To rake or not to rake – that has been the eternal question for homeowners every fall. Conventional thinking has always leaned toward picking up leaves; however, environmentally-minded folks make a good point when they claim that leaf litter is a natural compost and you should just leave leaves where they fall.

Did you know?

Both sides are right. The trick is, we need to reframe our fall clean-up thinking to reflect what it is we’re really doing — we’re closing down our gardens and tucking them in for the winter. The goal is to stage your garden to help it transition into dormancy in the most supportive way so it can withstand whatever forces of winter are thrown at it.

When you begin thinking of fall cleanup more like the tuck-in service you might get at a four-star hotel, you’ll begin treating your garden a little more gently. In a way, your actions will be more like pampering it and tucking it in for the long winter night. This reorientation will affect your decisions about removing dead leaf litter or just leaving it where it lays – you’ll discover it’s not a simple question with a yes or no answer.

Here’s why.

All gardens and the plants within them are different. Their composition and location greatly affect how you treat them and prepare them for winter. Those on the sunny, more protected south side of your home require different treatment – tuck-in service, if you will – than those on the more exposed north side. As a result, you and your gardens may be better off removing leaves from one while leaving them for protection and nourishment in another. So the questions become “what kind of leaves do I have?” and “what type of garden?”

Leaves are, in fact, a clever tool devised by Mother Nature to perform a variety of functions. They help plants get and store energy, moderate temperature, and provide food for insects and animals. But they also act as a carrier for disease and harbor pests. For example, powdery mildew likes peonies, lilacs, and phlox to name a few hosts. Not only do you need to pick up their leaves, but you also need to dispose of them – and NOT in your compost, where the leaves will break down and spread the pathogen.

Remember that nothing exists in isolation in nature. Landscapes and the plants within them are inextricably bound together, interacting both visibly and invisibly. What is the nature of the landscape or garden where the leaves are falling? Are there acidic oak leaves falling onto ericaceous plants such as azaleas that are perfectly happy in acidic soil? Or does the garden in this area face south with a collection of plants that prefer a sweet (more alkaline) soil?

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