Making leaf mould

About leaf mould

Most leaves can be turned into leaf mould, but some take longer to compost than others. Oak, alder and hornbeam will soon rot down, while sycamore, beech, horse chestnut and sweet chestnut take a little longer. Leaves from conifers and evergreen plants will take between two and three years to compost and are best added in small quantities only, shredding them first to help speed up composting.

If you only have a small garden, you can save them in bin liners, but if you have the space – and a lot of leaves to collect – try building a leaf bin. It’s a simple cage-like structure that shouldn’t take any longer than 30 minutes to put together.

Saving leaves in bags

  • Take a black bin liner and punch a few holes in the side and bottom.
  • Rake up leaves weekly and stash in the bag.
  • When almost full, sprinkle with water, shake and tie.
  • Store in a shady spot and the following autumn the leaves will have rotted down into a rich, crumbly mixture that can be used as a mulch around the base of plants.
  • Let the leaves rot down for another year if you want to use as soil conditioner.

Making a leaf bin

Here’s how to make a bin 60cm square by 90cm high – if you change the dimensions, make sure you can still reach easily into the bin to remove the leaf mould.

You will need:

  • 1 roll galvanised chicken netting: 3m x 0.9m (10ft x 3ft)
  • 4 tree stakes: 1.2m x 40mm (4ft x 1.5in)
  • 20 galvanised staples
  • Mallet
  • Hammer
  • Wire cutters
  • Heavy gloves

Hammer the tree stakes into the ground, 60cm apart, to make a square frame. Keep as upright as possible and leave 90cm of stake above ground. Unroll chicken wire and attach to first stake with five galvanised staples. Pull tightly to the next stake, attach with staples again and repeat on all sides. Wearing gloves, snip off any excess wire with clippers and bend in any sharp edges.

How To Make Great Leafmould

05.05.2016 in News

And the leaves that are green… turn to brown!

Perhaps the best time to collect leaves is just after it has rained when they will be well soaked. Alternatively hose them down with water. Now you simply fill the Leafmould Maker with the leaves, compressing each layer as you go. Even if you fill your Leafmould Maker, the volume of leaves will gradually but significantly reduce over the coming months. If you fill your cage then place the ‘lid’ on top of the leaves to prevent any wind scattering. At its simplest that’s it, all you have to do now is wait. We have two great value Leafmould Composters available on our Leafmould Composting page.

After about one year the leaves should be sufficiently rotted to use as a mulch or to dig into your soil. To achieve a finer product e.g .to use as a lawn dressing or in potting composts simply leave it for a further year and you’ll have an excellent peat alternative with numerous gardening applications.

It is best not to mix up leaves from different years as this will result in a less even and consistent end product. After the first year the leafmould pile should be quite stable and sufficiently rotted that wind scattering won’t be a problem. Better still, why not have two Leadmould Makers for a neat and tidy continuous process?

To Speed up the Process
There are several simple ways to quicken the process and achieve leafmould in about half the normal time.

Shredding
Shred the leaves before filling the Leafmould Maker. This can be done using a garden shredder, or by spreading your leaves on the lawn and running a lawn mower over them. A cylinder mower with a grass box is ideal for this, as it will shred and collect in one operation. Any bits of grass (seed free) collected in this process will also help to speed up leafmould making.

As shredding is best done with dry leaves to avoid clogging up your shredder or mower – remember to wet them before filling your leafmould cage.

Natural Activators
Unusual as it may sound; human urine is an excellent natural activator rich in nitrogen. If you care to, simply pour a few pints (diluted 50/50 with water) over the leaves. Any more direct application methods are entirely up to you and at your risk!

Turn and add grass clippings
In the first spring after filling, empty out the leaves, mix with fresh grass clippings (in the proportion of 4 parts leaves to 1 part grass – ie 25% grass) and refill the leafmould maker compressing the leaf/grass mixture as you go.

Any or all of these simple actions will significantly speed up the whole process.

Why not just compost leaves with other garden waste?
Leaves have a fibrous structure and are slow to rot down. Mixing with conventional compost material will slow down your compost heap and reduce its heat generation. Leafmould making is a slow cool process performed by fungi (hence mould) naturally present in leaves. On the other hand composting is a faster, heat generating process utilising naturally occurring microbes and bacteria.

What leaves can I use?
Virtually any tree or shrub leaves will make a good leafmould. Oak and beech leaves are perhaps a bit quicker to rot and plane, chestnut and sycamore leaves a bit slower.

