Home & Outdoors

You're raking your leaves wrong—here’s how to do it the right way

When the leaves start to fall, don't make these rookie mistakes.

How to rake your leaves the right way Credit: Getty Images / patrickheagney

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What could be simpler than raking leaves? A lot of things, it turns out—especially if you’re dealing with a big yard and mature trees. The almost-endless supply of leaves can be overwhelming. Here how you may be making more work for yourself, and the basic tools and techniques you need to use correctly to take care of your fall lawn safely, quickly, and comfortably.

You’re using the wrong rake

correct rake type
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Not all rakes are meant for picking up leaves.

There’s more than one type of rake out there. What you want for raking leaves is a Goldilocks rake, a rake that’s just the right length for you, and isn’t too heavy or too light.

The flexible tines should spread in a fan, and allow you to sweep leaves gently without scarring the soil or uprooting your grass. The cheap bamboo rakes at the garden center snap tines if you look at them funny, and sturdy metal rakes with inflexible tines are intended for removing lawn thatch, not raking leaves. Shrub rakes with narrow fans are best for spot-clearing around garden beds and shrubs, not whole-lawn raking.

Not sure what size you need? A rake handle should reach the bridge of your nose, and allow you to space out your hands when you hold it. You can buy a telescoping rake with an expanding head that can change handle length and head width.

If you want to be sure you get the best rake for your money, check our our list of the best rakes on the market today.

You’re lifting leaves with your rake

picking up leaves
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Be sure to support your rake as you pick up leaves (or use another tool entirely) to avoid snapping tines.

Repeat after me: A rake is not a shovel. Rakes aren’t designed to withstand the stress of hoisting leaves, particularly wet leaves, with their tines. If you repeatedly lift leaves with your rake to get them into a garbage can or a compost pile, you will break your rake. Unless you enjoy trips to the hardware store, get in the habit of lifting your leaves some other way.

Here are a few options if you can’t use the Force to levitate leaves with your mind like Yoda.

Use a tarp

Put a large tarp or an old sheet on the ground and rake your leaves onto it. Fold the tarp’s corners to the middle, grasp the corners, and carry or drag the leaf-filled tarp wherever you want your leaves to go. You can also use a rolled-up tarp as a funnel to guide leaves into bags.

Use a snow shovel

Snow shovels are designed for lifting and scooping heavy, wet snow, and are far sturdier than rakes. (Plus, you’ll have an early reminder to find it before the first snow falls in a month or two.)

Use claws

There are a variety of plastic leaf scoops, leaf claws, and hand rakes for sale that extend your hands into paws for grabbing and carrying leaves—or you could use two garbage can lids.

You’re not wearing gloves

wearing gloves while raking
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Don't destroy your hands on the first yard work day of the season.

Save yourself some blisters and wear gardening gloves. Don’t worry, we did the dirty work for you to find the best gardening gloves out there right now.

While you’re at it, put on long sleeves, long pants, and closed-toed shoes to keep hidden twigs from scratching you—and consider wearing a dust mask. Shoveling leaves can stir up a lot of materials you may not want to breathe, especially if you have asthma or allergies.

You’re leaving the leaves on your lawn too long

yard full of leaves
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Don't let this happen to you—tend to your leaves throughout the fall to keep them from piling up.

Leaves and lawns don’t mix. While you’re inside watching the game on Sunday afternoon, those pretty golden leaves that fluttered down onto your grass will become a heavy, sodden sheet of grass-killing crud faster than you can find your remote.

So be sure to rake before the next rainstorm turns your leaves into yard cardboard. If you can’t get motivated to rake, you may want to consider using a mulching mower to shred the leaves in-place.

You’re raking against the wind

raking in the wind
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Let the wind work with you as you clear your yard of autumn leaves.

Why not let nature work for you for a change? Rake your leaves in the direction they’re moving anyway. You don’t have to leave them on the far side of the yard. Rake them onto a tarp, them move the leaf-filled tarp to the final destination. The same logic applies to raking leaves downhill when you can.

You’re raking right after rain

wet leaves
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Don't try to rake heavy, wet leaves immediately after a storm.

Raking wet, heavy leaves is a great way to break your rake. Wait until the leaves dry out a little, and some of them might blow into your neighbor’s yard in the meantime.

You’re raking the leaves into one big pile

big pile of leaves
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Fun? Absolutely. That is, until it comes time to actually bag up that huge pile of leaves.

It’s fun to jump in giant piles of leaves — but it’s almost impossible to move them, and making giant piles involves a lot of tedious walking back and forth. Save your back and your legs by raking sections of your yard, then moving the reasonable-sized piles to your compost heap or lawn bags.

Maybe you shouldn’t be raking at all

mulch mower
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Raking's not for everyone. Consider mulching your fallen leaves instead.

Sure you could use a leaf blower to blast all your leaves into oblivion, or at least your neighbor’s yard—but leaves are free compost, with plenty of nutrients to nourish your lawn. The trick is to get the leaves to break down quickly enough so they won’t smother your grass.

Consider letting the leaves stay where they fall and using a mulching mower to cut your leaves into manageable pieces to enrich your soil. You can even use a regular mower if you close the side outlet where a bag would go.

Leaf mulch even seems to smother lawn dandelions. Just remember, mulching mowing works better if you mow regularly through the fall, so you aren’t trying to grind up too many leaves at once.