Leaf mould compost is extremely useful in a garden, and all the better for being something that you can make yourself at home. This is basically a type of mulch material or compost made from autumn leaves that have fallen from deciduous trees or shrubs in your garden. It is particularly useful as a soil amendment and as an ingredient for filling pots and other containers.
Leaf mould compost can always be useful. But gardeners will learn that not all leaf mould compost will be created equal. Some leaf mould mulch can be better than others. This guide contains a few tips and tricks to help you make sure you create a quality leaf mould when you make your own leaf mould compost in your garden. We offer a range of spares and accessories for your polytunnels and other gardening needs to assist in making leaf mould compost.
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Making Leaf Mould Compost
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We turn our attention to making leaf mould compost when we see the leaves falling from the trees or shrubs in our gardens or the surrounding area.
Making leaf mould compost is a process that takes some time, but it really is not difficult. It is something, after all, that happens naturally in your garden whether or not you intervene, as long as you let the leaves decompose naturally on the surface of the soil.
Leaf mould compost forms naturally as humus on the floor of a forest or woodland. When we make leaf mould compost, we are simply harnessing the natural process and directing it to achieve our own garden goals.
The Natural Cycle of Fallen Leaves
Leaves on deciduous plants will drop naturally from the plant as part of their lifecycles. This is a biological strategy these plants have developed for a range of reasons when they reach the end of the growing period and enter a dormant stage for winter.
Through the growing season, deciduous tree leaves work hard on the process of photosynthesis, turning sunshine and CO2 into plant sugars. With changing light and a reduction in temperatures, the leaves are dropped in order to:
- Allow the plants to survive the winter weather more effectively and efficiently.
- Conserve water in cold, drying winds.
- Protect from insect damage and predation over the coldest months.
Of course, new leaves will emerge from these plants in the spring. The old leaves that have fallen to the ground will begin to decompose, when not collected, and will become part of the natural cycle of decay, decomposition and growth.
The leaves will break down slowly over time, with the aid of the life on and below the surface of the soil. Many detritivores and other species will be involved in this process, and micro-organisms and other organisms like earthworms will help carry the material and integrate it into the soil.
Be careful as you gather leaves to use in your leaf mulch compost, as they can bring a range of obstacles, particularly common bay leaf tree problems.
When and Why to Collect Fallen Leaves
It is important to realise that we do not always have to collect up fallen leaves in order for them to be useful in our gardens. Sometimes, it will be best to allow natural processes to simply take place in our gardens – letting the leaves decompose where they fall.
However, there will be times when the leaves fall on paths, patios or other areas where they are not going to be able to decompose naturally and create a rich humus. In these cases, it is best to collect the leaves so that we can make leaf mould to amend the soil or use elsewhere within our space.
We may also wish to collect fallen leaves in order to spread the nutrients that they contain to other parts of our garden, either through making leaf mould compost or simply through using the fallen leaves as an organic mulch material.
Being a successful organic gardener means working out where we should let nature take the reigns, and where we should intervene and take things a little more into our own hands. Getting the right balance is crucial for success and even where we do intervene, we should always remember that we are still working with nature – in harmony with the natural world and its cycles.
Benefits of Leaf Mould Compost
Leaf mould compost is beneficial in a garden because it is high-quality organic matter. It contains nutrients that can be beneficial for the plants that we tend and grow, and it also has a good, light, friable texture that can help to improve the soil or create a good growing medium for plants in pots and containers.
Leaf mould compost is one of the best mulches or soil conditioners around and the good news is that anyone can make it. Pretty much all you really need to generate this useful material for your garden are autumn leaves, and time. We have a great guide on organic mulch which further lists the benefits of leaf mould compost too.
The Sustainability and Savings of Leaf Mould Compost
Making your own leaf mould compost is one of the many ways in which organic gardeners can avoid the need for imported materials and resources in their gardens. And of course, cutting down on consumption and buying less, as well as buying better, is one of the things we can do to become more sustainable gardeners.
Of course, this choice can save you money too – as one of the many things we can do as gardeners to reduce the amount that we need to spend on creating a healthy, beautiful and productive garden.
Understanding why we are making leaf mould can help us to keep our eyes on the end goals and achieve the best possible results.
Step-by-Step Guide to Making Leaf Mould
The actual process of making leaf mould in your garden is very simple indeed. But the small choices that you make at different stages of this process can determine the quality of the finished product and how useful it will be in your gardening efforts.
The first stage is to decide which leaves you will collect. Of course, you need to think about where the leaves have fallen and whether they are best left to lie where they fall or can indeed be better used elsewhere.
But you also need to think about the specific type of leaves, and the specific tree or shrub species from which they came. Some specific tree leaves make better leaf mould for specific purposes than others, and the leaves have different characteristics that mean they are best used in different ways.
You Will Need:
- Autumn leaves.
- A leaf rake or other tools to gather the leaves.
- A leaf bin or receptacle for leaf storage.
The first step is to decide where you will store the leaves as they break down, and to create a leaf bin or other storage area.
Next, you just:
- Collect fallen leaves.
- Store the leaves.
- And wait for them to break down.
Choosing and Collecting Your Leaves
Oak, beech and hornbeam leaves are best of all. Though all deciduous trees’ leaves will work fine, some thick leaves such as sycamore and horse chestnut will take far longer to break down – shredding them can speed up this process.
