Raking leaves is a great time to put on a cozy, handknit sweater and get some exercise in the crisp autumn air...at least, it is the first time you do it. By the third or fourth day of raking, it has definitely become every bit a chore. But it is too important to be lazy about: a heavy blanket of leaves on the lawn over winter can do a lot of damage to the grass. Here are a few ways to make the job a little easier - and some good incentive for keeping them for your own use rather than putting them on the curb.
The key to successful composting is maintaining the proper mix of green, or fresh, materials and brown, or dry materials. This ensures an odorless compost which decomposes quickly and has an ideal nutrient load when it is finished. Fallen leaves are an important source of carbon, or "browns". Since they are really only "available" for a few weeks out of the year, it's best to stockpile them for times when you have a lot of nitrogen, or "green", to put on the pile. This is especially important for those who don't garden much but wish to compost food scraps ("greens"), since they will have a limited supply of "browns."
Leaves can also be added directly to garden beds as a mulch, but only if they are chopped first. Whole leaves form mats which can make it difficult for water and light to penetrate. Chopping leaves doesn't require any special equipment - you can just rake them into long rows and mow over them with a regular lawn mower. It may take a couple of passes, but it results in a finer mulch that can be used in beds.
While leaf blowers do have their place (clearing off large paved or gravel areas, for example), they also have many drawbacks. They are very heavy, their inefficient engines smell bad, and they're notoriously noisy. What few people realize is that they take skill to use well. Trust me when I say that an unskilled blower operator is definitely NOT going to take care of the fallen leaves faster than the average person with a rake. I have been that unskilled blower operator before!
So, yes, a leaf rake is the answer. It isn't a perfect tool - leaves are always getting stuck in the tines, the handle isn't comfortable to hold for long periods. You can add a length of pipe insulation to the handle for a bit of cushion and you can try to rake with light, quick strokes in an attempt to lift the leaves off the ground instead of drag them. If you are raking on a slope, begin at the top and work downhill so gravity is on your side. Try to rake when the leaves are relatively dry so they are lighter. And rather than fuss with bagging the leaves, lay out a large tarp or an old sheet and rake them on to that. Then, with a helper, fold the sides up like a taco and carry the whole thing to your leaf storage area. If nothing else, leaves are pretty lightweight. Be thankful for small mercies!