The typical ph (acidity/alkalinity) of leafmould is between 6.5 and 7.5 ie about neutral. A preponderance of conifer an evergreen leaves or needles will tend to produce a more acidic leafmould. Such acidic leafmould would be excellent for acid loving plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons.

What if I don’t have enough leaves in my garden?
Friends and neighbours will probably be only too keen to let you have their autumn leaf fall. Additionally local authorities collect thousands of tons of leaves each year. So a word with the council, or your local parks department could easily generate a serious quantity of leaves.

To make the best use of your leafmould
Leafmould is one of the longest lasting of all organic soil conditioners. By significantly improving both the organic content and physical structure of soil it results in a considerable increase in fertility wherever applied – all round the garden.

Leafmould can be used to great benefit on vegetable and ornamental beds, for annuals and perennials, and around fruit trees, bushes and shrubs.
Used on any soil type it can be dug in or spread as a surface mulch.

Mulching
Use just like peat or bark as a quality surface mulch. For water retention purposes spread a layer of 1-1.5 inches. For water retention and weed suppression a layer of 2-2.5 inches.

Top dressing
Fine well rotted leafmould makes an excellent top dressing for a lawn or seed bed. It is useful, although not essential, to sieve the leafmould prior to using it as a top dressing. For top dressing a lawn the best time is in the main growing season. Apply a thin layer of fine leafmould after spiking the lawn, then simply brush it in. If required this can be repeated several times during the grass growing season.

Seed compost
Mix 1 part of well rotted and sieved leafmould with 1 part of sharp sand. This will produce an excellent free rotting medium with sufficient nutrients for seedings up to pricking off stage.

Making a potting compost
Being similar to sedge peat, leafmould is a useful constituent of a potting compost. Two typical formulas are outlined below:-

A.
1 part well rotted leafmould
1 part garden loam
2 parts compost

B.
1 part well rotted leafmould
1 part worm worked compost
1 part garden loam
1 part perlite

to view our selection of great value Leafmould Composting products.

How to make leafmould

Don’t miss out on nature’s free bounty at this time of year, says Alan Titchmarsh, as he explains how to turn autumn leaves into magical leafmould

Having collected up all the fallen leaves in your garden, it’s such a waste to simply throw them away. With the minimum of effort, you can turn them into a rich soil improver called leafmould or even sieve it to make home-made compost. Autumn leaves are nature’s way of recycling organic matter, forming a thick mulch on the forest floor that suppresses weeds and improves the soil. But in gardens autumn leaves need to be cleared-up to avoid problems. A layer of wet leaves on the lawn, for example, will smother and weaken the grass, making it vulnerable to disease infection during the winter months. Susceptible plants, such as alpines, will soon rot under a wet autumn blanket…and slippery leaves can be a hazard on paths and steps.

Why collect autumn leaves?

  • Keep the garden tidy
  • Remove winter refuges for pests and diseases
  • Stop leaves smothering and weakening lawns
  • Prevent paths and steps becoming hazardous
  • Avoid rotting alpines and other susceptible plants
  • Make free soil improver

Clearing leaves

Autumn leaves are easier to collect when they are dry. Sweeping and raking can be backbreaking work especially if you have a large garden. So these days many opt for powered collectors, such as garden blowers and vacuums or hand-pushed leaf sweepers for clearing lawns and other flat surfaces. If you have a rotary mower, one trick that works well, is to set the cutting blade high and use the lawnmower to collect the leaves. Not only does this make life a lot easier, but you will shred the leaves in the process and mix in a sprinkling of sappy grass clippings too – both of which will help speed up the decomposition process.

Recycling autumn leaves Unlike a compost heap, a leafmould bin doesn’t heat up, so weed seeds and disease spores are not killed. For this reason, I always clear up diseased leaves from under fruit trees and roses and dispose of these separately by burning or binning – better to be safe than sorry with troublesome problems like apple and pear scab or rose blackspot. Since diseased leaves usually fall prematurely, they can be cleared before autumn leaf-fall proper gets underway. You can add all other types of autumn leaves to your leafmould bin. The operative word here is ‘autumn’, because you should not add evergreen leaves and conifer hedge trimmings since they will slow the rotting process – shred these and put them on the regular compost heap instead. The best leafmould is derived from oak and beech leaves. Both break down slowly into a lovely crumbly texture that’s a delight to handle.

