For the Greenest Yard, Leave the Leaves Behind

A new reason to reconsider raking or blowing leaves this fall

Fall leaves on lawn iStock-516851336

Even if you mastered the mower this summer and maintained a lush, manicured lawn all season, fall comes with a new set of challenges. Blowing or raking leaves throughout the season can leave you feeling less like an accomplished weekend yard warrior and more like Sisyphus with his boulder.

Salvation may come from the the National Wildlife Federation, which encourages homeowners to skip raking or blowing leaves entirely and suggests that they let them be. The reason? “A leaf layer several inches deep is actually a natural thing in any area where trees naturally grow,” according to the organization. It also points out that many animal species—including turtles, earthworms, chipmunks, and insects—rely on leaf layers as a micro-ecosystem.

More on Leaf Blowers

That's welcome advice for anyone looking to get out of a little weekend yardwork, but don't take it to an extreme. "If you've got a yard covered in a 6-inch-thick leaf layer, you're going to want to mulch them or move them, or else you could kill off your grass," says Dave Trezza, who heads CR's test program for leaf blowers.

If you still think that a leaf-covered lawn looks cluttered or messy, or you live in a community that requires you to keep a clear lawn, here are two alternatives.

Mow Leaves in Place

The top-performing lawn mowers and tractors from our tests make quick work of tall grass, and most are equally well-suited to tackle fallen leaves. Leaving off the bagging attachment will allow your mower to turn dried leaves into finer sweepings that can be spread evenly across the lawn, making them far less visible. While it won’t leave the leaf layer intact, it’s still an environmentally friendly alternative to blowing and bagging because the leaf sweepings will break down easily and nourish the soil, promoting healthy grass growth next year.

Use Leaves to Form a New Ecosystem

The National Wildlife Federation points out that the leaf layer should be several inches deep to resemble the naturally occurring habitat found in forests. But even if you opt to leave fallen leaves in place, that depth will be tough to achieve if your yard is limited to a cluster of ornamental trees.

A leaf blower helps you quickly corral fallen leaves. Then you can pile them high in garden beds or at the perimeter of your yard, where they’re out of sight and will reach a depth sufficient to sustain life for small animals and insects. Check out our leaf blower buying guide for top picks at performing that task.

If you choose to leave fallen leaves on your lawn, remember that there are some places they don’t belong. They can clog storm drains and should be regularly cleared from decks, driveways, patios, and pathways, where they can be slippery. They can also harbor moisture, which in the case of decks can cause premature rotting and staining.

For clearing them away from these spots, it’s tough to beat a conventional leaf blower, which makes quick work of fallen foliage and leaves you with plenty of environmentally friendly ways to dispose of the leaves. And if you’re still feeling some residual guilt about your impact on the planet, you can always take a more ambitious measure to offset the damage. A pile of brush can provide habitat to small critters, or, of course, you could always plant a tree.

Paul Hope

As a classically trained chef and an enthusiastic DIYer, I've always valued having the best tool for a job—whether the task at hand is dicing onions for mirepoix or hanging drywall. When I'm not writing about home products, I can be found putting them to the test, often with help from my two young children, in the 1860s townhouse I'm restoring in my free time.