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Do You Rake ‘Em Or Leave Them?

By Rob Kasper
THE LEAVES FALL and we rake them. Why?

I pondered this autumnal question last weekend as I picked up a rake and took an initial pass at the backyard. What would happen, I wondered, if I let the leaves lie?

The grass would probably die, smothered by the leaves. But in my case, with a rowhouse backyard and our kids grown and mostly gone, grass does not matter much. The neighbors might disapprove. But more than likely only if the leaves took flight, and jumped property lines.

I also wondered whether I could break the leaf-raking habit. Not raking the leaves would be unconventional conduct, something that ran counter to years of backyard ritual. Besides, raking leaves does have a certain breezy appeal. It is what men wearing plaid shirts do on fall afternoons. It gets us out of the house, into the reasonably fresh air and getting some pretty good exercise.

I had just read a list of ergonomic tips on how to rake correctly. The list told me how I should stand with my feet wide apart. How I should place one hand near the top of the rake handle and the other hand three-quarters of the way down the handle. It told me how I should change sides every 10 minutes or so, raking right-handed for a while, then left-handed. I wanted to give these tips a try.

Moreover, the lure of buying a new tool was strong. In addition to the leaf blowers and mulchers, an array of new leaf rakes had caught my eye. There was a $30 number with a pivoting head that supposedly made leaf raking easier on your back. Then there was the $31 Rittenhouse Deluxe Grounds Rake with “music grade spring wire tines” that grab every leaf. This tool promised to give the raker that rare state of “single pass efficiency,” meaning you only have to rake a spot once. I was shooting for “single pass efficiency” in every aspect of my life.

Nonetheless, I was curious about what might happen if I broke tradition, tried something new, let nature take care of the leaves. I do feel sheepish in the spring when I buy bags of humus, which is basically decomposed leaves, and add them to the soil.

So back in my office a few days later, I phoned around looking for someone in authority who could say something positive about fallen leaves. I found one. Marilyn Mause is a wildlife biologist who oversees the Wild Acres Program for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. This program offers advice to Marylanders on how to make their yards more inviting to wildlife. (Its Web address is www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/wildacres.asp).

Mause spoke carefully during our interview. She did not want to be depicted as someone who was railing against raking leaves. She recognized that there are many factors that compel people to rake. Those included preserving a fine-looking lawn, having a patch of grass for the kids to play on, and keeping the neighbors as well as the neighborhood association off your back.

Yet, she said, letting fallen leaves stay on the ground, becoming what Mause called “leaf litter,” could have beneficial effects. Some of them, such as slowing down runoff, are big-picture environmental benefits. Leaf litter, she explained, absorbs rainfall. That cuts down runoff, which leads to soil erosion, which is one of the causes of sedimentation in the Chesapeake Bay.

Other benefits are more apparent, she said. Over time the fallen leaves become a duff layer, organic matter in various stages of decomposition, which enriches the soil, she said. Native plants spring up in it. Ferns and Virginia Bluebells are among the native plants that had sprouted in the leaf litter on a piece of property in Frederick County that Mause has not raked.

Salamanders and shrews are also fond of leaf litter, Mause told me. Moreover, she said, some songbirds use the fallen leaves to make nests in nearby trees. I am not sure where I stand on attracting salamanders and shrews. But I do like the idea of welcoming some warblers.

Yet I can’t stop raking leaves. The task is too ingrained a habit, too strong a seasonal rhythm for me to abandon. But after listening to Mause, I am thinking of exempting a corner of the backyard, over by the holly tree, from my usual leaf-raking routine.

The leaf litter on that patch of ground might slow runoff a bit and attract nesting warblers. Moreover, it gives me an excuse to avoid a nasty task. I never liked raking those holly leaves. Their sharp edges hurt my fingers. – Baltimore Sun