Making a leafmould bin

If you have a lot of autumn leaves, you can make a simple metre-square leafmould enclosure out of four stout corner posts and a pen of rot-proof, fine-mesh netting. Site the bin somewhere out of the way and fill it with layers of leaves as they are collected, treading down the pile periodically to get more in. If the leaves are dry, water the heap before covering it with an old piece of carpet or similar to stop the leaves blowing about. With luck, you will have lots of lovely, crumbly leafmould to use when planting next autumn. But be patient, since it may take two or more years with rot-resistant leaves such as horse-chestnut. In a small garden where there are not enough leaves to fill a bin, it is still worth collecting them up in black polythene sacks. Again, add water if the leaves are dry, then tie up the sacks, puncture them a few times with a garden fork and place them somewhere out of sight, such as behind the shed. Small amounts of leaves may take longer to decompose, so inspect them after a year and replace the leaves if they require more ‘cooking’ time.

Quick leafmould You can increase the speed of leafmould decomposition by adding soft green lawn clippings. Mix the weed-free grass clippings into the leafmould bin or add a sprinkling to sacks of leaves as they are filled. Using this method, you can have useable leafmould in about half the time.

Home-made leafmould compost

Making compost out of well-rotted leafmould is straightforward, if a little laborious. All you need to do is to remove any lumps by putting it through a garden sieve. The sieved compost makes an excellent lawn top-dressing after spiking or scarifying in autumn, or can be used for potting up acid-loving plants, such as azaleas and rhododendrons.

Let’s get real for a second…

Leaf composting is one of the smartest things you can do for your garden.

If you haven’t gotten into it yet, or don’t know where to start, this is for you. Get ready to know everything you’ll ever want to know about how to compost leaves so that your leaves decay quickly and turn into beautiful, rich compost!

Listen to this post on the Epic Gardening Podcast

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Why Should You Compost Leaves?

source

Leaves are great sources of nutrients and minerals. Up to 80% of a tree’s nutrients and minerals end up in its leaves. Leaves are often referred to as nature’s nutrient recyclers. By composting leaves, you have a perfect way of getting these valuable nutrients and minerals back into your soil.

They’re free! If you have trees in your garden, you will know that come fall you are almost buried in leaves. Learn to take advantage of this free source of goodness for your garden.

If you don’t have trees in your garden, why not ask a neighbor or friend with trees? Many people would happily pass on a few bags of leaves, especially if you help out with some of the leaf collection! You can also ask a local landscaper. They are often happy to donate bags of leaves as it saves them time and money in tipping fees.

Leaves provide a high carbon source or ‘browns’ for your compost. The carbon/nitrogen (or C/N) ratio of leaves is usually over 30, often around 50. That is, they are low in nitrogen which is often hard to find in other sources of composting material.

Common Problems of Leaf Composting

There are two main issues you might run into when trying leaf composting:

Leaves have a tendency to mat, particularly un-shredded leaves. Matted leaves create an impenetrable barrier to air and water and thus significantly slow decomposition. Be sure to shred your leaves if you’re going to compost them.

Leaves take a long time to break down. Leaves contain varying amounts of lignin. Lignin is resistant to decomposing, meaning that leaves can often take a year or two to fully decompose.

4 Ways to Deal With Leaves In Your Garden

Here are four great ways to get the most out of your leaves in your garden. The approach that works best for you and your garden will depend on the volume of leaves you get, the space you have to handle them and how long you want to decompose them. We’ll start off with composting, and then suggest a few other ways to deal with them if you want a few more ideas.

1. Make Compost

Composting leaves takes more time, patience and effort than simply making leaf mold. But if you have the space and time, then leaves can be a great way to make extra compost for your garden.

Note that not all leaves are created equally. Some leaves compost more effectively than others.

Good leaves for composting: The best leaves for composting are those lower in lignin and higher is calcium and nitrogen. These leaves include ash, maple, fruit tree leaves, poplar, and willow. These ‘good’ leaves will typically break down in about a year.

Bad leaves for composting: Bad leaves are those higher in lignin and lower in nitrogen and calcium. These include beech, oak, holly, and sweet chestnut. Also, make sure to avoid using leaves of black walnut and eucalyptus as these plants contain natural herbicides that will prevent seeds from germinating.

