Rakes or leaf blowers? Mulching or compost? The best way to deal with leaves in your yard

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

A double-edged sword . . . a blessing and a curse . . .  Leaf season is a multi-faceted touchstone for gardeners and homeowners across the region. 

As a homeowner who lives in Louisville’s Highland’s neighborhood, surrounded by giant old trees, leaf season for me seems to last from the start of school until Christmas eve. The early dropping tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) and sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) have already covered most of my lawn. The last of the oak leaves will wait until well after all the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone and the inflatable polar bears show up down the street. 

But like many things that need to be done in the garden, the leaf thing can generate heated arguments across the back yard fence. So here are a few things to consider for upcoming leaf season.

To blow or not to blow...

Of course, back in the stone age, when I was a 10-year-old out raking leaves in the family yard, there’s was no such thing as a leaf blower. We had those flimsy bamboo rakes that were as effective at pinching your fingers as they were at collecting leaves. Guaranteed to last at least half a leaf season before shattering into a million little bamboo shards. Modern, flexible metal rakes were a nice improvement in garden technology.

Of course the modern landscaper and many homeowners have gone to the blower to help corral their leaves.

Now full disclosure before I trash the modern blower . . . I own a cordless blower. It came with my rechargeable mower and, quite conveniently, uses the same batteries. I own it, and I have to say, I hate using it. It is loud. It is really, really loud. Every time I reach for it and each time I turn it off, I involuntarily look over my shoulders to see how many disapproving neighbors are thinking evil thoughts about what they’d love to do to my blower . . . and to me. I put it back in the garage and slink back into the house to hide my face for a few hours in hopes it will all pass. I experience these thoughts because I know where my mind goes when someone else in the neighborhood fires up their own nuclear-powered blower just as I’m sitting down to enjoy a cocktail at the end of a long day.

Blowers are useful for getting leaves out from under the deck and other hard to reach places where you’d otherwise need a contortionist with a yards long rake to reach them. Once you learn how to properly use a blower (so you don’t end up chasing yourself in circles) they are quite efficient at moving a whole bunch of leaves to a predetermined collection point. But while efficient, they don’t accomplish one important thing raking does quite well.

Thatch is a layer of dead grass that can accumulate on the ground, that can reduce the vigor of the grass you are trying to grow. Annual raking, especially with one of those nice, fine tined metal rakes, removes that thatch layer and leaves your lawn healthier and more robust. Blowers just move the leaves. They do nothing to remove thatch from the lawn. 

Score one for the rake.

To mulch or not to mulch...

 One of the great lawn mowing advancements of the recent past is development of the mulching mower. Rather than blowing grass out the mower’s shoot or having to collect clippings in a bag (that needs constant emptying) mulching mowers grind up the cut grass and deposit all of it back on the ground in tiny little pieces. Those little pieces decompose quickly so they don’t create a thatch layer. They also return nutrients to the soil and the growing grass. They can also be very effective at doing the same to leaves, offering the potential of saving you tons of time and effort in the raking arena.

But all is not perfect in the leaf mulching world. 

Paradoxically, the movement to rechargeable mowers has introduced a bit of a conundrum. They reduce fossil fuel emissions and are much better for the environment. The problem is, most that are used in residential settings, are underpowered for effective mulching, especially mulching leaves. If you have a crabapple or two in the half-acre front yard, the rechargeable mower will probably handle the leaves just fine. If, however, you live in my neighborhood where the leaves pile up practically hip deep on a weekly basis, it’s pretty hopeless.

Bottom line . . . mulching leaves with the mower works great, as long as you have a sufficiently powerful mower to do the job.

To bag or compost...

Leaf compost is solid gold to the avid gardener. It makes a great soil amendment or a surface mulch. You can use it on garden paths and even make your own container medium if you are up for a project. But composting leaves takes time . . . and energy . . . and more time . . . and even more energy. And it also takes space. In my one tenth of an acre Highlands garden, with the tremendous volume of leaves that fall on that tenth of an acre, it’s a hopeless cause. I compost what I can. I bag the rest.

In many communities, as in Louisville, bagged leaves (paper leaf bags – no plastic!)  are collected and composted for use around the city for tree planting and other soil improvement uses. Whether composting or bagging is best for you depends on your own particular situation. 

But also, and not to be lost in the annual debates about how to deal with your leaves, the annual raking of the fall leaves . . . the jumping into the piles and then raking them up again . . . is a universal rite of passage that should be experienced by all 10 year olds. If you know a few 10-year-olds who live in palm-treed southern Florida or the desert Southwest, do them a favor and send them a bus ticket to Kentucky!

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on October 10, 2023.

About the Author

Blurb about Paul here.

Group Volunteer Form

To set up a group volunteering opportunity, please complete the form below. We will be in touch soon to help get you scheduled!

*Youth volunteers are age 6-17.

Contact Us

We’d love to hear from you whether it’s regarding your visit, gardening questions, or sharing a horticultural fun fact!

*Required field