No doubt you’ve seen people raking and otherwise removing leaves already this fall, but in my opinion it’s a waste of time. While I don’t stare at the trees waiting for the absolute last leaf to fall, I am only going to rake once – and the right time begins about now. Any earlier and more leaves will fall to mess up the lawn and any later you risk snow or ice trapping leaves on your lawn until spring.

Removing leaves is the most onerous job in gardening. I know people who love weeding, mowing, tilling, planting, harvesting and deadheading. I have never heard people say they enjoy raking or – even worse – running ear-splitting leaf vacuums and blowers.

You have to deal with those leaves, but maybe you don’t need to spend as much time with them as you have in the past.

You do have to get the leaves off your lawn – if you have a lawn. If you leave your leaves (the homonyms have different sources, according to an online etymological dictionary) on the lawn, they will smother the grass and kill it.

Elsewhere in your yard, you can let the leaves stay where they fall. In natural forests, where trees are healthiest, no one rakes. The leaves slowly decompose where they fall, creating a soft forest floor of humus, which over time provides food to the trees that dropped them in the wonderful self-sustaining cycle of nature.

In the less wild home garden of small trees and shrubs, rotting leaves could provide the same benefit of putting organic matter in the garden. They serve as an organic mulch, preventing weeds and retaining moisture. Some people, however, think the leaves look messy in the domesticated areas of yards.


Raking provides more benefits than just removing leaves. It also removes dead thatch, which if left in place will form a mat and prevent water and nutrients from reaching the roots of the grass.

Using a leaf blower does nothing to remove thatch. In addition, the blowers are the noisiest machines homeowners use and, let’s face it, you know your neighbors hate hearing them. So, to keep your neighborhood neighborly, rake don’t blow. It may give you blisters on your hands and pain in your back, but it is quiet.

Now, what to do with the raked leaves? Most people let their local municipality take care of them. In Portland and neighboring municipalities with trash pickup, homeowners are asked to put leaves in compostable paper bags, which the public works department picks up and takes to a central facility, where they are composted.

Steve Earley, interim operations manager for the Portland Public Works Department, said it is impossible to figure out how much the city spends on picking up leaves. The budget allots $11,250 for overtime payments for that task, but that figure doesn’t include extra costs such as fuel and vehicle maintenance. And leaves that people illegally rake to the curbs to be gathered by street sweepers are collected on straight time, so it’s impossible to calculate the impact on the budget for that. In Westbrook, the leaf-collection figure in the budget is $20,000, said Eric Dudley, director of Engineering and Public Services. You can see that your city or town is spending your money to collect your leaves.

Sustainable gardeners don’t let the city get involved. They use their leaves on their own gardens. Leaves are so valuable that some people actually import them.

Dean Cole, a jeweler and iris hybridizer who lives in Gorham, has commercial leaf-removal companies dump leaves near his iris beds so he can chop them up and put them down as mulch between his rows of irises.


In Cape Elizabeth, where people who don’t hire leaf-removal companies must take their own leaves to the town recycling center, I have seen people – including Gary Wnek, a daylily hybridizer – loading leaves into pickup trucks and SUVs to bring home.

But most people will want to deal only with leaves that fall on their own lawn. You can process them in several different ways. If you don’t have many and you have a good mulching mower, chop up the leaves by mowing through them several times and leave them on the lawn, where they will compost by spring.

You also can create a compost bin and fill it with leaves. You won’t be able to create true compost because you want have enough green matter like grass clippings to create the proper mix for compost. But you can create leaf mold. The leaf mold should be ready for you in the spring, when you can use it as mulch in your gardens rather than buying someone else’s chopped up tree bark.

What I am going to do this year is to modify Cole’s method. I’ll rake the leaves, haul them into the vegetable garden and mow them until they are in tiny pieces that will easily decompose.

I’d done a bit of that before, dumping in the leaves I mowed early in the fall into the garden. They decomposed well. The whole leaves I put into the garden didn’t decompose enough and often blew back onto the lawn.

So this year, after I dump the leaves into the garden, I am going to mow over them several times to chop them up. I use an electric mower, which isn’t as noisy or polluting as gasoline mowers, so I won’t be bothering my neighbors much.

The soil test we had done on our garden last fall said we could use more organic matter, so this is how we will get it.

I’m not saying I will enjoy dealing with these leaves, but I am looking forward to seeing how this all works out.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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