Call it an “a-ha” moment. As I chatted with a neighbor about how many leaves we’d had to rake that year, she lifted a narrow shrub rake and proceeded to deftly pluck out all the leaves behind her foundation shrubs.
Until then, I’d thought there was just one sort of leaf rake: the big fat kind I used every fall. But thanks to my neighbor, I realized there’s a variety of rakes out there, each suited to a different type of leaf collection. The right leaf rake (or two) can turn the annual pain in the patooty of raking autumn leaves into a quicker, more efficient, more pleasant task.
With a couple of exceptions, most leaf rakes have the same basic design: tines, spaced with a spring brace, are attached to a long handle. Quality construction is always a plus, but with a leaf rake, it’s probably less critical than with heavier tools (like, say, a spade). I have a cheap, battered, metal tine rake that’s 20 years old and still works perfectly well.
Over the years, you might spend hours and hours raking leaves. Why not minimize that time and make the job less taxing by investing in the perfect rake? Here’s how to choose the right leaf rake for your lawn and garden chores.
When purchasing a leaf rake, consider the type of tine you prefer. Rake tines are made of bamboo, steel, or plastic. Bamboo tines are strong but gentle; they’re good for raking delicate moss lawns and newly planted, thin, or weak grass. However, bamboo tines can dry out and snap over time.
Metal or steel tines are durable, while plastic tines can snap off in cold weather. Look for the new “no clog” plastic tines, with tips that are wider than the rest of the tine. This design prevents the spearing of leaves as you rake.
The width of the rake is also important. Many shrub rakes are only 7 inches wide—perfect for getting into tight spots, such as behind foundation plantings or air conditioning units. For jobs like these, look for closely spaced tines, which will better contain leaves and other yard debris.
Medium-width rakes are around 22 inches wide, while some monster rakes are as wide as 30 inches. It takes fewer strokes to collect leaves with these large rakes, but they also require more upper-body strength to maneuver.
Some rakes have an adjustable fan that you can widen for raking large areas and narrow for getting between closely spaced plants. Slide the brace up or down and you can go from, say, 6 inches wide to 22 inches wide. Adjustable rakes are also handy if you don’t have much space for storage.
The Right Handle
Most rake handles are made of wood, but some are hollow metal (usually aluminum). The ones used by professional landscapers are fiberglass. The best handles are springy and have some give.
Also consider ergonomic designs, which are crafted to be gentle on your body. I find these annoying—they seem inefficient and overengineered—but many gardeners swear by them.
Most leaf-rake handles are about 54 inches long. These are fine for most leaf raking, but if you’re very petite, seek out a smaller rake so you do less waving of that giant handle. Shrub rakes (also called hand rakes) have handles closer to 30 inches long. This allows you to maneuver them easily, sometimes with just one hand.
(Tip: I looked for months to find a small shrub rake in local stores and couldn’t find it. So I bought a child’s rake. It’s worked well, and I was able to use it to con my 8-year-old into helping rake leaves—at least for a few minutes.)
The very best thing you can have in a rake handle is a cushion. Every fall, even when wearing gloves, I develop a blister on the inside of my right thumb as I furiously rake leaves, trying to beat that first snow. Foam-cushioned handles help prevent blisters, even during a last-minute power rake.
If you’re lucky, you may find a brightly colored rake. If I were Queen of the Gardening World, I’d make it law that every garden tool must have a screaming red handle so I’d never again lose it in the compost heap, the brush pile, or a mountain of leaves.
Ground and Thatch Rakes
When you need to move soil or remove thatch from your lawn, don’t reach for a leaf rake. Instead, choose a ground rake or thatch rake.
A ground rake is heavier than a leaf rake and has a row of tough metal teeth. Use it to smooth soil and remove small stones.
A thatch rake, also called a cavex rake, has lots of tiny blade-like teeth that rip through lawn to remove thatch. Thatch is that dead brown stuff that builds up along the base of grass. Too much of it can suffocate turf. Use a thatch rake in early spring if your lawn has a moderate thatch problem. Heavy thatch—more than 3/4 inch deep—will require a power dethatching.
Choosing a Rake
Description: Also called a hand leaf rake, these often have shorter handles than traditional rakes, with smaller, lightweight tines.
Advantage: Perfect for raking among shrubs, under decks, or in other tight spots. It’s a good size for children to use, too.
Disadvantage: Not for large jobs or big expanses of lawn.
Cost: $5 to $20
Description: Made of durable plastic, with wave-shaped teeth that prevent the spearing of leaves.
Advantage: Gentle on perennials and bulbs when you’re trying to get leaves out of flower beds.
Disadvantage: Cuts down on the number of leaves that get stuck in the rake, but doesn’t totally eliminate them.
Cost: $15 to $30
Description: An all-purpose rake for the lawn and for working in tight spots.
Advantage: Moveable brace allows you to use the same rake for the lawn and in tight spots.
Disadvantage: In some designs, brace has a tendency not to stay in place. For large lawn-raking jobs, this rake feels flimsy.
Cost: $10 to $30
Description: Specially designed handles put less strain on your back and shoulders.
Advantage: Ergonomic design allows you to rake longer with fewer aches. The Vertex pivot rake (shown in photo), for example, allows you adjust the rake head to whatever angle is most comfortable for you and even allows you to push the leaves.
Disadvantage: You can’t be certain these rakes will work for you until you use one. Depending on your preferences and the build of your body, these rakes might feel ungainly.
Cost: $20 to $50
Description: Sometimes sold as a wizard rake, this rake has highly flexible but tough rubber or plastic tines.
Advantage: The tines are gentle on newly sown grass and moss, and they’re also strong enough to get gravel and other larger debris. Excellent for raking gravel off brick patios and flagstone.
Disadvantage: Not strong enough to rake large amounts of leaves on regular lawn.
Cost: $40 to $70
Description: With two rotating soft-plastic combs, this gizmo sweeps leaves into a large, flexible liner.
Advantage: Works well on dry, small leaves. Adjustable height lets you tackle thick layers of leaves, too.
Disadvantage: Large, wet leaves and sticks can clog the combs. In all but the most ideal conditions, you’ll need to tidy up fine debris with a hand rake.
Leaf scoops or claws
Description: Tined “claw” or scoop that fits over your hands.
Advantage: Great for picking up large amounts of leaves.
Disadvantage: You have to take them off and on to adjust bags, pick up rakes, etc.
Cost: $8 to $20.