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To rake or not to rake? The case for letting leaves lie


Many parks and lawns are currently a carpet of gorgeous fallen leaves. Why not just let them be instead of rake, rake, rake or that blare of gas-powered leaf blowers? Mercy. There is a leave-the-leaves movement that says let those leaves lie. But should you really? We will ask Jessica Damiano. She's a master gardener who writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter. Thanks very much for being with us.

JESSICA DAMIANO: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What is the case for just letting leaves be?

DAMIANO: Well, there's a movement that's been gaining steam for the past few years, and it's called Leave the Leaves. And the idea is to avoid sending your bagged-up leaves to the landfill, which most people do - right? - not to put this natural resource that could decompose naturally into a plastic bag...

SIMON: Yeah.

DAMIANO: ...And into a landfill.

SIMON: Yeah.

DAMIANO: But if you leave them on your plants - on your soil - they will break down just like they do on the forest floor, right? No one's raking in the forest. The leaves fall, and they...

SIMON: Yeah.

DAMIANO: ...Stay where they land. And they decompose into this rich humus that, you know, more plants grow out of, and it fertilizes them. We throw out the leaves, and then we buy fertilizer, which just makes no sense. And it's a waste of money.

SIMON: You're utterly convincing me so far. But what's the downside?

DAMIANO: Well, there really isn't a downside unless people read a headline, Leave the Leaves, or they see the movement on social media and they don't look into it any further, which is what a lot of people, unfortunately, are doing, as far as I can see. So when, you know, a large tree drops leaves on their lawn, they might be tempted just to leave them there. We don't have to rake. But if you have a lawn, and it's covered with leaves, it could really endanger the health of your lawn. So if you're in an area in the north, like I am, where you're going to get snow over winter...

SIMON: You're in Long Island, we should explain.

DAMIANO: I'm on Long Island in New York, yes. And so we're bound to get snow. And what would happen is the snow would, you know, hold the leaves into moisture right onto the lawn surface. And that encourages the growth of mold and mildew and fungal diseases. So I would not leave a thick mat of leaves on your grass. If you have a scattering, that's fine. They'll break up. Generally, if you can see quite a bit more lawn than leaves on your lawn, then it's fine. But if you're seeing more leaves than grass, I would move some away or move most of them away. And push them into your garden beds, where they'll insulate the plant roots, break down into this rich soil conditioner and be good for the plants and the hibernating insects. And that's really important. That's something that, you know, a lot of people don't consider or think about when they're removing leaves from their lawn or from their garden beds or their properties - and that's that insects, you know, lay eggs in the leaves. They hibernate in the leaves. And we need those insects and pollinators, you know...

SIMON: Yeah.

DAMIANO: ...Come spring for our plants.

SIMON: Yeah. Yeah. May - this is a very personal question, I apologize. What do you do with your leaves?

DAMIANO: I push - (laughter) that is very, very personal. I don't know you like that, Scott.

SIMON: Yeah. No, I felt bad.

DAMIANO: (Laughter).

SIMON: Believe you me, I don't - you know, I don't ask it of everybody.

DAMIANO: I push them into my garden beds, over my, you know, perennial roots, and that's free mulch for me. So then I don't have to mulch.

SIMON: Yeah.

DAMIANO: I push them there, and I leave them there. And then by spring, they're, you know, quite, you know, on their way to decomposing. They're partially decomposed. By the end of summer, I don't even know that they were there...


DAMIANO: ...You know? If you have especially large leaves or thick leaves, like oak leaves, then it's not a good idea because they won't decompose, and they will block sunlight and moisture - water - from reaching the soil. There's a magnolia that has leaves that are 2 1/2, 3 feet long - you know, the - common sense has to prevail. That's not going to be good for your plants or the lawn.

SIMON: I have to confess to you - I have lived in apartments all my life, and I would understand a discussion about the trade economy of Luxembourg more than what you've just said just because I have never raked. I've never used a leaf blower. I've never had that responsibility in my life. What am I missing?

DAMIANO: Well, nothing if you know about Luxembourg.


SIMON: Jessica Damiano, who writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter - also for the Associated Press. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAMIANO: Thanks so much for inviting me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.