Carla Albright

Carla Albright

… or not to rake? That is the question. And like many things in life, there are differing opinions.

It has become a tradition for home owners to rake the leaves as they fall in October. I can remember many, many years ago when I was a child and my mother would take great delight in raking piles and piles of maple leaves only to have my brother and me jump in the middle and scatter them all back onto the lawn for her to rake once more. It became a game with us and we soon were helping rake those very same leaves back into a new pile for jumping into. Even today, when I see a pile of leaves in a neighbor’s yard, I can’t help but be transported back to those glory days. The feel of crispy fallen leaves, the slightly decaying smell and the wonder of the colors of fall. I would hate to think that children today grow up without knowing that pleasure.

Somewhere along the line, I inherited my mother’s love of raking leaves. For me, it is the excuse I need to get outside and do something in the garden on a brisk autumn day when the sky is so blue it defies reason, the winds are light, and that smell of fall is in the air. I raked huge piles of leaves at our first home where we had a row of eight large maples in the front of the house. Our son loved jumping in those piles almost as much as I enjoyed raking them into piles. There is also a part of me as a gardener that likes a tidy lawn and garden. Which is why I think most people rake leaves today.

But is raking leaves from a lawn the best thing to do? Many environmentalists say “no”… allowing the leaves to break down naturally is better as it acts as mulch for the grass over the winter. Then there is the school of thought that says leaving a thick coating of leaves on a lawn will only smother the grass below and they do not break down quickly enough over the winter to make a difference in the soil quality. A layer of leaves also doesn’t allow the light and moisture to reach the roots of the grass.

So which is right?

Technically, both viewpoints are right in their own ways. If leaves break down quickly enough, the resulting nutrients would benefit the soil. But a thick pile of leaves doesn’t break down and only winds up being raked in the spring when there are so many other tasks to do. So using a mulching lawn mower may be the solution. The leaves will be shredded enough to decompose and work their way into the soil. You won’t have to rake them at all.

Don’t already have a mulching lawn mower? They can be quite expensive to purchase. So instead of mulching the leaves as you mow, you can rake them and place them in a compost pile, making sure the ratio of two-parts green matter (veggies or green leaves) to one-part brown matter (dead leaves) is kept to help both types of debris to decompose.

What is less desirable for the environment is using a gas-powered leaf blower to move the leaves from one spot to another. It takes up a lot of energy – human and fossil fuels – and blowing leaves into a neighbor’s yard will affect not only the environment but your relationship to the neighbors. Not to mention noise pollution.

Personally, I am in a situation where I don’t have to rake many leaves anymore. We do have two large alder trees as well as several Japanese maples that all drop their leaves at different times. Unless we have a huge wind, the maple leaves seem to just drop to the base of the tree where I can leave them. I also don’t have much lawn to worry about. I do get into the flower beds and rake out most of the alder leaves that fall from around the plants but I leave the ones that aren’t in danger of smothering anything as they are.

One thing I do watch out for in the flower bed is leaves that have blackspot on them. This occurs mostly around my rose bushes and I do carefully rake those and dispose of them.

The spores of blackspot or other fungal diseases will lay dormant in the soil until the rains come, then they start fruiting and are splashed up onto the plant once again. I need to get rid of those leaves to break the cycle of the fungi. I won’t even compost those because the spores can lay dormant a long time and still be active in the compost that is subsequently spread back on the beds.

My days of jumping in piles of leaves are long over. But luckily, our children’s home in Portland has enough trees around that piles of leaves are being raked there each autumn. I can live vicariously just watching our grandchildren experience the joy of a nice, high pile of leaves. The tradition lives on.

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