That is the question. There are two diverse schools of thought on this topic, but the answer may lie somewhere in the middle.
In one camp, you have the “Don’t leave the leaves” thinkers. The argument is that a thick layer of messy leaves:
- Is unsightly, and makes your home appear disheveled and ungroomed.
- Blocks sunlight from reaching your grass and other low-growing plants.
- Suffocates lawns and plants under a wet, dark umbrella.
- Retains moisture, and then breeds mold and rot by the roots of your plants, as well as by your home’s foundation, siding, and decking.
- Attracts insects and critters closer to your home. Mice, voles, and chipmunks can furrow undetected beneath the leaves, and nest near (and then eventually in) your home.
- They can be a slippery safety hazard on hardscaped surfaces like driveways and porches — especially stairs.
Clearing all leaves away every autumn has been serving homeowners well for many years.
However, the other school of thought, which has been gaining in popularity in more recent years, is to leave the leaves in place. This group believes (and science is often proving) that fallen leaves act as an important component of the natural system by providing much-needed food, shelter, nesting or bedding to a variety of wildlife, all of which work together to contribute to a healthy yard and ecosystem. Many animals—including turtles, chipmunks, butterflies, moths, earthworms, microbes, and many other beneficial beings — need the leaves.
According to National Wildlife Federation Naturalist David Mizejewski, “Fallen leaves offer a double benefit. They form a natural mulch that helps suppress weeds and at the same time fertilizes the soil as it breaks down. Why spend money on mulch and fertilizer when you can make your own?”
Additionally, millions of people dumping their excess leaves into landfills adds up over time. And using mowers, blowers, and other lawn tools omits a good amount of pollutants into the air annually.
So here is what is recommended instead of raking all your leaves away:
- Clear leaves about 6 feet away from the foundation of your home to create a protective dry zone. This also deters critters from cozying up to your home.
- Clear hard surfaces and drains of fallen leaves.
- By hand, gently clear some, but not all, of the leaves away from your shrubs, trees, and garden beds. Pay attention to excess leaves blanketing low-growing plants or retaining wetness by base of your plants. Clear enough away to allow good air flow and sunlight to reach the plants. (If you struggle with voles or mice, be a little more thorough in clearing your garden beds out. Sometimes we need to pick our battles.)
- Pine needles make an excellent mulch for perennials, trees and shrubs. Rake those up and tuck them by the base of your plants (but not right up against their trunks or stems).
- Pile gathered leaves into one central location away from your home where they can rot down naturally and be used by wildlife. In future years, use the composted leaves as an organic mulch or compost in your garden beds.
- For your lawn, use your mower to mulch the leaves up, instead of raking them all away. Simply run your mower over them several times until they are nicely shredded. The chopped up pieces allow sun and air to reach the grass, and decompose more quickly, acting as a free, chemical-free fertilizer. This strengthens your lawn year after year.
Other than that, give your lower back a break, and let Mother Nature take care of the rest.