Is There a Right and Wrong Way to Rake Leaves?

Proper Gear, Timing, Method, and Putting the Leaves to Use

Maple leaves that have fallen on a lawn.

David Beaulieu

As a kid stuck with the chore of raking leaves you probably wondered if there was really any reason to do it. After all, the wind eventually sweeps them away. Now that you're grown up, bought a home, and became responsible for your lawn care, you may wonder if there is a right way and a wrong way to rake leaves. This question does have an answer because raking leaves the right way benefits the lawn and garden and saves money.

How You Rake Leaves Makes a Difference

There are several reasons why the way you rake leaves does make a difference:

  • Using the right gear and the right form can help you avoid physical problems associated with raking.
  • Timing the raking to remove leaves off the grass at the right time is critical to having a healthy lawn.
  • Proper raking can remove lawn thatch at the same time.
  • Repurposing the leaves after raking can enhance the soil and save money.

Choose the Right Tools and Gear

Using the right gear will make the task much easier. Wear work gloves to prevent blisters, a brace if you have back trouble, and a mask if you have allergies. Have a tarp handy so that you can rake leaves onto it to move them to a different area for shredding.

Don't think, "A rake is a rake." A bow rake, a tool that has short, heavy, metal tines, is not a leaf rake. It is meant for tasks such as evening out the soil in a garden bed. Leaf rakes have long, flexible tines that fan out from the handle to swoop leaves into a pile. The ends of the tines are bent at a 90-degree angle to gather leaves without damaging the lawn. There are several things to look for when choosing a leaf rake:

  • Choose a length suited to your height.
  • If you find that using an ergonomic snow shovel helps you avoid injury in winter, you may profit from using an ergonomic rake in the fall.
  • Rakes with cushion grips are easier on your hands.
  • A wide head is a great feature if you're looking to set speed records when raking, but sharp tines are more important if you're looking to rake the right way because they allow you to dig in and remove thatch, as well as leaves.​

The Right Way to Rake Leaves

For efficiency, it's best to wait until almost all of the leaves have fallen before raking. That way, you can get all of your raking out of the way in one day. In the meantime, mow regularly with either a mulching mower or a bag attachment to get rid of most of the leaves that fall the earliest. Just don't wait too long, which can be unhealthy for your grass. But do wait until the leaves are dry and you have a wind-free day.

In addition to leaves, pine needles and cones, and fallen branches, there's also lawn thatch to be removed when raking. 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. Proper raking allows you to kill two birds with one stone by removing both leaves and thatch:

  • Rake deeply and vigorously.
  • Take your time raking, so that you don't miss any spots. 

Raking deeply and vigorously can cause you to have fatigue in your hands, arms, shoulders, and back. Because you're bearing down hard on the rake to drive the tines into the thatch layer and dislodge it, you may be using muscles that you don't use much. Be sure to take breaks and switch how you're gripping the rake so that undue pressure isn't focused on one area. Maintain good posture, with your knees bent and back straight. Let your legs do some of the work instead of constantly pulling leaves in with your arms, mix it up by walking backward, dragging the leaves as you walk.

While serious thatch problems cannot be resolved merely by raking, it certainly doesn't hurt to try to stay ahead of thatch by raking deeply, vigorously, and thoroughly when you do rake. Raking the right way has the added benefit of thatch removal. A leaf blower or vacuum is quicker, but they do nothing to alleviate harmful thatch build-up.

What to Do With the Leaves

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you use mulch in the landscape?
  • Do you fertilize your plants organically with compost?
  • Do you buy garden mulch and/or compost from someone else?
  • Do you like saving money?

Don't bag up the leaves and put them on the curbside to have your town remove them. Instead, just drag the leaves you have raked up onto the tarp over to your compost bin or mulch container and use them for mulch and/or compost. Large leaves will break down more quickly if you shred them but eventually, all leaves will break down in a compost pile. You can turn the by-product of your fall leaf-raking efforts into homegrown mulch and/or compost, thereby saving money.

If you have used a lawn mower with a bag attachment to shred the leaves, they can be spread directly into the garden or landscape beds to break down. Give them a quick watering to begin the composting action and to prevent them from blowing away.