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Mulching 101: Benefits of mowing leaves instead of raking (plus how to do it properly)

Posted by AMH Team

7m read time

Sep 27, 2022

The autumn season brings plenty of enjoyable moments for us. There’s the cool, crisp weather that lets us rock some stylish fall fashion. There are the festive seasonal flavors (yes, pumpkin spice has truly invaded everything, from salmon to hummus). And there are the gorgeous autumn leaves, turning the neighborhood trees into a colorful tapestry. Unfortunately, when those leaves start to drop from the trees, they can create an unruly mess in your yard.


For the longest time, the falling of leaves was synonymous with raking. We saw rakes managing piles of leaves in comic strips and movies, and occasionally as villain traps in TV shows, and we resigned ourselves to the fact that it had to be done. Until now, at least, because the practice of mowing leaves instead of raking has been gaining steam, and there are plenty of positives that come from this approach.


Instead of working with cumbersome, rickety tools, and giving yourself hand cramps and an achy back, you can try mowing leaves in the yard, also known as mulching. In fact, you just may learn a new method of lawncare and wonder how you went so long without it. Unless you live in an AMH community or other property with landscaping services where this is taken care of for you, read on below for a few of the benefits of mowing leaves in the fall and how to get started.


Mowing may improve the health of your soil and the environment


While raking leaves certainly provides a fun activity with piles for us to jump into, mowing leaves in the fall has a more positive impact on your lawn’s soil. It improves the moisture of your soil while reducing erosion, allowing your plants to thrive without drying out too quickly. Leaves that stay on your lawn block the grass from getting sunlight and air, and the issue is only exacerbated by rain or snow flurries. If your grass doesn’t get enough sunlight, it could damage the grass or even kill it completely. 


The act of mulching benefits the environment, too. As your yard’s leaves get distributed into the ground, it provides nutrients for insects, bulbs, and seeds. You’ll further assist the environment by cutting down on wasteful items like plastic trash bags to pick up all of your raked leaves. What’s more, you’ll reduce the need for waste trucks to come collect and dispose of your yard trimmings. You’ll also keep the environment cleaner—and your neighbors happier—by eliminating the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, which, on top of emitting fumes into the air, produce quite a bit of noise. 


The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2018—the most recent year it has data for—yard trimmings, including leaves, generated about 35.4 million tons of waste, which accounted for more than 12% of all municipal state waste generation. And 10.5 million tons of yard trimmings went to landfills. Mulching helps cut down on that waste by repurposing leaves into your soil and other areas of the garden.    


Mowing may save you time and energy


Raking the lawn introduces a drain on your time. Unless you have a tree that perfectly drops leaves straight down to the ground—which, spoiler alert, never happens—you’ll have to go around your yard, dragging stray leaves to the main pile you’re building up. If you’re braving this chore on a particularly windy day, you may even find yourself having to double back to catch a few leaves that are trying to escape.


Using a rake around the lawn also takes up more of your energy. There are always a couple of stubborn leaves that refuse to join the rest of the pile, and you’re in essence doing a rowing motion for each group of leaves you go after. Mowing leaves into the lawn and turning leaves into mulch is a much quicker act. You simply need to run the mower over leaves a couple of times and you’ve got the end result you want.


Mowing may set you up for success in other seasons


Autumn is the main time you’ll mulch your yard’s leaves, but doing so can lead to more beautiful lawns in the spring and summer. A study from Michigan State University found that, after only a short time of mulching, residents see a nearly 100% decrease in dandelions and crabgrass. The lack of weeds means your grass can more fully enjoy the nutrients from the sunlight, air, and critters, and the mulched leaves heat up the soil in the winter and cool it off in the summer. As a result, your lawn will naturally appear greener in the spring without needing as much fertilizer as you’d need if you raked leaves.


Mowing may save you money


No, we’re not talking about the old business catch phrase of “time is money,” though mulching leaves can certainly save you time. Instead, mowing leaves can save you money because of what you may not have to buy to keep your lawn tidy.


There’s less of a need for compost and fertilizer since mulched leaves will break down into natural fertilizer throughout the fall and winter. And, because they help the soil by offering moisture and nutrition, your plants may not dry out as quickly, saving you additional purchases of soil or replacement plants.


On top of that, you may need to purchase fewer weed killer products, since the mowed leaves serve as a weed suppressant, and it may reduce costs spent on the garbage bags you’d use for raking.


The best methods for mowing leaves


One thing to remember when mowing leaves instead of raking is that leaving too many leaves can smother your grass by clumping together in a way similar to matted fur on a pet. Mulching the leaves eliminates a heavy dose of leaves on your lawn, making it a more manageable and helpful addition to your lawn’s environment.


Big groups of full leaves can block out sunlight from grass, but bits of leaves in between blades of grass provide the helpful nutrients your yard needs to thrive. The easiest method for mowing leaves in fall weather is, as the name suggests, using your mower to break down the leaves into smaller pieces. Though a traditional lawn mower can break up leaves on the ground, a mulching mower will do so even more efficiently. Mulching mowers have higher decks and use a blade that re-circulates the leaves and grass, allowing them to be chopped multiple times. 


Use your mower to break your lawn’s leaves down into pieces that are about the size of a dime. From there, you don’t need to do much else; the broken down leaves will start to deliver their benefits to your lawn. If you’d like, you can use the leaves to mulch other parts of your yard, such as a standalone container garden. 


If you’re not a fan of mowing, you can consider these alternatives for your yard:


Handheld mulchers: While these devices bear a resemblance to leaf blowers, they’re less harmful for the environment. Be even more environmentally friendly by getting an electric or battery-powered handheld mulcher. It collects all the leaves in a bag or compartment, giving you the equivalent of raking leaves into a tidy pile, but with far less time and effort spent.


Standalone mulchers: If you’re considering a standalone mulcher, you’ll likely get one that can also break up smaller branches from trees in your yard—standalone mulchers serve a purpose similar to wood chippers in that regard. Standalone mulchers sit in the same spot in your lawn and automatically convert full leaves into mulch when you dump them inside. 


Weed whackers: Grab a trash can or other large container and put your pile of leaves inside. Don a pair of goggles to protect your eyes and let the weed whacker quickly and easily turn the leaves into mulch.


Leaf blower vacuums: Typically only available on corded electric units, leaf blower vacuums suck up leaves from the ground and break them up into fine pieces, which are deposited into a bag on the device.


Other considerations


Mowing leaves instead of raking them does require frequent trips to the yard. Ideally, you’d like to mow about once a week, and it’s worth checking your yard regularly to make sure large amounts of leaves aren’t piling up. If that happens, try to spread them into rows so they’re more evenly distributed around the lawn, which will make mowing easier and quicker.


It’s also a bit more cumbersome to mow leaves when they’re wet. It doesn’t make it impossible, though; if your only chance to mow in any given week is after a rainstorm, just make sure to take a couple of precautions before mowing. Try to keep an even thinner layer of leaves, and clean off your blade and exhaust more frequently to avoid leaves plugging them up and slowing you down. 


Finally, if you’re not quite ready to say goodbye to your rake, you can use it to spread the mowed leaves across the lawn so that the grass gets some exposure to the air and is not completely covered by leaves. 


Mowing leaves into your lawn to create mulch has ample benefits, both for your individual yard and the environment at large. If you traditionally find yourself raking leaves in the fall, it’s worth looking into this alternative—you might even learn a new hobby with all that free time you’ll gain!

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