Home & Garden

Leaf-raking as aerobic exercise

It's a workout that's great for you and your yard

You could be called the lawn Luddites.

You're the holdouts who shun leaf blowers and lawn vacuums, the hardy types who find satisfaction in the scrape of tines on grass.

You're the leaf rakers, and we salute you.

We'd also like to make your job a little easier and your backs less sore. We're here with tips on the right equipment, the proper technique and some ideas about what to do with the fruits of your labor - the leaves.

What feels good

Let's start with the rake.

Leaf rakes come in a variety of sizes, but unlike a lawn-mower blade, wider isn't necessarily better, said Jim Maffei, senior product manager for tool maker Ames True Temper in Camp Hill, Pa.

That's because "you're the motor," Maffei said. A bigger rake produces more friction with each sweep, he explained, and that additional friction tires you faster.

He recommended choosing a rake based on your strength and what feels good. A medium-size rake - about 24 inches - is best for most people.

Rakes typically have tines made from one of three materials: bamboo, metal or plastic. For many users, Maffei believes a plastic rake is the best choice. It's flexible and lightweight, but it's more durable than bamboo.

Metal rakes are the most durable, and their tines are stiffer than plastic or bamboo. They're a good choice if you rake often, rake mostly wet leaves or will be using the rake to dig down into the grass and remove debris other than leaves.

Since most rakers encounter both wet and dry leaves over the course of a season, Maffei suggested a Wet N Dry Leaf Rake, made by his company's Union Tools division. It has an adjustable piece on top of the tines that can slide toward the tips to make the tines more rigid or backward to make them more flexible.

Handle length isn't so critical, Maffei said. Most handles range from about 48 to 54 inches, and a shorter person might choose a shorter rake, he said. But it's pretty easy to compensate by gripping farther down on the handle without sacrificing leverage.

He said the best handle material is largely a matter of feel. Wood handles provide the most flex, while metal and fiberglass are stronger, he said. Fiberglass tends to be heaviest and wood lightest.

Look for robust construction in a rake, Maffei said. The head should be attached to the handle with a screw or bolt, he said, but a twist-in handle is also acceptable.


The right tool is part of the equation, but the right raking technique is important, too.

Raking is a form of exercise, and like any workout, it's important to warm up and use good form to avoid shoulder and back injuries, said Dr. Herb Alexander, a orthopedic surgeon in Ketchum, Idaho, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Well, that's if you ignore his first piece of advice: "Have someone do it for you."

Assuming you don't follow his half-serious plan to pad the neighbor kid's college fund, take five or 10 minutes to stretch before you rake. That's especially important if it's chilly out, he said.

Wear gloves to avoid blisters, and make sure your rake handle is in good shape so you don't get splinters.

Try to remain as upright as possible when you rake, Alexander said. If you need to bend, do it at the knees, not the waist.

Avoid twisting to throw leaves to the side or over your shoulder. Instead, if you need to move leaves, pick them up, turn and dump, he said.

Switch sides periodically, so the opposite hand is in front of the other. Alexander said that avoids strain on one set of muscles.

And stop occasionally to take a break. This autumn beauty is fleeting, so take the time to enjoy it.


Now, what about the leaves you raked?

Make use of them, advised Bob Rensel, a gardener at Cleveland Botanical Garden. They're landscaping gold.

Use them to fertilize your grass by running over them with a mower a few times to chop them up, Rensel suggested. If your leaf carpet isn't too thick, you can just leave the bits on the lawn to work their way down into the soil. If you have a lot of leaves, however, remove the excess so it doesn't smother the grass.

(OK, that defeats the no-power-tools aim of raking, but weigh the benefits of free fertilizer against the use of gasoline and the production of emissions.)

The excess leaves can be spread a couple of inches thick on planting beds to moderate soil temperature in winter.

"It's a great thermal blanket," Rensel said.

You don't have to chop the leaves before putting them on the beds, he said. But the smaller pieces decompose faster because there's more surface area for bacteria and microbes to cover.

In spring you can pull the leaves away from the emerging plants if a thick mass remains, he said, or just dig the leaves into the top layer of soil. Don't worry; they won't rob the soil of nitrogen as they decompose the way grass clippings and fresh wood chips will, Rensel said.

Avoid using leaves to mulch rose beds, however. The leaves can harbor black spot, a fungus that attacks roses.

Composting your leaves is another good option, Rensel said. A compost pile needs 95 percent brown matter, so all you need to do is toss in some green material such as grass clippings or kitchen scraps (avoid meat, dairy foods and fats), and you've got the makings for a nutrient-packed soil additive.

Making your own compost lets you control what goes into it, he noted. Compost made from community collections of yard waste can contain road salt from leaves left on the curb or diseased plant material.

Besides, Rensel said, why give away the raw materials and then pay for the product?

When you're done with your raking duties, pat yourself on the back. You've benefited your own health and the earth's.


- Pull one arm across your chest, almost like you're hugging yourself. Repeat with the other arm.

- Bend over at the waist and touch the floor - at least, try to touch the floor.

- Put one heel on a table, desk or other surface of a similar height. With your leg straight, bend forward. Repeat with the other leg.

- Bend your leg behind you, grab your ankle and pull it toward your buttocks. Repeat with the other leg.

- Put your hands behind your neck and rotate hands and head as far as you can go, right and left.