Every day there are more leaves on the ground. The outlines of the garden are growing blurred under a patina of yellow, brown and muddled green. Time to get the rake out of the shed and wield it cleverly.
In a place like mine — a mosaic of paths, mixed beds and borders, and small sections of grass (usually known as “lawn”) — raking isn’t just a matter of applying the rake’s tines to the ground and stroking toward oneself. On grass and paths you can do that, but winkling leaves out from among herbaceous and woody plant stems and off groundcovers that range from tough (periwinkle) to fragile (moss) requires attention and a variety of techniques.
A delicate touch works best — don’t bear down hard on the rake, just feather along the surface to snag leaves without beating up the underlying plants. If there are accumulated layers of leaves, keep feathering until most are picked up. It’s all right to leave a few leaves behind; earthworms will take care of them over the winter. Concentrate on removing the heavy, wet leaf buildup that can cause rot. Agile wrist-flicks, turning the rake edgewise in narrow spots, using sideways moves when needed — raking requires a surprising range of arm and hand movements.
A lightweight rake that’s not too big works best. Bamboo rakes are very light, but I’ve read the ones available today aren’t as well made as in the past, and therefore not as durable. They are also pretty big. My rake of choice is an all-purpose hardware store model, nothing special, really. It’s more than thirty years old, with a wooden handle and metal head, now missing a few tines from each side. I’ve been checking out rakes in stores lately, and will probably replace the old guy with a similar model that’s no heavier. I also have an all-metal rake whose width can be adjusted with a sliding device on the handle. It’s handy in tight spots or for scooping floating leaves from the pond surface, but is heavier than the wooden-handled dude, and not as well-balanced, so I don’t use it that often. For pond “raking,” a device made from a broom handle, wire coat hanger and a plastic onion bag works quite well, and is a lot lighter.
Leaves that are slightly damp are easier to manage than crackly-dry ones, which float around and are hard to corral. On paved surfaces, a surprisingly effective way to move big piles of leaves is to use feet and legs (encased in rubber boots, of course) in a kind of shuffling motion to push the leaves along. I regularly do this when I’m putting together the huge pile of leaves to be collected from the boulevard by the municipality. Really wet leaves are heavy and disgusting, so it’s best not to put off leaf management too long, at least in places that get a lot of rain in the autumn.
Raking for a couple of hours is pretty good exercise, especially for the upper body. And it’s a pleasant way to spend time in the autumn garden, especially on a nice day — almost sunny, almost warm, without wind. In my recent raking session, I also cut down old perennial stalks, yanked out some elderly rose campion plants, and thought about projects for next spring. In the end, I had tangible evidence of my industriousness in the form of a nice big pile of leaves awaiting removal to the compost heap, and without any of the noise-induced stress I imagine accompanies a session with a leaf-blower. (But then, I consider leaf-blowers to be abominations; maybe some get a feeling of power from the roar they emit).
Taking the rake around the garden is the last dance of the gardening year. Whether it’s a waltz, a samba or a tarantella depends on the quantity of leaves, the terrain being raked, and the gardener’s urgency to get the job done.