Relax, You Don’t Have to Rake Those Leaves!

leaves and rake

Imagine a world in which fall is a time for enjoying the beauty of the season before the onset of winter, without the burden of hours of raking, leaf blowing, and garden cleanup. Just think about it: If you don’t have to face the drudgery (and futility) of trying to make the outdoors as “neat” as the indoors, what else could you be doing on a gorgeous fall Saturday? How about walking in the woods? Or going on a country drive to admire the fall foliage? Or picking apples with your family? Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Gnome in the woods - fall leaves - blog

Allow me to suggest that this utopian world is already here, if we can just change our way of looking at things. And I know some of you are already saying, “But the neighbors will disapprove!” And I get it, I really do. It’s tough to resist a lifetime of cultural conditioning. But please keep reading.

Back in the day, it was considered important to “clean up” your garden each fall, but now we know better. I’m not suggesting that we don’t do any garden cleanup, just that we reduce what we do.  There’s a growing movement to begin looking at gardens as part of the ecosystem rather than just something pretty for humans to look at. Our species has a tendency to try to bend the natural world to our will, rather than considering ourselves part of it and trying to work with nature rather than against it. This encouraging new perspective impacts our choice of plants as well as how we care for the overall ecosystem in our yards.

Now we understand that if we remove all the fallen leaves from the ground, we’re killing innumerable caterpillars who overwinter in those leaves. By destroying caterpillars, we’re killing many of the butterflies and moths who would have graced the garden next summer. Some butterflies migrate south, that’s true. But so many of them overwinter in our yards, whether as adults or in pupal or larval forms tucked into crevices or leaves.

Hollow stems of boneset left for winter
Hollow stem of boneset, ready for overwintering insects

The way we tend our gardens in the fall has a huge impact on the amount and diversity of wildlife it can support there in the next spring and summer. Many of our native bees spend the winter tucked into hollow plant stems, like those of our native monarda (aka bee balm). That’s why it’s important to leave some of those stems standing over the winter. In my garden, for instance, I’ve cut my 5-foot tall monarda down to 3-foot stems, so any insect that wants to use those hollow stems will have easy access.

Hollow stems of monarda left for winter (2)
Monarda stems cut at about 3-feet tall, so insects can overwinter in them

And let’s talk about birds….

Sure, seed feeders help get birds through the scarcity of winter. But did you know that seeds only comprise a small percentage of a bird’s diet? They get most of their nutrition from spiders and caterpillars or other insects, many of which spend the winter tucked into fallen leaves or hollow plant stems. Well, they do unless you cut all those stems down and blow all the leaves away.

Brown creeper w sig

Can you start to see how restraining your fall cleanup impulses can result in having more birds in your yard? I sure hope so, because that’s the whole reason I’m writing this.

What I’ve been doing the past couple of years since I learned about this is to gently rake most of my leaves into the garden beds around the yard. Not only does this preserve the insects who are tucked into them, but it helps my plants survive the winter and it enriches the soil as the leaves break down. Now I admit, some of the leaves get mulched up by my lawn mower as I do that final mowing of the year in late October, but other than that, I restrain myself from removing all the leaves that drop after that.

Many birds come to the yard in winter to flip leaves over to find food, or to harvest the seeds from the native plants I’ve left standing for them. Goldfinches are pros at this and I’ll often see a dozen or more of them bouncing around on brown stems in the garden.

And if you like to take photos, that’s one more great reason not to cut down your flower stems in the fall. You can get some lovely images of frost and snow on spent flower heads.

Frost on flower head - reduced size - blog

Try it this year and see if you can’t get used to it. It’s just a matter of thinking about what we want our priorities to be, isn’t it? And if anyone comments on your yard, why not take that golden opportunity to tell them why you chose not to rake those leaves? You never know who you might influence with your actions. (#EachOneTeachOne)  Feel free to copy the image below and use it on social media with a link to this post. And thanks for reading!


  1. I try to educate my family about raking leaves and “cleaning off” the garden, but it’s to no avail. I suppose it’s so ingrained in people – especially city or town folks, to keep a tidy yard. Mostly, I began letting go of that way of thinking because when we had ten acres to care for and not just two lots (in town) I had to give it up. Then came the years where weeds just took over… and I saw the miracle of those weed seeds that nourished all wildlife over the winter months.

    I think the time for important conversations about changing our habits need to start with young children. This post was so interesting and packed with information. I always learn something here, Kim. Thanks!


    • Lori, I agree about the importance of teaching children about this early. That’s so important! And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the seemingly fruitless efforts to convince adults to change their long-standing gardening habits and see things differently. It can be so terribly frustrating. But I’m trying to remind myself of the research from the advertising field that showed that most people have to see your message many times before it begins to impact their thinking enough for them to take action. That motivates me to keep repeating these messages, even when it seems change isn’t happening. Thanks for reading, my friend! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Some people who look at our garden would think it needs a bit of ‘tidying’, but we know things benefit from the layer of leaves that decompose and not only nourish but protect the plants from summer’s intense heat. There is only one exception…we have large centipedes that live in leaf litter and they have a very nasty sting and can get into the house easily. So we keep the leaves cleared three or so feet from the house. And you are so right about getting some nice photos by not removing everything. Thanks Kim!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I live in the country so I do not worry about the neighbors and I do not rake the leaves. A perfectly neat world is not necessary. Thanks for reminding all of us to relax and enjoy life.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Kim-

    Fall seems very abstract here in Pompano Beach, Fl- the only things falling are palm fronds and coconuts in the 91 degree temperatures. I promise not to rake any leaves!!



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