raking leaves

In this 2017 file photo, Clinton Smith takes advantage of the clear weather and a sunny sky to rake some leaves in his yard on North Koester Drive in Effingham.

“Do I need to clean up the leaves on my lawn and in my planting beds? My time is limited, and the extra work is daunting.”

— Jamie Sanchez, Barrington

If you have a lot of trees on your property, you will need to continue mowing once a week or so as the leaves continue falling. A thick layer of leaves that mostly obscures the grass may smother the lawn if left over winter.

A medium to dense layer of leaves can damage areas of the lawn that were seeded earlier this fall and are just getting established. You may need to carefully rake or blow some of the leaves off the new grass if the ground is too soft to push a mower over. If the mower leaves ruts as you are mowing, the area should not be mowed.

I use a mulching mower for my lawn — which has several mature oak trees — during the growing season and throughout the fall. I do not collect any clippings. This saves a lot of time and eliminates the need to dispose of the grass clippings and most of the leaves while returning nutrients back to the lawn.

Mowing once a week in fall allows me to keep up with the falling leaves for most of the leaf drop season. The growth of the lawn has slowed, but the leaf drop is increasing, so it is best to keep up a weekly mowing schedule to avoid having the layer of leaves getting too thick on the lawn and reducing the efficiency of the mulching blades.

Switch the direction of mowing each time you mow. You should be able to easily see the blades of grass after you are finished mowing for the season in order to avoid leaving too thick of a layer of mulched leaves on the lawn. On occasion, I will remove a few leaves from the lawn due to the high volume that drops from the large oak trees.

Raking before mowing, or bagging the leaves as you mow, creates a more manicured appearance. My personal preference is a more natural look with some leaves on the lawn and in the beds. I try to leave most of the perennials in my beds up for the winter and then cut them back in spring while also leaving leaves in the beds to serve as mulch. I do not remove them in spring either. Leaving the leaves in place provides habitat for wildlife and insects and a more natural cycling of nutrients.

I do not add mulch to any established beds in my garden. On occasion, the leaves pile up too deeply in the borders, so I need to remove some to avoid smothering perennials and bulbs. Any excess leaves get piled up in a corner so they can decompose, creating compost for future soil improvement.

For more plant advice, contact the Plant Information Service at the Chicago Botanic Garden at plantinfo@chicagobotanic.org. Tim Johnson is senior director of horticulture at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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