Is There a Right and Wrong Way to Rake Leaves?

Proper Way Entails Correct Timing, Method, Use of By-Product

Image showing maple leaves that have fallen on a lawn.
The fallen maple leaves on this lawn looked great when they were still on their trees but must now be removed. David Beaulieu

If you have ever wondered if there is a right way and wrong way to rake leaves, you are hardly alone. Many children stuck with the chore of raking leaves off the grass in autumn subscribe ardently to the belief that the wind would do just as good a job. When those kids grow up, buy a home, and become responsible for their own lawn care, they ponder the question all over again, albeit in a more sophisticated way.


Is There a Right Way and Wrong Way to Rake Leaves?

If you want to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of your fall raking, then the answer is a resounding "Yes." In fact, because this issue is more complex than you might think, there are actually three distinct reasons as to why the exact way in which you do your raking does make a difference:

  1. Because you can remove lawn thatch at the same time by using the proper method.
  2. Because raking leaves off the grass at the right time is critical to doing the job correctly.
  3. Because, if you are not putting the fallen leaves that you rake to good use, you may be wasting money.

Let's look at all three of these reasons in greater detail now.

There is more to smart fall raking than just removing leaves, pine needles, pine cones, fallen branches, and whatever other refuse may be littering your lawn. There is also lawn thatch to be removed. Thatch is the layer of dead turfgrass tissue between the green vegetation and the soil surface that must be removed, or "dethatched," to maintain lawn health.

Consequently, there is, in fact, a right way and wrong way to rake your lawn in the fall. It all begins with an understanding of the proper method (that is, the mechanics of using a leaf rake):

  1. The right method to rake leaves can be summed up as follows: Rake deeply enough, vigorously enough, and thoroughly enough (that is, do not miss any spots) to remove thatch as well as fallen leaves, etc.
  1. The wrong method to rake is to simply skim the fallen leaves off the surface (as if you were sweeping a floor), leaving thatch behind.

Raking leaves using the proper method can cause you fatigue in your hands, arms, shoulders, and back. Because you are bearing down hard on the rake to drive the tines into the thatch layer and dislodge it, you may be using muscles that you are not in the habit of using. Be sure to take breaks rather than trying to rake a large yard all at once.

While serious thatch problems cannot be resolved merely by raking, it certainly does not hurt to try to stay ahead of thatch by raking deeply, vigorously, and thoroughly when you do rake. Essentially, by using the correct method to rake, you are killing two birds with one stone, removing thatch and fallen leaves at the same time.

Note that the added benefit of thatch removal from raking (properly) is a good argument for choosing to remove leaves using a leaf rake rather than a leaf blower or vacuum. Yes, the latter will help you get rid of the fallen leaves, but it will do nothing to alleviate harmful thatch build-up. 

But raking leaves in the right way goes beyond method. It is also critical to do the job at the right time (as opposed to simply whenever you get around to it).

Learn how long you can wait to remove leaves from your lawn here.

The third aspect of raking leaves off the lawn in the right way deals with the issue of what to do with the leaves after you have raked them. This tip is geared to those landscaping on a budget, because it is all about possibly saving you money in your landscape maintenance. If you are not interested in saving money, feel free to skip acquainting yourself with this reason to rake properly.

First ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you use mulch in the landscape?
  2. Do you fertilize your landscape plants organically with compost?
  3. Do you buy mulch and/or compost from someone else?

If you use these products and buy them from someone else, then you should not be bagging up the leaves that you rake and putting them on the curbside to have your town remove them and bring them to a landfill.

Instead, you should be using those leaves for mulch and/or for compost. Please consult Raking Leaves for Compost and Mulch to learn more. If you are using your fall leaves for mulch, you can read the answers to common mulching questions in the Mulching FAQ. For a full article on composting, please consult How to Make ​Compost. You can turn the by-product of your fall leaf-raking efforts into homegrown mulch and/or compost, thereby saving money.