Leaves: Bag, Burn, Bury or ?

The spectacular beauty of autumn’s leaf displays are far too fleeting for the amount of work they create once they fall. What to do with them all is a question we face each year, unless you are lucky enough to live in a tropical climate, of course. For those of us who don’t, here are some thoughts about the options.


Pros: Bagging offers a neat and tidy option to leaf management. There are no ugly piles, and leaves don’t blow around onto neighbor’s yard. It gets leaves off the grass, which can die if the leaves are left on too long. There is less of a fire hazard, and fewer wet leaves which can contribute to mold in the air. And many lawn and leaf bags are now biodegradable and will break down along with the leaves.

Cons: Bagging can be a time-consuming, back-breaking task. If your area doesn’t have a community composting area, then the leaves end up contributing to landfills. If you don’t use biodegradable bags, then the leaves become environmentally unfriendly. It is also a waste of good useable mulch and potential no-cost nutrients the leaves could provide.

Tips: Ideally, when bagging leaves, mowing with a mulching blade reduces bulk. Mowers with bag attachments make the job easier than raking, too. Leaf blowers set on reverse are another helpful tool to help with the bagging process.

Raking leaves into piles by hand is the old fashioned way, and we always make the most of it by creating heaps as tall as we can to jump into, and burying each other in the piles. The best rake to buy is one with wave-shaped teeth that leaves don’t get stuck in as much. Some tips for making it easy:

Place plastic sheeting on the lawn and rake your piles onto it, then use the plastic to pour the leaves into a bag.

Trash funnels hold your garbage bag open for you and can be used like a funnel, or laid on their side and help direct the raked leaves into the bag straight from the ground.

Use a leaf scoop that hooks onto your hands and helps you lift large amounts of leaves in a single scoop. These are often a hit with the kids.


Pros: Burning can be considered a natural form of disposal because in nature, lighting strikes do this without a match. It is an efficient, reasonably easy and fast way to eliminate leaf litter and accompanying mold. It eliminates expenses associated with leaf removal.

Cons: It contributes to air pollution by adding chemicals such as hydrocarbons or carbon monoxide, and can be a fire and health hazard for those with asthma or lung problems. Burning leaves means watching perfectly good natural nutrients go up in smoke. It is not legal in some cities, so be sure to check your local ordinances before burning.

Tips: If burning is the option you choose, here are some tips to do it safely:

Keep your piles small and manageable, adding leaves as the pile burns down.

Place your burn pile in an open area, free from overhanging trees or brush, and far from anything that flying sparks could ignite. Using a fire pit is a great option.

Make sure a water source is handy and easily accessible. Consider notifying your fire department of your plans.

Watch the weather and don’t plan to burn when the wind is blowing. If the weather is expected to change, wind usually accompanies those changes. Avoid gusty days and dry weather as well.


(By burying leaves, I mean incorporating them back into the soil either through composting or directly integrating them in the ground.)

Pros: Leaves can enrich any garden soil after they have decomposed over the winter. You can simply work them back into the dirt of your garden, or create or add them to your compost pile. Rather than purchasing amendments, use the leaves instead. Burying the leaves in your garden this fall or composting them means by spring, you’ll have rich, loamy soil for planting, and can save you money, too.

Cons: Whether you work the leaves into the garden directly or go the composting route, this is a labor-intensive option.

Tips: Shredding or mulching the leaves first makes it easier to mix them into the soil, and makes them decompose faster. It also prevents matting. Make sure the leaves are dry, then spread a 3” layer over your garden area. For best results, work the leaves into the soil with a tiller, spade or garden fork to bury the leaves 6” to 8” deep now in the fall and by spring, the soil will be richer and ready for planting.

If you compost, you’ll need to research the mixture required (50-50 green and brown matter helps speed decomposition), depths and dimensions as well as timing for turning. Be sure not to put house pet waste, meat or fat in the compost.

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By far the best option is to shred or mulch the leaves with the mulching blade on your lawn mower and leave them to fertilize the lawn.

Pros: Fall is the best time to fertilize and ants and earthworms help incorporate the leaves into the soil and fertilize the grass. That decaying matter feeds the beneficial microorganisms that keep soil healthy. If you collect some of the mulched leaves in the mower collection bag, you can also use them as mulch around the garden and landscape because of the  many benefits: suppressing weeds, conserving moisture and maintaining soil temperature. Plus, mower mulching is a lot easier than raking!

Cons: If you use a gas-powered mower, the fumes contribute to air and ozone pollution. Consider a hand-powered mower.

Tips: Mow when leaves are not wet if possible. If you leave the mower bag off, the leaves will fall right back onto the ground with minimal work.

Mulch into 1” bits and mow over them until a half inch of grass peeks out through leaf clippings.

The idea is to mow dry leaves at same height as grass mowing, with a sharp blade, and go over it couple times so that no large leaves are remaining to kill grass.

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