Leaf mould

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Turning leaves into valuable compost

Compost made solely of leaves is called leaf mould and it is usually made separately from garden compost, since it has distinct qualities. In woodland it makes itself and is the soft springy stuff underfoot, but in a formal garden, leaves can be a nuisance and it often makes sense to build and catch them in a “bin” until they rot down and become easier to handle.

plastic free leaf mould bin

Pick a spot easily accessed by wheelbarrow on which to build a “bin”. (Bin is a misnomer really: this structure is the gossamer fairy of bins and a crafty gardener can make it almost disappear.) You need to be able to tip leaves into your bin. Make sure it will be easy to fork leaves out of a barrow into the bin . Safety is important because collecting leaves is a winter job and they can be slippery and so can seasonal ice and mud. If your chosen site will catch sun and rain, your collected leaves will rot down faster. But you may need to compromise on location for all sorts of reasons. Rain is more important than sun if you must choose between. Soil is better than concrete, but happily, leaves will decompose anywhere, as anyone who has cleared a gutter will confirm. If the site you pick can’t take stakes (concrete, for example), the stakes needed to make the bin don’t need to be fixed into the ground at all. You can fix stakes to the wire instead. Depending on your site, you may even not need stakes at all.

Having chosen a site you can decide the shape of your leaf container. A circle is optimal. If choosing a circle, you can even get away with just one stake. But a square shape will often suit a site better. On a soil surface, hammer a few short vertical stakes into the ground. They don’t need to go deep at all. Two or three inches is fine. You will need four stakes to make the corners of a tidy square bin.

Then take a roll of chicken wire and cut it a few inches longer than the diameter you choose. Wind the length of wire around the outside of the stakes, joining both ends together and fix it to the stakes very lightly so you can adjust easily. Make sure you don’t have sharp cut ends of wire showing anywhere. Once the short ends of chicken wire are joined, you will have a box or cylinder with a wide open top.

You do not need a heavy structure because chicken wire has no wind resistance. And once you have some leaves inside your bin, they will help it to sit firm. Fixing the structure as lightly as you can means you can adapt it and move it easily. In a year’s time, once it has done its job and the leaves are settled and no longer need a structure to hold them in place, you might want to move your bin and start a new leaf pile in another part of the garden.

With some thought, it need not be obtrusive, especially as chicken wire oxidises and loses its bright shine. If placed in deep shadow, the leaves may rot more slowly, but carefully positioned, it can be virtually invisible.

Now you can start tipping in leaves, which then can’t blow away. They will quickly get wet and heavy, helping to weigh down and stabilise the structure. Keep piling leaves in as deeply as possible (rotting leaves shrink down as any compost does). It is less dusty to sweep and move leaves after rain when there is no wind and they’re still damp.

Although a large leaf compost will rot faster, many small leaf stores in a large garden can work better for the gardener, unless like York Cathedral, your garden has people and equipment to transport garage sized volumes of leaves long distances.

Use leaf mould when it has matured to a peaty dark compost or as soon as it rotted to the point where it is easier to handle than fresh leaves.

Home made leaf mould is free. It makes a free weed suppressing mulch. It is nature’s nutrient for trees. It is less slippery than mud, so can be used to make a woodland type path. It will improve the soil anywhere in the garden. Soil rich in organic matter absorbs far more rain and drains better. In the greenhouse it is a free moisture retentive ingredient of home made peat free seed compost.

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