Grow at Home: Making leaf mould (or free compost!)
Leaf mould compost is also known as Gardeners Gold and is an amazing soil conditioner. It is that glorious stuff you find on forest floors created from all the decaying leaves. The good news is that you can make leaf mould at home. Generally it takes two years to make, although you can use it slightly differently after only one and there is even a way to make leaf mould in 6 months. (In case you are the really impatient sort!)
When to make Leaf Mould
The obvious time is autumn / fall when deciduous trees drop their leaves. But if you have pine trees you will find that these drop their needles throughout the year, with more activity in spring, so gathering them will be ongoing.
What leaves can be used to make Leaf Mould?
Any leaves, even pine needles, can be used as they all break down eventually into leaf mould. some need more encouragement than others though. Oak, beech or hornbeam make the best leaf mould and will all break down with little assistance and produce an excellent quality product. The thicker and leatherier the leaves the more help they will need. So leaves like horse and sweet chestnut, sycamore or walnut will break down easier if you shred them first before adding them to the leaf mould pile.
Evergreens leaves such as holly, cherry laurel and conifer hedge clippings need even more help. These definitely need to be shredded and will then benefit from the heat of an active compost heap to speed up the process. Otherwise it will be 3 or more years before they start to decay sufficiently.
Is leaf mould acidic?
If you have ericaceous plants like blueberries, heathers, rhododendrons or azaleas then you might want to make a separate leaf mould pile of pine needles. The leaf mould they produce will be acidic and perfect for your ericaceous plants.
How to make Leaf Mould
Collect leaves when the weather is still and dry to avoid the wind undoing all your neat piles! You will need to moisten leaves for storage so if you collect wet leaves you will be half way there.
Start with the leaves in your own garden but you can also collect from public places too. I'm sure the council will be more than happy of all the leaves suddenly disappear! Beware of collecting from major thoroughfares as the leaves may pick up the pollution from the traffic. So head to the back roads for cleaner leaves.
There are several ways to collect leaves. You can rake them into piles or use a garden vacuum if you have one. Or better still, for leaves on the lawn - mow them. This will chop them up. You can then empty them from the grass box with a nice sprinkling of nitrogen rich grass to add to the mix. If you have larger leathery leaves then you can either chop them up with a sharp spade or you can mow as outlined above.
Shredding, strimming or mowing your leaves will help the breakdown, speed the process up and give you a finer end product.
Where to store the leaves
Many gardeners make leaf mould in plastic bags, like bin liners, stabbed with holes. If you are doing this then place the leaves in the bag and moisten them then tie the bag loosely before storing. You will want to put these unsightly lumps of black plastic behind the shed or somewhere out of sight.
If you are going to use the resulting leaf mould for growing food or just want to reduce the amount of plastic you are using, then using a natural, jute sack is a much better alternative.
Pack the leaves tightly into your Composting Sack and tie the top. Keep stuffing - they take much more than you'd think. Then place at the back of a border or around the base of a tree for the winter.
The first benefit of this is that you will suppress weeds. But also, the rain will wash the nitrogen out into the surrounding soil and feed your plants. Alternatively you could place it on a raised bed over winter. When it comes to spring you will have a weed free bed and rotted organic matter that can be dug in to condition your soil. There may be some larger leaves that haven't rotted and these can be removed and added to the compost pile.
Wherever you put it, turn the sack every now and to aerate and moisten if you have a particularly dry spell - both of these will speed up the decaying process.
A Leaf Mould Cage
If you have a lots of trees, and enough room in your garden, then you can store leaves in a frame or cage. To make a leaf mould cage you will need chicken wire and wooden stakes . Build it in a sheltered part of the garden so the wind doesn't empty it every time we have a storm.
One of the issues of doing it this way is that leaf mould heaps can become covered in weeds. These might be spread when you use the leaf mould so watch out for this. If your leaf mould pile is slow to break down, try turning it regularly to aerate the leaves and speed up the breakdown process.
Make sure that the leaves do not dry out, moistening the pile if
necessary in hot, dry weather.
How to make Leaf Mould in 6 months
If you really can't wait and want to know how to make leaf mould quickly then adding leaf mould accelerators will help you speed up the process considerably. It isn't a very pleasant process though!
As described before, chop the leaves up as fine as you can to start with.
If you are using Composting Sacks then fill them with your finely shredded leaves adding a few grass clippings for extra nitrogen. Place them on your raised bed or wherever you decide to keep them and water with water that has had a mix of chicken manure, cow dung or urine soaked in it. Ensure that sack and leaves are fully soaked. Then agitate with a spade to kick start the process. Turn every now and then and water if the sacks become dry.
If you are using a leaf mould cage then put a layer 4 or 5 inches thick in then water with the accelerant rich water as above. Add a second layer of leaves, water and continue on in this way until you have used all of your leaves up. Agitate the pile before covering with a layer of hessian or black plastic. NB don't use carpet as there are far too many stain proofing treatments on modern carpets to make them safe for garden use. Check regularly and water as needed to keep it moist.
How to use Leaf Mould
2 Year Old Leaf Mould
2 year old well-rotted leaf mould can be used as seed-sowing compost. Alternatively, you can mix it equally with sharp sand, garden compost and soil to make potting compost.
One Year old Leaf Mould
Use as mulch, soil improver, autumn top-dressing for lawns, or winter covering for bare soil.
So that's it - your step by step guide to making your own free leaf mould compost. Despite including instructions for making leaf mould in 6 months we encourage you not to be impatient. Just make this one of your yearly autumn gardening tasks. You will have to wait 2 years now, but once you are aboard the leaf mould train you will have a steady supply each year.
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