I Raked 40-Plus Bags of Leaves Last Fall — Here’s What Made It Bearable

published Nov 2, 2022
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Close Up Of Woman Raking Autumn Leaves In Garden
Credit: monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images/iStockphoto

One thing that made me fall in love with my house before I even set foot inside was the feeling that it was nestled in its own little piece of the woods. My husband and I live in Madison, Wisconsin — a small city, but a city nonetheless — so we’re not actually living in the woods. (Our neighbor on one side is little more than an arm’s length away.) But what makes it feel so secluded are the giant, mature trees that surround our home. Our house was built in 1956, and the trees are certainly older; in front, oaks tower over the street to create a tunnel effect, and in back, maples and oaks twist together overhead to create a charming canopy. The effect is dreamy.

But as beautiful as the trees are in the budding springtime, lush summer, and colorful fall, there comes a time when they are my worst enemy: leaf raking season. All those leaves that I love seeing overhead completely bury my yard in debris that takes multiple days of cleanup and multiple pickups to control.

While you can go low-maintenance and let your leaves stay on the lawn to create something like a natural mulch and fertilizer, it’s something that’s hard to pull off if you have more than a quarter of your lawn covered. That many leaves can matte the grass beneath them, and if you live in an area close to bodies of water, as we do, any leaves that wash away with rain or snowmelt can pollute lakes and ponds by helping algae flourish (and subsequently creating a hostile environment for other lake life).

Another practical reason you might want to rake up? Critters can find it easier to hide in piles of leaves. This isn’t strictly a bad thing — animals need places to live! However, if you have, as we do, a sweet dog with a strong prey drive and a taste for rabbits, chipmunks, and mice, it’s less than ideal. To minimize the amount of necessary corpse removal in our yard, we cannot have places that seem welcoming to tiny, defenseless creatures. Sorry, bunnies!

All that said, raking is simply backbreaking work. We have at least three leaf pickups every fall and use them all, and usually still have some leaves left behind. Last year, I finally counted how much I swept to the curb for the last pickup day of the season — 40 paper bags, all completely full (and equaling just one quarter of our work). Needless to say, I have earned my title as a seasoned leaf raker, and I have a few strategies that have helped me make it bearable. Here’s what got me through last year (and what I’ve been using this year so far).

A Really Big Rake

Those small metal rakes that get leaves stuck on and in between the bendy tines? Garbage. I used one my first year at this house and I will never do it again. Instead, I found my miracle rake at Home Depot. It’s comically large — 26 inches across — and has a sturdy plastic head and tines that maintain their shape as you use it. This is the best tool for gathering piles of leaves and for pushing leaves from the front yard all the way to the curb.

To make sure I don’t end up with blisters by the end of the day, I always rake with garden gloves. These are the ones that I use, but any well-fitting gloves with a reinforced palm will do the trick. I also like to wear my Muck boots, which are comfortable for long stretches, effectively keep leaves out (unlike my old sneakers), and can be hosed off in the event that I step in a wayward dog poop.

Leaf Grabber Hand Rake Claw for Scooping Leaves

Leaf Scoopers

I thought these were extremely silly until I bought some. If you are a person who rakes directly from yard to curb, they’re probably not useful. I like to load leaves from my backyard into paper bags that I haul to the curb, though, since my previous strategy of dragging a tarp loaded with piles of leaves meant I kept getting caught on our gate. For transferring leaves from a big pile into a paper bag, these scoops are great. You can grab giant handfuls of leaves and have a lot more control than you do if you try to rake them into the bag broom-and-dustpan-style (my first and most ineffective approach).

Once I’ve filled my bags in the backyard, I load them into my wheelbarrow to transport them to the front yard for pickup.

A Battery-Operated Leaf Blower

This was a game changer for getting the bulk of leaves from the backyard to the front, or for blowing leaves out of the places they tend to get stuck (in garden beds, against the fence, etc). I have this Ryobi model and get about 30 minutes of juice on the battery before I have to recharge. If you work strategically, this can get you a pretty long way. My little leaf blower is not as powerful as the gas blowers that my neighbors or landscapers use but I much prefer that this one is no-mess and no-smell. The Ryobi batteries have the added benefit of working across a range of tools, which comes in handy.

Credit: Megan Baker Detloff

A Pair of Well-Fitting Bluetooth Earbuds and a Great Book or Podcast

I am a millennial, which means that I cannot exist in this world for a single second without content in front of my eyeballs or dripping into my ear holes. I am OK with it! For yard work, I use a pair of well-fitting Bluetooth earbuds that are also sweat-proof, because yard work is basically exercise. (I love my AirPods but they have dropped out of my ears a couple times while working, which is a dangerous game to play when raking leaves. A needle in a haystack? Try finding an AirPod in a leaf pile!)

My favorite earbuds for exercise and yard work have been these from Jabra. They’re pricey, but the noise cancellation aspect is a feature that comes in clutch if you’re planning to use a leaf blower. And, for books, I have my library card connected to the Libby app so I can check out audiobooks for free from my phone. Last year’s 40-bag-day was accompanied by “Piranesi” by Susanna Clark. Now accepting recommendations for this year’s leaf collecting marathon. (The photo above shows what we have after two pickups, and with leaves still on the trees.)

Any tricks or products you’ve picked up that have helped you conquer your own leaf cleanup? Let us know in the comments!