It All Depends…
There is no ONE right way to deal with your leaves, and methods vary by site, volume of leaves, and garden features. Landscapers have access to specialized equipment that is even more efficient and are detailed in our For Professional Landscapers page. Here we explain some commonly recommended methods for homeowners. Please note, ecological best practices encourage keeping leaves whole and in place wherever possible: that would be under trees and around shrubs and in perennial beds. This provides valuable overwintering habitat for butterflies and other insects, which in turn may be a valuable source of food for foraging birds in the winter. However, on lawns, leaves to be managed as described below.
The Easiest Way to Maintain the Lawn
Is your lawn too big for a rake? Then, the easiest way to get rid of the leaves is to mow them into your lawn. You can do this with a regular mower, especially if the leaves are dry, but a mulch-mower works better. Almost all mowers sold today can be used as mulch mowers. Watch this video to see a small household mower mulching leaves. And there are plenty more leaf mulching videos on YouTube. Everyone’s doing it!
If you mow weekly, one pass will probably be fine. At the peak of leaf fall, you may need to mow twice a week or be prepared to do repeat passes. The chopped up leaves fall between the grass blades, decompose and nourish the soil. Less or no need for lawn fertilizer. Landscapers and more serious gardeners switch the blades on their lawnmowers to special mulching blades (available online – called Gators – see the image below). These shred the leaves VERY effectively. Switching a lawnmower blade is really easy and the mulching gator blades usually cost less than $20 depending on your mower type.
Most mowers designed for homeowners have mulching blades, which mulch the grass but are also effective for leaf mulching. Make sure they are regularly sharpened and replace them when necessary. Additional blades, specially designed for leaf mulching, are available for most brands.
Electric lawn mowers, which are far less polluting than gas-powered mowers, are just as effective at leaf mulching as gasoline operated mowers. Maintaining the lawn with an electric mower is a no-brainer; they are lighter, require no oil or gas, and have a simple push start. And they’re so quiet you can listen to music while mowing!
Choosing the right blades
Gator blades, which have teeth rather than a straight blade, are worth considering for fall clean up if you have lots of leaves. They’re more efficient than regular mulching blades and will also cut your grass perfectly well. Changing the blade on a mower is very simple and can be done on small homeowner mowers as well as professional-grade mowers.
Here’s an important tip from Tim Downey of Aesthetic Landscaping: When purchasing a leaf mulching blade, make sure you get the right kind. The red blade is NOT what you want. The direction of the teeth is important. On the red one, the blades “yield” and bend away from the direction of contact. The lower two blades “lean” into the direction of contact.
Note, too, the red blade has blunt square teeth, whereas the lower two blades have sharp pointed teeth.
Leaves on Hard Surfaces and in Perennial Beds
You can mow leaves on hardscapes, like driveways and patios, and then move the mulched leaves back onto garden beds, around shrubs, or the lawn. Or just blow or (preferably) rake the leaves onto the lawn and mow them right in.
Wondering about the leaves on your perennial beds?
Some tender perennials and wildflowers do not favor a thick layer of mulch. Carefully rake excessive leaves from between those plants, pile them in rows and then mow the rows. The volume is reduced by x10 and the remaining mulch can be placed on the beds with sturdier perennials and woodlands plants where they will break down forming a protective winter layer and then gradually turn into compost, enriching the soil.
Note that blowing leaves out of flower beds, around shrubs and tree roots is very destructive to topsoil.
There is no need to remove leaves from ground covers like pachysandra. Instead, rustle the plants with a rake so that the leaves fall under the plants. Much easier and quicker than removing the leaves. They’ll be decomposed and turned into nutrients by next summer.
Using a Sweeper
Print Out Leaf Mulching Tips
One page leaf-mulching tips in Spanish
One page leaf-mulching tips in English
Gator Blades in Action: this video shows landscapers mowing with Gator blades. Gator blades can also be purchased for smaller mowers, suitable for homeowner use.
Mulching and Leaf Volume
Mulched leaves take up about one tenth of the space of whole leaves. They are easy to move and to spread around shrubs and tree roots for winter protection or spring mulch.
Mulching in Steps
Leaves that are mulched turn quickly into compost that nurtures your grass and enhances the soil of you lawn. leaves can also be composted in a designated area and later applied in planting beds of vegetable gardens. Decomposed leaves are rich in humus, which enhances the soil structure and supports healthier growth.