Are Fall Leaves Good for the Lawn? Here’s What You Need to Know

Raking leaves is backbreaking work, and leaf blowers are loud and ineffective. With national conservancy groups advising people to ditch raking, you’re probably hoping that you can ditch the rake for good. But are fall leaves good for your lawn?

Fall leaves are good for the lawn, but only when mulched or in small quantities. If fall leaves cover over 20% of the lawn, then the leaves will smother the grass in the spring, encourage snow mold, and encourage critter damage. To get the nutritional benefits of fall leaves for your lawn, mulch them with your lawn mower.

Are Fall Leaves Good For The Lawn?

Fall leaves are both good and bad for your lawn.

They’re good for your lawn because fall leaves are a fantastic nutritional source for plants. The average NPK value is 1-0.2-0.5. While the NPK doesn’t seem like much compared to synthetic fertilizers, many turfgrass species don’t need as high a concentration of NPK as we think, especially when we’re returning nutrients to the soil instead of hauling them away. Fall leaves also contain micronutrients that aren’t commonly found in synthetic fertilizer, resulting in healthier grass.

But when fall leaves cover your lawn (more than 20% coverage), they hurt grass. Too many fall leaves:

  • Smother grass in the spring by blocking out sunlight. Grass is especially vulnerable in the early days of spring, when they’re low on reserves from surviving the winter. They need sunlight to produce sugars again.
  • Encourage snow mold. Snow mold is a cold-weather fungus that causes gray-colored circles on lawns. While it’s not toxic, snow mold is an allergen. Once infected, your grass is unlikely to recover. You’d have to resow the affected area.
  • Encourage more critter damage over winter. Leaves provide cover for little critters like mice and voles. They eat grass and roots, and tunnel under lawns, disrupting roots and killing patches of grass.

What To Do Instead With Fall Leaves

Instead of wasting time and money raking fall leaves for the dump, use a combination of these three options:

1. Rake leaves into garden beds.

Instead of bagging leaves for yard waste, rake them into your garden beds. A layer of leaves protects perennials, earthworms, and beneficial microbes in the soil from the cold, just like in nature. Unmulched leaves will remain until spring as they slowly break down. This is a great way to keep bare soil covered and weed-free during the early weeks of spring when the soil is still unworkable.

A layer of 2 to 3 inches should suffice for bare garden beds, while you could go up to 4 to 6 inches to protect overwintering plants.

Just don’t pile up leaves around tree trunks. While it seems like a natural place to put leaves (since they fall from trees), debris right up against trunks can cause a lot of damage. Instead, leave a couple inches of space between the trunk and mulch in your mulch layer.

2. Rake leaves for compost.

Fall leaves are an excellent source of nutrients for plants, and they make a great carbon (browns) source for your compost bin.

If your lawnmower has a bag attachment, you can mulch the leaves before dumping them into the compost. That’s a lot easier on the body than raking, and a lot more useful than a leaf blower.

If you have more leaves than your compost can take, then make a compost pile or bag containing only leaves for leaf mold. Leaf mold makes a really nice mulch, or you can work into the soil or in a potting mix for additional organic matter. Because it lacks nitrogen, it takes longer to decompose than regular compost.

You can also set aside the extra to add to your compost pile later on.

Read our related post “Fall Composting: How to Make the Most of Autumn Leaves” here.

3. Mulch the leaves with your lawn mower.

Fallen leaves are actually good for your grass, like they are for other plants. The problem is that they’re too big. So just run your lawnmower (without the bag attachment) over them a few times until they’re small enough to fall between grass blades. The smaller the pieces, the faster they’ll break down.

However, you can only mulch so many leaves before the mulch builds up too high and causes thatch problems. If you’ve got thick tree cover, you’ll need to combine mulching with redistributing.

If you only have a smattering of leaves on your lawn (under 20% coverage), then you can leave them in place without harm.

Is It Illegal To Not Rake Your Leaves?

While there doesn’t seem to be any laws against not raking your leaves (but double check with your municipality), you should keep a few other considerations in mind.

Keep your sidewalks and stairways clear of leaves, as wet leaves are slippery and can cause an accident. You may even be held legally liable for it. Even if there is no bylaw, though, it’s just a decent thing to do.

Blowing or raking leaves into gutters and streets is usually illegal. Leaves on streets and gutters also provide driving hazards, and block off parking access. They will block storm drains, which can cause huge flooding damage if you get a big downpour. If the leaves enter the storm drain, then they’ll enter local waterways where they rob oxygen from the water as they decompose.

Likewise, you shouldn’t dispose of fall leaves in waterways. There may not be local laws against it, but it is better for the environment as too many leaves decomposing cause anaerobic conditions.

And don’t blow or rake leaves onto other people’s property, even if the leaves blew in from their property. This may be against local bylaws. Take advantage of the leaves instead.

Final Thoughts

Fall leaves are great for your lawn, so long as they’re not covering more than 10% or 20% of your lawn. Instead of bagging them for municipal compost or the garbage dump, take advantage by mulching them with your mower for the lawn, covering your garden beds with them, and/or starting a compost bin.

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