How to Compost Leaves

Firstly, shred or grind the leaves. This will significantly speed up the composting process. If you don’t have a shredder, you can simply mow the leaves to collect them. Alternatively, a garbage can and a string trimmer will work (be sure to wear eye and ear protection). Fill your garbage can approximately three quarters full with leaves. Put your string trimmer in, turn it on and move it through the layers of leaves.

Leaves are considered ‘browns’ in your compost pile. Therefore you need to add liberal amounts of ‘green’ materials, high in nitrogen, such as grass clippings or kitchen waste. To prevent attracting pests to your compost pile and to speed up the composting process, bokashi composting is a great way to pre-compost your food waste. Mix 4-5 parts leaves to one part green waste.

Adding compost accelerator to your pile will add a boost of microbes to help the composting process.

Turn your pile 1-2 times a week. Add more green waste (grass clippings, kitchen waste etc) as you turn. Turning the pile and mixing in oxygen will get it to heat up and compost more quickly. Remember to keep the pile moist. It wants to be the consistency of a sponge. Covering the pile with a plastic sheet will help to keep the pile warm and prevent it from drying out.

If you keep up the regime of regularly turning and aerating your pile you should have high quality leaf compost by the following spring.

Extra leaves can be stored in sacks next to your compost pile. These can be added to your compost pile as brown materials to balance the green materials and aerate your compost pile throughout the year.

2. Add Directly To Your Garden

The first, and easiest, option is to add them directly to your soil as a top dressing. This will help to keep your soil (and plant roots) insulated over the winter. Covering bare soil with leaves over the winter (such as unused vegetable gardens) will protect the soil from heavy rains and winds that may erode the soil and leach out important nutrients.

Tip: Chop in a layer of bokashi pre-compost (or other green waste such as grass clippings)

3. Use to Protect Containers

Leaves can also be used to protect containers from harsh winter temperatures. Cluster your containers together and cover with leaves, including the top and sides of the containers.

Tip: If your containers are in a windy location, use chicken wire to hold the leaves in place.

4. Make Leaf Mold

High quality leaf mold. source

Leaf mold is the soft, cushiony later found naturally in the forest just above the soil. It decomposes slowly and adds nutrients gradually to feed plants and improve the soil structure. Leaf mold is not as rich in nutrient value as completely composted leaves but it is easier and quicker to make.

Leaf mold makes a useful mulch around the garden and has a fantastic ability to retain water. A good quality topsoil can hold around 60 percent of its weight in water, but leaf mold can hold between 300 and 500 percent of its weight in water!

Making Leaf Mold

Make a large container for your leaves. A circular bin made with chicken wire or snow fencing is cheap and simple to make. Add your leaves and dampen. Done! It’s that simple.

The leaf mold should be ready to use the following spring or summer, although some people choose to store their leaf mold for several years.

Tip: Leaf mold is slightly acidic so add ground limestone if you plants are sensitive to acidity.

The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:
Nicki Casley

Kevin Espiritu
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Composting Leaves – A Worthwhile Challenge

Composting leaves is an excellent way to give your compost and your garden a boost. However nearly everyone runs into a problem when trying to compost leaves. Here is a quick preview of what’s ahead here.

  • Tree Leaves are Great for Compost.
  • Leaves are often Difficult to Compost
  • Not all leaves are Alike
  • Tips for Successful Leaf Composting
  • The Leaf Mold Option

Tree Leaves are Great for Compost

Composting leaves, especially tree leaves is great for both your compost and your garden.

Most trees have long roots extending deep into the subsoil. They draw in the nutrients and trace minerals which have leached out of the upper soil layers.

Fifty to 80% of these nutrients end up in the leaves so you’ll find tree leaves rich in trace minerals. They are nature’s nutrient recyclers.

Most leaves provide a high carbon source or “browns” for your compost. In other words their C/N ratio is usually over 30, often around 50. Essentially this means they are low in Nitrogen. In a compost they’ll need their nitrogen rich green counterparts.

Composting Leaves is Often Difficult

If you were to believe everything you read about composting I have to think you’d feel betrayed by the leaves in your compost. The word out there would have you believe that by mixing your leaves with a few greens, in a couple of weeks you’ll be spreading a nicely rotted compost on your garden.

Not, I’m afraid. That huge pile of leaves you’re coping with in the fall are tough cookies. They contain varying amounts of Nitrogen, Lignin and Calcium. A whole winter’s time in the compost bin and there’s a good chance your leaves will look exactly like they did when you added them.

