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How to Rake Leaves Out of Mulch [5 Tips for Fall Cleanup]

It’s best to use an adjustable rake to remove leaves from mulch. Choose a rake with flexible tines that can be transitioned from a widespread rake to a narrow one. Use the narrow setting to remove leaves from mulch between plants without damaging your garden. You can also use a leaf vacuum or leaf blower to remove leaves without disturbing your mulch. To keep leaves off your mulch, lay a barrier of landscape fabric on top of your mulch in fall. Remove the landscape fabric in late fall to clear off all the leaves at once.

How to rake leaves out of mulch

Should You Remove Leaves From Mulch?

An overabundance of leaves in your garden can smother plants. Dead leaves also collect moisture, preventing water from penetrating the soil below. This can starve the roots of your garden plants while simultaneously causing mold and fungus to spread in your garden. When lots of leaves land on top of your garden mulch, it’s time to clean them out.

  • If leaves cover more than 25% of your garden mulch, plan to remove the leaves.
  • A layer of leaves on top of mulch can smother plants, starve the roots, and invite plant disease.
  • Consider using fallen leaves as compost or shred them to create organic mulch.

While a few stray leaves in your mulch won’t cause any harm, a pile of leaves can harm the health of your garden. However, while whole leaves are harmful, a layer of shredded leaves used as natural mulch can actually be beneficial for your soil. Consider turning fallen leaves into mulch. Alternatively, add shredded leaves to your compost pile to brew your own natural fertilizer.

5 Tips to Remove Leaves From Mulch

If a layer of fall leaves has destroyed the appearance of your garden and buried your favorite plants, it’s time for the leaves to go. However, it’s important to remove the leaves without disturbing your layer of wood chips, rubber, or rock mulch. It’s also imperative to avoid damaging any desirable plants. The tips below will accomplish both these goals.

Use an Adjustable Rake

Your number one tool for removing leaves in mulch is a good, adjustable rake. The right rake should allow you to collapse the head inward, to rake leaves in the narrow spaces between plants and along walls. It also should have flexible metal tines that will gather leaves but won’t pull mulch out of your garden as you rake.

  • This adjustable leaf rake features a collapsible head for raking narrow spaces between plants.
  • Use a rake with flexible tines to remove leaves without disturbing mulch.
  • To prevent accidental damage, uncover any buried plants by hand before raking.

If there is an excess of leaf litter in your garden, it may cover up some of your desirable plants entirely. Before raking, it’s a good idea to uncover these plants by hand. This way, you reduce the risk of accidentally snagging a garden plant with your rake.

Leaf Vacuum

Rather than reach for a high-powered blower, it’s best to pull leaves out of mulch with a leaf vacuum. Leaf vacuum and blower combos are common and the vacuum setting is great for delicate work. You’ll be able to suck leaves out of mulch without vacuuming up the mulch itself.

  • This leaf vacuum and blower combo allows you to use the vacuum setting to remove leaves in mulch.
  • By vacuuming leaves, you remove and bag them in one step.

Use an attachable bagger with your leaf vacuum to collect the leaves in a bag as you work. This makes leaf disposal a breeze and ensures leaves won’t blow back into your mulched areas.

Leaf Blower

If you have a massive amount of leaves blanketing your mulch, the best removal process may be to use the blower setting on your blower/vacuum combo. To make sure you blow leaves off your mulch without spreading mulch everywhere, tilt your blower upwards slightly. Rather than directing air downward at an angle, directing air upwards will move the leaves without scattering mulch.

  • Use a leaf blower to quickly remove large quantities of leaves from mulch.
  • Tilt the blower upwards to move leaves without moving mulch.
  • Once the leaves are out of your garden, mow the leaves for mulch to fertilize your yard.

Mowing leaves is a great way to turn whole leaves into a useful lawn fertilizer. Leaves that have been shredded into dime-sized pieces by a lawn mower or other leaf-shredding method can be spread across the lawn to break down. As they decompose, the leaf bits will return organic matter to the soil. Whole leaves are harmful and invite disease, but shredded leaves are great for soil.

By Hand

In some cases, you just have to get your gloves on, grab a hand rake, and remove leaves from mulch by hand. This is most often true when you have light mulch, such as nut hulls or wood chips. If you work by hand you can carefully clear leaves out of mulch without damaging desirable plant stems and roots.

  • Remove leaves by hand to protect fragile garden plants from other leaf-removal methods.
  • A hand rake, like this one, can help make leaf removal faster and easier.
  • Mix hand-removal with other methods to protect plants and get the job done efficiently.

You may only need to remove leaves by hand in certain sections of your garden. If you take care of the leaves around delicate plants by hand first, you can break out the rake or leaf vacuum for the remainder of your mulched areas.

Install a Leaf Barrier

The best way to keep leaves out of mulch is by preventing them from getting there in the first place. You can do this by laying down a barrier of landscape fabric on top of your mulch in early fall. Then, once all the leaves have fallen from the trees, simply gather up the leaves by removing the landscape fabric from your garden. This method eliminates raking altogether.

  • Lay a layer of this landscape fabric over mulched areas of your garden in early fall.
  • Cut holes in the fabric where plants are present.
  • Weight the edges of the fabric with stones, or by burying the edges in mulch.
  • Once the leaves have fallen off the trees, gather up the corners of the landscape fabric as you would when collecting leaves with a tarp.
  • The leaves will be contained in the fabric and your mulch will be leaf-free.

Because landscape fabric allows water and air to filter through, it won’t inhibit moisture and oxygen from reaching the soil. This makes it safe to use on top of mulch. Don’t substitute a tarp for landscape fabric. A non-permeable sheet of plastic will stop water from reaching the soil, killing off your plants.

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How Do You Remove Leaves Without Removing Mulch?

Leaves in mulched areas pose a problem for gardeners because it can be difficult to get rid of the leaves without damaging existing plants or throwing mulch all over the yard. The best methods to get leaves out of mulch easily are:

  • Use an adjustable rake with flexible metal tines.
  • Bag leaves using a leaf vacuum.
  • Gently blow leaves out of your mulched areas by tilting the nozzle of your leaf blower upwards as you work.
  • Remove leaves near delicate plants by hand or with the help of a hand rake.
  • Lay water-permeable landscape fabric over mulched areas in early fall. Once the leaves fall, gather up the landscape fabric and leaves together.

When removing leaves from mulch, remember to work gently and carefully. Once you master your chosen tool you’ll soon find the touch required to pull out all those pesky leaves without removing mulch as well.

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