A person raking fall leaves
(Image credit: Maksym Belchenko)

There are several slightly unpleasant chores related to yard maintenance, like mowing and weeding. But at the season’s end, raking the leaves can be tedious, back breaking and a seemingly thankless gesture. The job can be made a bit easier with some tips on how to rake autumn leaves with less strain, proper tools, and a better plan.

Back-Saving Tips for Raking the Yard

Few gardeners look forward to raking leaves. It twists the back, fatigues the shoulders, and blisters the hands. Depending on the number of trees, it can also be quite time consuming. But raking the leaves is important to preserving the lawn and it prevents plants from becoming buried. There are a few things that can reduce the pain of this necessary chore.

Wear the Right Clothes

The first order of business is to be comfortable. Raking occurs in fall when we may experience wet weather. Select clothing that’s loose and breathable, but will keep you dry. Long sleeves and pants will keep sharp objects from poking your skin. Waterproof shoes may also be necessary, but sturdy, non-slip soles of any sort should be sufficient. Thick socks will keep feet warm and also prevent blisters. If the weather's sunny, add a hat to keep the sun’s rays off your face. Gloves are crucial. Gloves can protect your hands from getting blisters and make the rake more comfortable to grip.

Stretch First

Young or old, stretching before any physical activity is a great idea. Loosen the shoulders, back, and legs with simple stretches and muscle warming moves. You don’t have to be able to touch your toes. Just twist and bend where you can with gentle, slow motion.

Use Proper Technique

Technique is everything. There is a best way and a wrong way to do most things, and raking the leaves is no exception. Avoid twisting your back, which will cause strain. Use your arms for the movement rather than the back. Stand with your back straight and with the rake close to you to prevent excess stretching. Bend one knee with the other slightly in front. This is a sturdy stance that will keep you stable. Switch hands occasionally to prevent blisters, but also distribute weight loads through the body. Bend at the knees when picking up piles of leaves.

How to Rake Leaves the Right Way

It’s got to be done, but there are some things that will make it easier. Once you are properly garbed and stretched, the right tool can make the job easier. Some choose to simply rake, but the leaves may also be blown into a pile and vacuumed, or in areas with less leaves, mow over them to mulch them directly into the grass.

Choose Your Tools

A good leaf rake will speed the job and is the best way to rake leaves. A hard rake gets stuck in turf and won’t gather as many leaves in each pass. Bamboo rakes are lightweight and durable, while steel rakes will rust over time. Aluminum rakes will not rust and are lightweight. Consider getting a rake with an ergonomic handle grip. Plastic and wooden rakes are not up to the task of moving heavy, wet leaves, as they will break. A rake with wide tines will gather more leaves in each pass.

Pick a Dry Day

Raking wet leaves is much harder work than moving dry foliage. The stuck-together leaves slip through the rake tines and are heavy when massed into a pile. Choose a day for raking when it hasn’t recently rained, and most of the leaves are already down.

Rake with the Wind

Wind is not your friend when it comes to cleaning up the dry leaves in the yard. Mini tornados of flying leaves swirl about the landscape, taunting your efforts to capture and tame them. Opt to rake leaves when the wind speed is low and rake in the direction the leaves wish to blow. Raking in the direction of the wind will speed the process and keep you from fighting the wind.

Rake into Small Piles

Keeping the piles small will help prevent strain when they need to be moved. If the leaves are still wet, smaller heaps will dry more quickly than giant piles.

Use a Tarp

This is a time tested best idea when raking. Rake the leaves onto a tarp that can then be dragged to the leaves' final resting place. This is especially good if you have a space where they will compost into leaf litter. Dragging the tarp prevents back strain and knee fatigue that results from picking up the piles of leaves.

What To Do With Leaves After Raking

What do you do with all those leaves? Most municipalities have a composting program adjunct to its sanitation program. Leaves can go in that “clean green” bin. They can also go into specially purchased paper leaf bags and in some areas, trash folks will take them at the curb. Leaves that aren’t heavy, like oak or magnolia leaves, can be spread out onto the lawn and mowed into the roots of the sod. This should only be done in a light covering to avoid smothering the grass.

Leaves can also go into a pile and be managed like a compost heap. Try to find a place with full sun and keep the pile turned and moderately moist. In time they will break down and are an excellent soil amendment and mulch. For winter protection pile leaves around the root zone of sensitive plants. Pull the leaves away in spring.

Bonnie L. Grant

Bonnie Grant is a professional landscaper with a Certification in Urban Gardening. She has been gardening and writing for 15 years. A former professional chef, she has a passion for edible landscaping.