. Many local municipalities offer “green waste” collection, meaning the bagged leaves will be composted rather than delivered to a landfill. Municipalities often offer compost that you can use to enrich your garden’s soil free of charge.
  • Burning leaves should be the last resort. Burn them in small batches, on a windless day, away from anything which might catch fire. Pot ash is generated from burning leaves, which can be utilized as a gardening supplement.

John Green is a Certified Texas Master Gardener. If you have gardening questions or need more information, contact the Orange County Master Gardeners Helpline at 409-882-7010 or visit, Orange County Texas Master Gardeners Association on Facebook or email