How to Rake Without Ache
Raking and bagging is a time-honored strategy for dealing with fallen autumn leaves. Despite the popularity of using leaf blowers and leaf vacuums (detailed here,) raking is still most people’s method of choice – because it works so well.
Here are ways to ensure that your raking is as painless as possible this year.
1. Warm up
Raking and bagging leaves requires a good deal of physical effort. In short, it is a form of exercise and as with any exercise, it’s always wise to loosen up your muscles and ramp up your circulation and breathing with some light warm-ups before attacking the leaf-ladened yard.
We will start a series on garden warm-ups and exercises in the coming months; for now, just perform any simple warm-ups you know: march in place, windmill your arms, do some jumping jacks if you’re up to it.
Once your muscles are warmed, you can safely add some stretching. Don’t overdo stretching, just reach with the arms, bend at the waist, perhaps do some body-weight squats, if you can.
Raking involves the arms, shoulders, back, waist and legs, so stretch all over but give special emphasis to loosening and warming the lower back.
3. Choose your weapon
The best rakes are wide and flexible. Plastic-headed rakes are lightweight and very flexible but, after using them for several years, I’ve gone back to a metal rake. They just last longer and I find the heavier head actually helps put some oomph behind the leaf-moving.
4. Assume the (correct) position
Raking is really just a form of sweeping, so the correct stance is similar to how you’d wield a broom:
Grip the rake handle with hands apart. One hand is near the top end, the other about three quarters down. (I get terrible blisters on the inside of my thumb from raking – I advise wearing a sturdy pair of gloves when you rake.)
Plant feet as wide apart as is comfortable, lower the rake to the ground, keeping your back straight and not stooping.
Bend your knees slightly, don’t stand stiff legged. This will take pressure off the lower back and allow you to move more freely without strain.
5. Sweep leaves into piles
The natural tendency is to drag the teeth of the rake across the ground and scratch up a pile of leaves. Though that may be good for scraping up thatch at the same time, the friction of the teeth pulling over the ground surface increases “drag” – it causes you to expend more effort than necessary.
Leaves are very light (unless they’re wet – the Painless Gardener avoids raking wet leaves for a variety of reasons.) You don’t need to drag them, just sweep or push them.
The fastest and easiest way is to “pitch” them, using the rake head to loft leaves into a pile.
If you keep the rake head perpendicular to the ground (between 65 and 85 degrees,) you can move leaves faster with short, more effective sweeps.
This also allows you to use the strength of your upper body – arms, shoulders, chest, lats – instead to twisting at the waist and possibly injuring your back.
Collect the leaves in moderate size piles about twice the width of your arm reach (so you can reach to the center of the pile when bagging them without strain.) You don’t want to move leaves any farther than necessary.
Of course, if it’s windy, rake with the wind. But the most painless and least frustrating way is to rake when wind is calm.
6. Change it up
Alternate your raking sides occasionally, if you can. Switching sides every five minutes or so decreases the chance of repetitive motion injuries, and gives your body more of a balanced workout.
Take regular breaks. Rest every 15 minutes and drink some water to keep hydrated. If your yard is large, break the job up into several smaller raking sessions over a period of days.
7. Bag ‘em, Danno
Bending to pick up the leaves you’ve collected in a pile is where you can hurt yourself the easiest. You don’t want a lot of repeated bending at the waist – that’s a prescription for back injury. As with any lifting, it’s better to bend and stand using the knees.
And, of course, that’s even more important when lifting filled bags.
But what if bending at the knees is painful because of arthritis or other problems?
8. Bring in Back ReLeaf!
Several years ago, after a long raking session, I nursed my painful back and said to myself: “There MUST be a better way.” Then I had an inspiration: a simple, easy-to-use tool that would take maybe 75% of the strain out of leaf collection.
I made a prototype and decided I’d call it Back ReLeaf. It was to be the first product in a growing line of products for Painless Gardeners.
Well, since then someone has introduced a product that’s similar so I guess the Back ReLeaf won’t be the making of my fortune. I still love using it and the people I’ve shared it with share my enthusiasm.
So, in my next post, I’ll show you how to make a Back ReLeaf tool in about 30 minutes. You’ll enjoy it for years.