Leaves have two problems in a compost:

  • Leaves have a tendency to mat, especially when not shredded. When matted they will create an impenetrable barrier to air and water.
  • Leaves take a long time to break down. They contain varying amounts of lignin which is extremely resistant to decomposing. Usually a year or two is needed to fully decompose leaves.

Not All Leaves are Alike

Leaves are collectively categorized with a C/N ratio of around 60. This places them firmly in the ‘browns’ or high carbon category of the compost pile. Their actual C/N ratios range from around 20 to over 100.

It isn’t just the C/N ratio that tells how your leaves will perform in a compost. Decomposition is linked to the relative amounts of nitrogen, lignin and calcium they contain.

According to Ken Thompson, author of Compost (whose book I love for its straight forward info and humor), these are useful categories to use when composting leaves.

  • Good Leaves – those lower in lignin and higher is calcium and nitrogen – includes ash, cherry, elm, linden, maple, poplar and willow. Break down in about a year.
  • Bad Leaves – those higher in lignin and lower in nitrogen and calcium – includes beech, birch, hornbeam, oak, and sweet chestnut. I would also add magnolia and holly to this list. Need two or more years usually to breakdown.

For those who don’t know the names of your trees or whose trees are not on the list here is a rule of thumb that may work for you.

  • Green Leaves – some trees shed green leaves. These can be added in moderate amounts.
  • Red or Yellow Leaves – These can be used in small amounts.
  • Brown Leaves – Should be avoided but are good for leaf mold.

A last Caution- avoid the leaves of black walnut and eucalyptus tree leaves. These plants have natural herbicides that prevent seed from germinating.

Tips for Successful Leaf Composting

Okay – so your leaves are sometimes slow to breakdown and have a tendency to mat. These are the two problems you want to try to resolve in your compost and here’s how.

  • Shred your leaves. This will improve your success composting leaves because: Reduces the bulk of the leaves by about two thirds Reduces the tendency of the leaves to mat. Speeds up the decomposition process as more surface area is bared to the decomposers at work.
  • Mix shredded leaves with a high nitrogen source such as grass clippings. You can mix them by: Setting your mower to bag the clippings and mow the lawn and leaves together. You should get a well shredded and mixed material. Using a shredder pass both the nitrogen rich material of choice and the carbon rich leaves through together. A nice shredded mix results. Mix them by hand, a few forkfuls of leaves, a few of greens and stir.
  • If you are going to use layers make the layers thin so as not to get into big problems with matted leaves.

I’ve used two different leaf shredders and really like them. They are fast. You might consider getting one to share with neighbors. I take mine to the community garden in town to shred a bunch of leaves for our compost there.

I also like the idea of those reusable leaf bags both for carting pre shredded leaves to your shredder and storing the results. And of course an outdoor trash can to store beside your kitchen compost bin so you can balance the compost as you add your bits.

The Leaf Mold Option

Many experienced composters choose not to mix their fallen leaves into their composts. They instead handle them separately creating a special compost made from almost 100% leaves called leaf mold.

It’s simple to make leaf mold. Just follow these steps

  • Shred your leaves with a shredded or your lawn mower. This speeds up the amount of time needed to make leaf mold.
  • Collect them together in either
    • A naked pile (they may blow around though)
    • A wire cage or a compost bin.
    • In big plastic bags.
  • Add water if dry and wait. a year or two until ready.

The process is slow – a couple or three years – but the product – leaf mold is a deluxe mulch well worth the wait.

  1. Compost Home
  2. Compost Ingredients
  3. Composting Leaves

Top

If you are looking for a great way to make use of all of those falling leaves, creating a leaf-filled compost pile needs to be at the top of your list!

And it really is easier than you might think!

Composting leaves successfully boils down to four simple steps. And by simply following them this fall, you will be rewarded next year with rich and fertile compost to power your flowers and vegetable plants to new heights!

Those falling leaves can be turned into incredibly into beautiful compost to help power your landscape next year.

Let’s take a look at just how easy it is to turn Autumn’s colorful treasures into black gold.

The 4 Keys To Composting Leaves

#1 Select The Best Leaves For Composting

The first rule of leaf composting is to know that some varieties of leaves are better than others. Especially when it comes to fast, efficient composting.

