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Choosing the right rake makes the job easier

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When it starts raining leaves, most homeowner reach for rakes.

Lawn care experts say leaving fallen leaves on the lawn through winter, particularly beneath a heavy blanket of snow, can set up your lawn for damage. Those layers of leaves can smother the grass and leave ugly brown spots in spring.

Some folks crank up the mower to slice and dice leaves into powdery chips --- which can be great mulch for the lawn, protecting it from frigid, desiccating winter winds and fertilizing at the same time. There are the guys who fire up the leaf blowers and vacuums to make quick work of leaf clearing. Others enjoy the autumn ritual of raking leaves into big piles, then piling them on perennial beds for winter protection.In spring, dig the leaves into the soil. (Caveat: No leaves on roses because they can harbor the fungus that causes black spot.) You also can add leaves to compost piles.

This is the first year I have a real tree --- an Autumn Blaze maple --- that has produced enough leaves worth raking. Planted nearly five years ago, it was simply beautiful this year. The leaves turned a bright reddish color and when backlit by the sun, they glowed almost pink. I'm actually looking forward to raking.

Raking is good exercise and a great excuse to get outdoors. Most gardeners have at least two rakes in their arsenal: a fan rake for leaves and a bow rake --- the metal-tined, straight-edge rake used to smooth and level soil or make shallow furrows for seed planting.

The classic fan leaf rake is used with the same motion as a broom. A wider fan isn't better, said Jim Maffei, senior product manager for Ames True Temper tool maker, in a recent McClatchy article, because it produces more friction with each sweep and tires you quicker. He suggested choosing a rake based on your strength and what feels good. A medium-size rake (24 inches) is best for most people, the article stated.

The handle and head can be metal, plastic or bamboo. Plastic is good all-around. Metal rakes are good for raking wet leaves. The best metal rakes also have tension bars to eliminate bending or breaking. Bamboo rakes are lightweight and easy to wield; be careful what you rake because the tines will break off. Any of these materials can damage grass if used with yanking, rather than pulling and sweeping motions.

A basket-style head rake captures and holds alot of leaves as you pull it toward the pile and there are rakes designed so leaves don't get caught in the tines. You'll find rakes with pivoting heads with adjustable angles and rakes and adjustable handles that are kinder to the body.

There are skinny shrubbery rakes with long tines, designed to pull leaves out of shrubbery without damaging plants. One of the smartest designs combines both the fan and shrubbery rank into a single rake that allows the user to adjust fan width and handle height.

Fancier models include rakes with two heads that pivot and open to swallow leaves so you can dump them into your yard cart or bag without bending. You can do the same thing if you're coordinated enough to use two rakes. I'm not --- I usually clonk myself in the head with one or both of the handles. Instead I have a large dustpan I use with a rake in similar fashion, handy when you're trying to pick up something like black walnut tree nuts and debris.

For close-in raking around perennials, invest in a smaller, short-handled rake that can be easily jostled around plants from a kneeling position.

There also are variations of the bow rake, including one that has an offset tine design that can break ground and sift the soil with each stroke. These are rigid metal rakes for soil work such as grading and tilling.

Many lawn-lovers also own dethatching rakes, wicked-looking rakes with sharp, angled teeth. Manually dethatching a small lawn is easier on the grass if the thatch isn't more than 1 inch. Large lawns may require power dethatching if the thatch is thick. If you aren't experienced at operating this type of heavy equipment, hire a professional lawn service company. You could do a lot more harm than good. Otherwise, aerate the lawn instead of dethatching.

Warm up your muscles before raking --- or you're likely to end up aching. There's a lot of hip, shoulder and back action in raking, so stretch a little, switch sides often and bend at the knees. Dress warmly to keep muscles loosey-goosey and wear gloves to protect hands from blisters.

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