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Why raking your yard is a terrible idea

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 11, 2015

When I was growing up on my father's gentleman's farm, we spent an inordinate amount of time raking leaves. We had hundreds of trees and tons and tons of leaves. Dad believed every single one of them had to be retrieved.

So, every fall, Dad hooked the trailer to the red cub tractor and constructed a wire cage on it so that my brothers and I (and any of the kids in the neighborhood we could entice) could collect all the leaves on the property. It took three or four weekends of really hard work with all those dead leaves being deposited into the biggest compost pile I have still ever seen. The inducement for the neighbor kids to help was the opportunity to play in the biggest pile of leaves I have ever seen as well.

My father hated the sound of leaf blowers, not that they were readily available to homeowners back in the day. So we each had a rake and there were lots of extras for the other kids. I dare say that every reader of this column who owns a yard, even a postage stamp-sized one, has at least one similar rake made of green plastic, perhaps metal if it is old, with long, sweeping tines. They are probably on sale right now all over town.

I remember one year my father bought himself an aluminum jobbie with a 5-foot-wide head. It is the kind of rake you might see in a golf course sand pit, but with it he could pull in a huge amount of leaves. I bought one for myself when I saw it at a hardware store here in Anchorage. I was pretty proud to be able to wield it, let me tell you, just like my dad did.

Anyhow, my point is that raking all the leaves off the lawns and out of the garden beds was what you did back then. A lawn with leaves on it going through the winter was simply unthinkable, verboten, not done. No. No. What do you want to do, smother the lawn?

So raking leaves was a practice that I brought up here with me. However, I won't take responsibility for passing it on to my readers: Raking leaves off the yard was simply what everyone did every fall all across suburban America. Somehow, the practice became the standard. You brought the idea up here yourselves.

I mention this because the leaves are starting to turn and beginning to drop. Over the next few weeks they will continue do so and you may be tempted -- no, you are actually programmed to rake them all up.

Listen up, yardeners. I am trying to save you a lot of work and a lot of time: Do not rake leaves off anything but your driveway, decks and walks. It is not a good idea. In fact, raking the yard clean is a terrible idea.

Here is the deal: In the modern world of yardening the rule is now, "what falls from a tree should remain under the tree." Leaves are supposed to fall and decay. This is organic matter, a tremendous amount of it, and when the microbes get to it, they release all manner of nutrients into the soil and feed your plants. It is fine to collect some leaves for the compost pile, but that is all. Most of them should simply be allowed to decay in place with or without help -- help being defined as mowing them into smaller pieces so that the microbes can break them down faster.

In fact, I can tell you from several years of personal experience, you don't really even need to mulch them up with your mower. This winter they will decay, and next spring, what are left will be easily mulched up during the first spring mowing. This is all the fertilizer your lawn will ever need, too, so you are saving yourself time and money in that department as well.

Life is full of changes. This is a good one. Don't rake. Sorry, Dad; you were wrong.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Harvest Day Festival: A new event at the Alaska Botanical Garden. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12. All manner of family fun, lectures, games, food, markets. A must-attend.

Clean up: Pick up things before they are buried under the leaves.

Hoses: Consider disconnecting and draining yours. It is time and our watering days are over.

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