Skip to Main Content

Alternatives to Raking and Burning Leaves

My children used to love to run and jump into piles of leaves. When the fun is over, what should you do with those piles of leaves? Are there alternatives to raking and burning leaves?

In some cases, raking may be unavoidable. If you have larger-leaved trees in your yard, such as maples or sycamores, abundant fallen leaves can smother lawn grass if not dealt with. If possible, your easiest tactic is probably to just run your mower and chop the leaves into the turf.

What about burning? Instead of burning leaves, a Purdue expert urged homeowners to find an alternative strategy.

“In addition to being illegal in many areas, leaf burning leads to air pollution and is a health and fire hazard,” said Dr. Rosie Lerner, Purdue consumer horticulture specialist (now retired). “The smoke from burning leaves contains a number of toxic and/or irritating particles and gases.” She said the tiny particles contained in smoke from burning leaves can accumulate in the lungs and stay there for years. These particles can increase the risk of respiratory infection, as well as reduce the amount of air reaching the lungs. For those who already suffer from asthma and other breathing disorders, leaf burning can be extremely hazardous.

Moist leaves, which tend to burn slowly, give off more smoke than do dry leaves. “These moist leaves are more likely to also give off chemicals called hydrocarbons, which irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs,” she said. “Some of these hydrocarbons are known to be carcinogenic.”

Carbon monoxide is an invisible gas that results from incomplete burning, such as with smoldering leaf piles. After inhaling carbon monoxide gas, it is absorbed into the blood, where it reduces the amount of oxygen that the red blood cells can carry. “Children, seniors, smokers and people suffering from chronic lung and heart disease are more susceptible than healthy adults to carbon monoxide effects,” she said.

An Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) website states, “Although open burning leaves and clean wood waste may be exempt under state rules and allowed by local ordinances, it is never advised.” Find more information at:

So, what are some alternatives to burning those fallen leaves?

In many municipalities, there are designated leaf pick-up times. Simply rake your leaves to the curb (not into the street, and no limbs) and the city will take it from there. See each city or town’s websites for specific details, or contact your waste disposal company.

For those who don’t live in the city, there are other alternatives. Leaves can be composted, used as mulch, or added to a garden area.

Finished compost is a great source of organic matter and one of the best soil amendments that can be added to vegetable gardens or flower beds. To speed up the rotting process, leaves would have to be mixed with “green” materials, such as grass clippings, garden discards or produce scraps. Purdue Extension has some great resource materials that offer tips on composting, available at

Shredded leaves can be used as mulch around garden or landscape plants. No more than a 2- to 3-inch layer of leaves should be used around actively growing plants. Chopping or shredding the leaves first will help prevent them from matting down and preventing air from reaching roots.

Gardeners can directly apply leaves to garden soil after vegetables are harvested, and till the leaves in. Leaves should be broken down by the time spring rolls around and you are ready to plant again. If you chop or shred the leaves first, they will break down more quickly.

To Top