Burning Leaves: Experts Warn Against & Offer Suggestions

It’s time to finish cleaning up the fall leaves before we get into the depths of winter. But don’t make the mistake of using the old-fashioned method of burning leaves. 

Many states and cities have laws against leaf burning, although some don’t. And homeowners don’t realize the negative impacts it has. 

We reached out to industry experts to get their opinions on why to avoid burning leaves and the alternatives. 

Why Is Burning of Leaves Is Discouraged

First, we asked if homeowners should avoid burning leaves.

 Emma Loker, an expert gardener, stated: “We, gardeners, tend to like giving back to the environment, not harming it. 

“Burning fall leaves releases pollutants like hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter into the air. These pollutants can cause nasty health issues and respiratory issues. 

“When burning fall leaves, you also risk the fire getting out of control – this could damage your garden and many others if it catches on a fence. “

Melinda Myers agrees and states how it can impact others: “Burning leaves has a negative impact on air quality. It also creates a stressful environment for neighbors with asthma and other respiratory diseases and limitations.”

The EPA agrees with Emma and Melinda’s statements: “Backyard burning can emit pollutants such as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), particle pollution, and volatile organic compounds (VOC).”

“These pollutants can contribute to health problems that may affect homeowners, their families, their neighbors, and the community.”

The evidence seems clear that burning leaves is not a wise idea. So let’s look at how to use fallen leaves for something positive.

How to Get Rid of Leaves Without Burning

composting bin

Melinda explains that leaves can have benefits most people don’t realize: “Consider leaves a free resource that can be used to improve the soil, for making compost, as well as a mulch to suppress weeds and conserve moisture. 

“Adding organic matter, like leaves, to the soil improves drainage in heavy clay soils and increases the water-holding ability of fast-draining soils like those that contain a high percentage of sand. Just uncover the crowns of perennials and pull the leaves away from stems of shrubs and trunks for trees. “

Kathy Glassey, ISA Certified Arborist, also points out the benefits to the soil: “Allowing yard waste to decompose naturally provides a layer of organic matter (the O horizon in the soil) which decomposes and creates a food source for microbes to use as a food source. Removing these items disrupts that natural cycle.”

Jason McCausland, Operations Team Member of Weed Man echos the benefit to your lawn and plants: “Mulching the leaves and returning them to the turf will help with moisture retention, increase microbial action in the soil and provide added nutrients to the turf.”

“Alternatively, they can be used in your planting beds which would help insulate perennial plants over the winter months and can also help to improve spring growing conditions for vegetable and other types of gardens.”

Also, Melinda points out that not only does it help the soil and plants, but insects as well: “Fall leaves also provide winter homes for some beneficial insects and help insulate underground winter homes of mated queen bumblebees, frogs, toads, and others.”

Emma mentions using the leaves to reduce weeds: “one benefit most gardeners would celebrate is that composted leaves repel weeds when used as mulch or top dressing. This can save you a lot of hassle picking weeds out of your flower beds when the warmer months come. “

These are some excellent uses for fallen leaves. But first, you need to collect them.

Pro Tips For Collecting Leaves

There is a range of methods for collecting leaves. The first and most straightforward is the leaf rake and tarp.

Raking Leaves 

raking leaves in yard with a tarp.

Most kids are tasked with raking the leaves. And as adults, we still hope to avoid it. Although it’s less fun than using a powerful machine, it can still be very effective and efficient. Plus, it is excellent exercise.

Eric DeBoer of Simple Lawn Solutions states: “Raking and bagging is a tried-and-true method of disposing of your leaves. The city or another entity will come by and pick up the bags for you and haul them away.

Melinda suggests raking them into garden beds: “You can rake the leaves into garden beds to mulch the soil.”

And shredding the leaves beforehand: “I find shredded leaves stay put in the garden better than whole leaves. Wetting them down as you rake them into the garden also helps reduce the wind blowing them out of the garden bed.”

Emily suggests using a tarp for leaf collection: “Alternatively, you could fish out your tarp, lay it on the ground, and rake all the fallen leaves onto it. Then, grab it by the corners and release the leaves into your compost bin or store them in a dry place ready to press and preserve.”

Next up is ditching the manual labor for machines. 

Blowing, Mowing & Mulching Leaves

mulching yard leaves and bagging with a mower.

Melinda suggests: “You can shred leaves with your mower and leave them on the lawn. As long as they are the size of a quarter and you can see the grass blades for the fall leaf pieces, your lawn will be fine. 

