La, la, la, leaves!

Where to see fall colors and what to do when leaves fall in your yard or street

It is the most wonderful time of the year in Minnesota! The leaves are changing, pumpkins line the country roads, and there is a lingering scent of apple cider and cinnamon in the air. Minnesotans have a long list of favorite fall past times, including football, apple picking, and corn mazes. Perhaps most popular of all, however, is the time-honored tradition of “leaf-peeping.”

Fall colors at Square Lake Park in Washington County, Minnesota.

The green color that we see in plant leaves is caused by a pigment called chlorophyll. Plants also have carotenoid compounds, which create yellow and orange pigments, and anthocyanins, which create reds and purples, but those pigments are usually over-powered by the chlorophyll during the spring and summer. When days shorten and temperatures get cooler in the fall, however, chlorophyll is broken down faster than it is produced. As a result, the green fades and these other pigments are gradually revealed.

Square Lake in fall.

Sugar maples and red maples turn orange and red. Silver maples turn yellow, as do birch, aspen and hickory. Oaks can be brown or deep red, whereas staghorn sumac and dogwood turn a more fiery red. Most conifers keep their needles all year round, but the needles on tamarack trees actually turn golden yellow and drop in the fall like leaves on deciduous trees.

A golden tamarack at Tamarack Nature Preserve in Woodbury, Minnesota.

As beautiful as leaves are when they begin to change colors and drop, they can also cause quite the headache when they cover our yards and roadways. For decades, most of us have been taught to rake up leaves in the fall and then send them off to a compost facility. Now, we’re coming to realize that the best course of action is to “leaf” them be.

It turns out that raking leaves can actually be counter-productive. Leaves contain vital nutrients like phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium and micro-nutrients that turf grass and other plants need to grow. In fact, these nutrients are the exact same ones found in compost and commercial fertilizers. Unlike store-bought fertilizer, however, leaves are free and readily available to most Minnesotans.

Instead of raking, experts at the University of Minnesota Extension recommend that you mow your lawn a few times during the fall as the leaves are dropping to break them into smaller pieces that can decompose more rapidly. If you have a very heavy coating of leaves, you may need to remove a layer first to add to your gardens and compost pile, but the rest can be shredded and left where they are.

In gardens and woodland areas, leave the leaves where they fall to provide habitat for small animals, including salamanders, toads, luna moths, and fireflies. No mowing is needed. A blanket of leaves also helps to maintain soil moisture and protect plants during the winter.

In fact, the only place where you DO want to rake leaves is when they fall in the road. Because leaves contain high levels of nutrients, and because stormwater pipes increase the total amount of runoff entering urban lakes and rivers, these leaves can contribute to algae blooms next summer if they aren’t raked up and sent to a compost site. In other words, rake the road, not your yard.

Rake leaves out of the street in the fall to keep lakes and streams clean in the summer.

To date, Minnesotans have adopted 19,107 storm drains through the Adopt-a-Drain program. Storm drain adopters agree to keep curb lines and storm drains clean of litter, sediment, grass clippings, and leaves that would otherwise get washed into our lakes and rivers when it rains. Adopt a storm drain today at

Fall colors at Tamarack Nature Preserve in Woodbury, Minnesota.

To plan your leaf-peeping adventures this fall, check out the Minnesota DNR Fall Color Finder or Travel Wisconsin Fall Color Report, which are both updated weekly to show when various regions of the two states are approaching, at, or past peak color for fall leaves.