Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

How to Get Leaves Out of Mulch in Flower Beds

By: Zac Friedman


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Fallen leaves can be a hassle to clean up. Particularly when they fall into your flower beds and mix with your mulch. It can be hard to remove the leaves without taking some of the mulch with them. This guide explains how to get leaves out of mulch. 

The best way to get leaves out of mulch depends on the type of mulch you use and the way your flower beds are laid out. There are really 4 options. You can use your hands to pick the leaves out or you can use a rake. You can also use a leaf blower or a leaf vacuum or mulcher. Another option is to install some type of barrier to block the leaves from your mulch then remove the leaves from the barrier. In this guide, I’ll explain how each method works.

How to Get Leaves Out of Mulch in Flower Beds

Use Your Hands

The simplest way to remove leaves from your flower beds is to simply pick them out with your hands. This works best if you have delicate plants or if the leaves are in a corner that you can’t reach with a rake. This is also the best option when you use raised beds.

While picking out the leaves, you can make a leaf pile on your lawn. From there, you can easily rake them up and bag them, put them in your compost bin, or use them as a natural mulch in some other part of your yard.  

To protect your hands from getting dirty or scratched, it’s a good idea to wear some gardening gloves. It’s also a good idea to use a kneeling pad or a small gardening seat to protect your knees or back while you’re working. If you have allergies, consider wearing a dust mask. 

Leaves in mulch

Use a Rake

If your flower beds are larger or if your plants are spaced far apart, a rake is a great tool for removing leaves. A regular leaf rake will be too wide. Choose a narrow rake that allows you to get in the areas between your plants. A hand rake or shrub rake is a good choice. These small rakes are designed for tight spaces. Also, try to choose a rake that has tines that are far enough apart that they can pick up leaves but not mulch. A rake is a great tool for removing a thick layer of leaves. 

When you’re raking, try to be gentle. Light raking won’t disturb the mulch under the leaves. Sometimes, mulch can stick to wet leaves. You may end up removing a bit of mulch with the leaves. That’s okay. If your mulch starts getting thin, you can add a fresh layer next spring. 

You may still need to use your hands to get the leaves out of hard-to-reach places or to remove them from delicate plants. A rake can help you with the more open areas. 

I sometimes use a snow shovel as a kind of dust pan when I’m raking my flower beds. I rake the leaves onto the shovel and then dump them in my yard or in a bag. 

Use a Leaf Blower

On some garden beds, you can use a leaf blower to save some time removing leaves. When you do this, set your leaf blower to a low setting. Try to hold the leaf blower at an angle so it blows air across the surface of the mulch rather than down into the mulch. This way, less mulch and soil will be blown away.

Try to blow the leaves to the center of the bed or onto your lawn where you can easily remove them. It’s also best to wait for the leaves to dry out before you use your leaf blower. Dry leaves are easier to blow away.

After you’ve gotten most of the leaves out with the leaf blower, you may have to use a rake or your hands to remove the rest of the leaves that you couldn’t get. Chances are, there will be some leaves that got blown into the corners or into your plants.  

A leaf blower is probably the most efficient way to get leaves out of your beds but it really only works on specific types of beds with certain types of mulch. Leaf blowers work best on beds with rock mulch and durable plants, like shrubs. The rocks are heavy enough that they won’t get blown away. The leaf blower won’t damage sturdy shrubbery.

If you use lightweight mulch, like straw, hay, pine straw, or grass clippings, a leaf blower probably isn’t the best tool. It will just blow the mulch all over the place. You also shouldn’t use a leaf blower if you have delicate plants. The leaf blower could damage them. Even on a low setting. 

A leaf blower will work better after the mulch has time to settle. Fresh mulch is loose. Older mulch sometimes forms into a kind of mat. It won’t blow around as much. If you have fresh mulch, a leaf blower might not be the best option. 

A leaf blower isn’t the best choice for everyone because it is a somewhat expensive tool. A decent one costs around $150-$300. You can buy lower end models for around $60. 

A pile of leaves

Use a Leaf vacuum or Mulcher

Another tool you can use to remove leaves from your mulch is a leaf vacuum or leaf mulcher. These tools suck the leaves up into a bagging attachment. At the same time, they shred leaves up into smaller pieces with a rotating blade inside. Many leaf blowers also have a vacuum function. This setting just reverses the fan so it so it sucks instead of blows. 

You can use the shredded leaves as a free mulch or you can compost them. The shredded leaves are also easier to dispose of. They take up less space when they are in small pieces. For this reason, a leaf mulcher is a great option if you have a lot of leaves.

