Free low-mess low-faff compost
Create a leaf library
I don’t know if I am just paying more attention this year, but the autumn leaf colours seem particularly vivid. We’ve seen some trees shed their leaves prematurely because of the extreme dryness and heat this summer. And before too long the remainder of deciduous trees will shed their leaves.
But every cloud has a silver lining, and this lining comes in the form of making leaf mould for our gardens.
Leaves have a different biological structure to other plant elements, making them slower and sometimes tougher to rot down and make into compost. The good news is that with an old black bin liner, a pint glass and a sharp knife or fork, you can turn autumn leaves into gold for your garden. It’s mess and smell free and doesn’t attract vermin.
It’s also an ideal way of entertaining children during half term, even though the actual work takes moments.
What leaves to use
Firstly, find some leaves to gather up. If you have leaves falling on your borders, you don’t need to collect them up. They will rot down right where they are. So collect leaves from lawns or other areas where they won’t be able to decompose.
Beech, hornbeam and oak leaves are ideal. Some larger leaves, like horse chestnut, will take longer to break down. If you have a lawn mower, you can put them on the lawn and chop them up by mowing them.
Avoid leaves that have fallen beside busy roads or areas where dogs or other wildlife might have left their mark.
If you have pine trees shedding needles, collect them up separately - these have particular value for helping ericaceous (acid loving) plants like blueberries, rhododendrons and camellias thrive.
How to make leaf mould
1. Stuff your bin liner with the leaves. I tend to use old bags from compost or any other plastic bag available. Dark is better as it will absorb the sunlight and speed up decomposition.
2. Pour in about 0.5 - 1 litre, or 1-2 pint’s worth, of water. If the leaves are sopping wet when you are collecting them, you can skip this step.
3. Tie the top of the bag with an elastic band, bit of string, or just tie the ends together.
4. Shake the bag as if you were shaking a packet of crisps. This will make sure all the leaves are coated with water. Children are particularly keen on this stage!
5. Stab the outside of the bag multiple times with your preferred sharp implement. You can use a screwdriver, garden fork, or a kitchen knife. This is much easier to do when the bag is full of leaves though do take care if children are involved. This will give drainage for excess water.
6. Now just store the bag somewhere out of the way in a forgotten corner for a year or two.
7. And that’s it - you’re done! Leave it a year or two and it will be ready to use. How it turns from opal-coloured leaves to black squidgy mulch I will never truly comprehend.
8. Over time, you can create your very own “leaf library”. Here’s my series of bags over the last four years - you can see the finer leaf mould has broken down over time. The newest bags go on the far-left hand side, so I know to use from the bags at the far-right hand side.
What to use leaf mould for
Leaf mould has a number of uses. Here are some of them:
Put on top of borders and beds in autumn as a mulch to improve fertility - putting a thick layer of 5 cm (2 inches) provides frost protection, improves plant growth and reduces water loss. If you don’t have enough to cover all the areas thickly, concentrate in one area. 2cm of coverage in a wider area is pretty pointless. One year old leaf mould is ideal for this.
Use it for seed sowing - leaf mould has fine particles and is naturally peat free, so it’s a brilliant medium for sowing seeds. Use two year old leaf mould if you can wait that long.
Use it for putting cuttings of plants in - a quick way of getting more plants for nothing.
Use as a soil conditioner to improve fertility when you are planting out plants. The longer you leave the mould, the higher quality the conditioner it will be. Mix it in lightly to where you are putting in new plants and watch the worms get to work.
Cover over bare patches of soil in the winter - it'll stop weed seeds falling onto the earth and will help retain moisture.