“You can mow and bag the leaves and add them to your compost pile, dig them into vacant garden beds to improve the soil, or use them as mulch in the garden.”

Eric shares a similar statement: “Use a mulching mower with a bagging attachment. Take the mower around, chopping up the leaves and sucking them into the bag until it is full. These can then be transported in the bag to garden beds or other areas of the yard in need of some fresh organic matter. Just evenly apply the bag of chopped-up leaves to your area of interest.”

Anna Robertson of The Cool Down suggested using an electric leaf blower: “Instead of burning or throwing away your leaves, use an electric leaf blower to blow them under the trees, and they will become fertilizer for your plants and a habitat for animals in the spring.”

“Electric leaf blowers are quieter and healthier and don’t emit harmful pollution.”

If you don’t have any equipment, Eric mentions you can usually rent it or hire a landscaping company: “You can rent a leaf vac or hire a company to take care of everything for you.”

“You may also have a leaf blower with a suction and bagging attachment. These can make quick work of cleaning up large piles of leaves.”

The main thing, though, is to collect and use the leaves rather than burning or disposing of them. As Eric states: “Bagging your leaves and shipping them off or burning them is just giving away free nutrients and organic matter from Mother Nature.”

Use the Correct Amount of Leaves

Whatever method you choose, it’s essential to get most of the leaves off the lawn. As Eric shared, leaving too many leaves on your lawn could harm your lawn: “If you love your lawn, it’s best to get the majority of the leaves picked up or ground up to avoid harboring disease and blocking sunlight,”.

As Kathy points out, the key is to use the correct amount for the purpose: “Take care not to leave too many leaves as your tender plants or trees only need a few inches. 

The same goes for the leaf mulch if you make it: “Making the leaf mulch too thick is detrimental to your trees and can cause a similar problem to excess mulch. Shredding leaves and leaving them in turf areas is a great idea, but care must be taken not to make them too thick. Talk to an ISA-certified arborist or a turf professional for more guidance, as too many leaves are not beneficial.”

Other Things You Can Do With Fall Leaves

Melinda Myers suggests: “Bag the leaves and stash them along the foundation of the house for added winter insulation. Then use them as mulch in the summer garden or add them to the compost pile.” 

“Use bagged leaves to insulate the root system of trees, shrubs, and perennials growing in containers in colder climates. Just place the bagged leaves around the pots for winter.” 

“Use leaves to provide winter protection for grafted or less hardy roses. Surround the planting bed with hardware cloth. Sink the bottom 4 to 6 inches into the soil to keep out damaging plant voles. Make sure the hardware cloth fencing is securely closed to keep out rabbits. 

“Prune roses back to 24” after a week of freezing temperatures. Once the ground freezes, fill the fenced-in area with dry leaves covering the roses. Pack these down tight to repel water and provide needed insulation. 

“In spring, as temperatures start hovering just above freezing, you can remove the leaves. These leaves can be used for other purposes in the landscape. In addition, the hardware cloth can be neatly stored until next fall.”

Crafting With Leaves

crafting with yard leaves

While you likely will only be able to use some of your leaves for crafting. Why not save some of the best ones you come across for fun indoor projects? 

As Emma states: “Many of us love fall because of the beautiful array of autumnal shades. Yet, when these same colors fall onto our gardens, we get the hump.”

“However, if you time it just right, you can use the best ones for crafting.”

“I remember collecting fall leaves with my mom as a child, taking them inside, splodging paint on them, then making crazy imprints all over big sheets of paper.”

“Alternatively, you could press and preserve the best fall leaves, carefully choosing the flattest leaves you can find that are free from spots and bumps. You don’t need much to press leaves – just some paper and a heavy book, and you and the kids can have fun for hours!”

“*Here’s a handy tip:* if you want your leaf to be more supple, soak it in diluted fabric softener first! This creates an awesome impression on the paper!”

Walid Hajj also suggests some craft ideas: “Another unique use for leaves is to make leaf rubbings. Leaf rubbings are made by placing a leaf on a piece of paper and rubbing a crayon or pencil over it. This will create a negative image of the leaf that you can use for art projects or decorations.”

“Finally, you can also use leaves to make leaf crafts. There are many different ways to use leaves to create art, such as painting them, turning them into stamps, or using them to decorate items like picture frames or vases.”

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Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.