You do have to be careful when using a leaf vacuum on mulch so you don’t suck the mulch up with the leaves. It’s best to use a low setting level of suction and work slowly. Try to get a feel for how far away you need to hold the vacuum for it to pick up the leaves without picking up mulch. 

If you suck sticks, rocks, or thick bark mulch up into the vacuum, you could cause a clog. These objects can also dull the blades that are designed to grind up leaves. It’s best to wait until the leaves are dry before you vacuum them. Wet leaves can cause clogs. 

Use a Leaf Barrier

In the early fall before the leaves start to drop, install some type of barrier over your mulch. Landscape fabric or window screen material can work well. You could also use plastic sheeting.

Cut holes in the material so your plants poke through. Stake the material down or place some rocks on the edges so it doesn’t blow away. The dead leaves will fall on the barrier. They won’t mix with your mulch. 

After all of the leaves have fallen, you can gather the leaves from the top of the barrier. After removing the leaves put them in your compost pile or in your yard waste bin.

You can leave the barrier in place or remove it after the leaves fall. Only leave the barrier in place if it’s made from a material that allows air and water to pass. If it’s a solid material, like plastic sheeting, you’ll want to remove it.

You Will Most Likely Have to Use Multiple Methods to Get the Leaves Out

You probably can’t rake or blow all of the leaves away. There will still be some stragglers. Chances are, you will have to remove some leaves by hand if you want to get them all. Even if you use a barrier, you’ll have to pick some leaves off of your plants. 

You might also find that some removal methods don’t work with your mulch. For example, if you use a lightweight mulch like straw, you probably won’t have much luck with using a leaf blower. If you have a heavier mulch like bark nuggets or rock mulch, you’ll have more luck with a leaf blower.

Getting leaves out of your mulch can be a time-consuming job. It’s easy but somewhat tedious. It will go faster if you have someone to help you.

A pile of fall leaves around the base of a tree

Tools You’ll Need

  • Gardening gloves- Gloves will protect your hands from splinters, scratches, and insect bites while removing leaves by hand. They will also protect your hands from blisters if you’re raking or using a leaf blower. 
  • Dust mask- Raking and using a leaf blower can kick up some dust. It’s a good idea to wear a mask. This is particularly important if you have allergies or respiratory issues.
  • Eye protection- If you’re using a leaf blower, it’s a good idea to wear goggles to protect your eyes from flying debris.
  • Ear protection- If you’re using a loud gas powered leaf blower, you may also need to wear ear plugs to protect your hearing. The gas motor can get noisy.  
  • Extra mulch- When you rake, use a leaf blower, or use a leaf vacuum, you may remove some mulch with the leaves. Mulch also degrades over time because it is organic matter. When your mulch starts getting thin, you’ll have to add a fresh layer. You could add a fresh layer after the leaves are done falling or wait until the next year in the early spring to add more. 
  • Kneeling pad or gardening seat- You will have to kneel over to get to the leaves. These tools can make it more comfortable to work in your garden for longer periods of time. They can also save your knees and back. 

My Experience

I have used all of these methods to remove fall leaves from my mulch. Usually, I find raking to be the easiest way to remove leaves. I have a narrow rake that works pretty well. I usually end up using my hands as well.

A leaf blower can work on some sections but it usually ends up making a mess of my mulch. I have cedar mulch on some of my beds. The leaf blower does a pretty good job there. The cedar stays in place pretty well. In my vegetable garden, I usually use straw, grass clippings, or shredded leaves as mulch. It’s harder to remove leaves from these because they’re lighter. They don’t stay in place as well.  

After removing the leaves, I usually make leaf compost out of them. Sometimes, I run them through a leaf shredder and use them for mulch in another part of my garden. 

The best method to use to remove leaves from your flower beds depends on the type of mulch you use and the type of leaves. If you have a heavier mulch such as bark nuggets or river rocks, it’s easier to use a leaf blower or vacuum. The mulch won’t move much. If you use a lightweight and loose mulch like straw, pine needles, or grass clippings, using a rake and your hands is probably your best option. Generally, larger leaves are easier to remove than smaller leaves because it’s easier to grab them with a rake or your hands.

The good news is that removing leaves is a pretty easy job. It’s just a bit of a hassle. Whichever method you end up using, I hope this guide makes dealing with autumn leaves in your landscape beds a little bit easier. 

How do you remove leaves from the mulch on your garden beds? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!

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How to Get Leaves Out of Mulch in Flower Beds
How to Rake Leaves Out Of Mulch in Flower Beds

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