Can NOT Raking Your Leaves Actually Benefit Your Lawn?

pattern of red and yellow autumn leaves
Here's What to Do With Your Fallen LeavesBusà Photography - Getty Images

After a long, hot summer of battling invasive plants in your garden, weird mushrooms in your lawn, and weeds, weeds everywhere, you may be ready to take a break and let nature do what it wants. But just when you're ready to retire your gardening gloves for the season, fall leaves start to blaze in glorious color and flutter down onto your lawn, signalling that now's the time to rake, blow, bag and dispose of your leaves. Suddenly, you've got tons more work to do. Or do you? Admit it: You may be wondering can I just let the fall leaves rot where they fall?

The short answer is that depends.

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garden tool

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Obviously, the amount of leaves on your lawn depends on the type and number of trees on your property. If less than 20 percent of your lawn is covered by leaves, it's fine to leave them be and do nothing. But if you can barely see the grass, you need to take action to preventing smothering the grass or making it more susceptible to disease. And if you're trying to patch bare spots in the lawn, your baby grass needs plenty of sunshine to grow.

Letting the leaves fall where they may is not a good idea if you're trying to grow grass. "If your lawn is covered in leaves, this does not allow the turf to photosynthesize for several weeks during the growing season," explains Clint Waltz, PhD, turfgrass specialist at the University of Georgia Turfgrass Research Center. "Photosynthesis produces sugars that go into the roots to prepare the turf for winter and to resume growth in the spring."

The growth of both warm season grasses and cool season grasses can be affected if they’re covered in a thick coating of leaves. Plus, it could lead to other problems. "If you let those leaves sit and you get a heavy dew, for example, the leaves retain moisture on the turf, which may make it more susceptible to disease," says Waltz. "Letting the fallen leaves stay in place has physiological and disease management risks." Especially because too many fallen leaves can be a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria.

But that doesn't mean you absolutely have to bag and dispose of these leaves. "Your fallen leaves don’t have to end up in a landfill," says Waltz. "There are plenty of ways to keep and use them in your landscape."

can fallen leaves stay on my lawn mulching mower
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Mulch Them Up.

Use your mulching mower to chop them up into tiny bits. Mulching your leaves applies organic matter back into the soil, says Waltz. Then the soil microbes break down the nitrogen and make it more available to the plants. By mulching, you’re allowing the process to become an ecological loop: The leaves fall from the trees, decompose, and become nutrients, which then can be absorbed by the trees and other landscape plantings.

Collect Them to Use Around Plantings.

No mulching mower? No problem! Collect those leaves and place them in beds around plantings. There, they'll eventually decompose and put nutrients back into the soil. You can mulch them first, or simply pile up around the base of shrubs, says Waltz. Just be careful not to create thick layers around any low-growing plants that the leaves can smother, such as succulents or groundcovers. For those types of plants, some leaves are great—but they don't want to be completely covered in leaf litter.

can fallen leaves stay on my lawn
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Add Them to Your Compost Pile.

Leaves are an excellent addition to your compost pile, says Waltz. Haven't started one yet? Fall is the perfect time to begin composting and making gardener's gold! Purchase a composter, or read on: Here's how to make a DIY compost bin.

Whatever you do, you'll want to remove piles of leaves from surfaces such as patios, paver walkways and decks. Not only can they stain them, but leaves can be slippery when damp, which creates a hazard for falls.

And it's a nice idea to leave fallen leaves in some areas of your yard—ideally where you're not trying to grow grass—in order to support wildlife. Animals including turtles and toads and insects such as moth and butterfly caterpillars overwinter in fallen leaves. If you're worried it will be unsightly, simply keep the piles in a less-noticeable area of your garden, such as the back or side yard.

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