It is best not to add evergreen leaves to your general purpose leaf mould pile and pine needles are best kept separate to make a separate soil-enricher or mulch that will be perfect for acid-loving plants.
Do not worry about getting some grass in with your leaves, this will just make your leaf mould richer in nutrients. Do try to avoid spreading weeds into your leaf mould pile along with the leaves as these could potentially become a problem if you do not keep on top of it.
Creating a Storage Place and Storing Your Leaves
It is possible to use black bin bags with holes pricked in them to store your leaves. However, if, like me, you prefer to be more sustainable and avoid using the plastic then you can easily just make a mesh bin or fenced off area in which to store your leaves as they rot down.
Try to make sure that you create a structure that is large enough to accommodate all the fallen leaves that you would like to collect from your property. And make sure that it is in a relatively sheltered position so that the leaves that you gather do not blow away.
Allow for plenty of ventilation in the structure so the leaves do not get slimy and air is able to circulate.
It is also best to create some sort of lift-able cover for your leaf pile so it does not become too wet. (Also, in very dry weather, it is best to sprinkle your leaves with a little water to make sure that the decomposition can continue.)
It is easier if you construct a storage area which has two compartments. That way you can add new leaves to the second area while leaving the leaves in the first one to break down for a second year.
Determining Leaf Mould Readiness
Once you’ve followed these steps for how to make leaf mould, it’s a game of waiting. After one year, your leaves will have broken down into a crumbly mulch that can be placed around mature plants in your garden.
Leave them be for another year, however, and your leaves will have completely broken down into a friable soil conditioner that will be perfect for potting up, along with home-made compost, or for adding fertility to your growing areas.
Versatile Uses of Leaf Mould
Leaf mould is one of the best mulches or soil conditioners that you can make. It can be used:
- As a mulch to keep down weeds and reduce moisture evaporation from the soil.
- As a soil improver, to add fertility to your growing areas.
- For use in a potting mix to grow your plants in containers.
Using 1st Year Leaf Mould As Mulch
After you’ve followed these steps for how to make leaf mould, you can actually start using it after the first year. I find that the material that is partially broken down after almost a year or so is very useful as a mulch for use around plants in my small polytunnel garden. I may use some as early as the summer after the leaves were collected, primarily to cover the soil around crops and suppress moisture losses.
Of course, this mulch material also enriches the soil and provides slow release fertility for the plants around which it is planted. It can also help to reduce competition from weeds.
Using 2nd Year Leaf Mould as Soil Improver
Once the leaves have broken down more fully, they are wonderful to spread around plants to improve the soil, and can also be used as autumn top-dressing for grassy areas.
If any areas of the garden have performed rather poorly over the summer, a top dressing of leaf mould can be one way to address this issue and ensure that the soil is as healthy as possible for the next plantings.
Using 2nd Year Leaf Mould in Potting Mix for Containers
But perhaps where I find leaf mould most useful is as a compost or potting mix. I use it frequently for seed starting, and alongside homemade compost and loamy soil to create potting mixes suitable and for container growing a range of different plants.
Fallen leaves in the autumn are a useful commodity. Even if you do not have many fallen leaves in your own garden, you may be able to collect some from the gardens of family, friends or neighbours, or even from a public space/ open land.
Making your own leaf mould is a wonderful idea if you want to grow in an eco-friendly and sustainable way. And it can save you money too as you create closed-loop systems in your garden and avoid the need to purchase any materials to maintain your growing efforts.
Troubleshooting Problems With Making Leaf Mould
As with other types of composting, there are things that can go wrong if you try to take decomposition into your own hands. Fortunately, any issues that you experience when making leaf mould are relatively easy to solve.
Check leaves collected from the street or a public area carefully to avoid importing rubbish or any dangerous items or substances. This should help you avoid any potential contamination issues. Ideally, only take leaves from areas that are organically managed.
Weeds may sometimes pop up when making leaf mould. But this is not usually an issue if you take the right approach to weeds in your garden.
If decomposition is too slow, then you can speed things up by;
- Selecting leaves that will break down more quickly.
- Shredding leaves (particularly those types that are slower to decompose).
- Maintaining the right moisture levels – keeping the leaves damp but not saturated and not letting them dry out entirely.
- Aerating well – turning the heap or the leaves in your storage area to ensure good aeration in the mix.
Which leaves make the best leaf mould compost?
Oak, beech, and hornbeam leaves are considered the best for making leaf mould as they break down relatively quickly. Maple and fruit tree leaves are also good choices. These leaves decompose to form a fine, crumbly texture ideal for garden use.
Can you use wet leaves to make leaf mould compost?
Yes, in fact, wet leaves are preferable when starting a leaf mould pile. Moisture is essential for the decomposition process. If leaves are dry when collected, it’s a good idea to wet them before starting your pile or bin.
What leaves to avoid in leaf mould?
Avoid leaves from evergreen trees, like pine needles or holly, in your general leaf mould pile as they take much longer to decompose. Walnut, eucalyptus, and camphor laurel leaves contain substances that can inhibit plant growth and are best left out. Also, be cautious with leaves from streets or areas that might be contaminated with pollutants or chemicals.
Lane, M., (2022) ‘Gardener’s Secret’: Leaf Mould is ‘Important for the Garden’ and now’s the ‘perfect time’. Express. [online] Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/garden/1682735/garden-compost-how-to-make-leaf-mould-ifl [accessed 29/09/23]
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.