Maple, birch, ash, beech, cherry, and all varieties of fruit and nut trees are the best choices of all. Not only do they decompose quickly, they are balanced in the nutrients they provide to a compost pile.

Maple leaves are among the best leaves to compost of all. They break down quickly, and are balanced in their nutrient make-up.

Although they will eventually compost, waxy, tough leaves from trees such as magnolia and ginkgo can take years to break down. For this reason, they are best left out of traditional compost piles.

And what about oak leaves? They can certainly be composted, but do to their acidic nature, should be done so in moderation.

The leaves of oak trees are more acidic than leaves from other trees. And too many in a pile can result in finished compost that is less than ideal for vegetable plants and flowers.

Waxy leaves like these magnolias can take a long time to decompose. For fast composting, leave these and other waxy, tough leaves out of the pile.

Keep fall compost piles to no more than 20% oak leaves to keep the acidity in check.

#2 Shred Those Leaves!

If you want to make good compost from leaves fast, then shredding is a must!

Whole leaves take FOREVER to decompose. Shredded leaves on the other hand, break down quickly in a compost pile.

Not only does shredding create smaller pieces to compost, it tears multiple edges of the leaf fragments, causing them to deteriorate even faster.

Shredding can be accomplished easily with a leaf shredder or with a push or riding mower.

Simply lay out the leaves in a row and mow over them. If your push mower happens to have a bagging attachment, even better!

Once shredded, add them to a compost bin, or ring them with a section of fencing or chicken wire. Keeping a pile contained helps hold them in place for faster composting. See : DIY Compost Bins Plans

#3 Add A Source Of Nitrogen To Help Compost Leaves

Although a pile of pure leaves will eventually break down, it breaks down much faster if it includes a source of nitrogen.

Nitrogen helps heat a pile up and aids in breaking down dry, carbon-based materials such as leaves.

A good compost pile is made up of a 4 parts of brown (dry materials), and 1 part “green” or active materials. Dry materials of course are the leaves. And they are balanced by the greens to get the pile cooking.

When it comes to composting leaves, nothing will help speed up the decomposition process like a little chicken manure.

Greens include fresh vegetable scraps, eggs shells, coffee grounds, fresh green grass clippings, and the best of all – manure! You can also use an organic compost starter to heat up the pile as well.

Chicken, cow, horse and rabbit manure are incredible to add to a fall leaf compost pile. They heat the pile quickly and break dry materials down with ease.

As a side note, avoid cat or dog manure completely. These sources of manure have too many possibilities for contamination.

#4 Add Oxygen To The Mix

In addition to a source of nitrogen, a good compost pile needs oxygen to fuel the fire.

And oxygen is added easily by simply turning and mixing your piles ingredients on a regular basis!

With a little air, water and nitrogen, leaves like this can quickly turn into black gold compost.

At minimum, turn your pile every week as the weather allows. Every few days is even better. This keeps oxygen in the core, and keeps the pile heated, even as temperatures drop.

In addition, if the pile is a bit dry, moisten it with a little water. A well-built compost pile should be the consistency of a well-wrung wet sponge. If it gets any drier than that, it slows the decomposition process.

Winter Care

Most piles will finally freeze at some point in the winter. But as temperatures allow, turn whenever possible. As early spring brings warmth back to the pile, continue turning at regular intervals.

Winter’s cold will bring the pile’s decomposition to a halt. But as soon as early spring brings warmer temps, keep turning that pile!

If properly managed, most leaf compost piles can produce finished compost that is ready to go by early summer.

As always, feel free to email us at [email protected] with comments or questions. To receive our 3 Home, Garden, Recipe and Simple Life articles each week, sign up below for our free email list. This article may contain affiliate links.

How To Compost Leaves – The 4 Keys To Success Tagged on: best leave to compost composting leaves composting maple leaves composting oak leaves how to compost leaves

Leafmould

What is dark brown, crumbly, good for your garden and completely free? No, it’s not chocolate cake. It’s leafmould!

Autumn leaves rot down to make leafmould. It is easy to make, and it can be used on any soil at any time of the year. It’s also perfect for seed and potting mixes too.

Making leafmould is as easy as 1,2,3.

One collect fallen autumn leaves. Two pack them while damp into a container – bin bag or wireframe. Three leave them for a year or two. You will have a lovely dark brown mix that supports your soil structure, can be used as a mulch, or as part of your potting mix.

Which leaves?

You can use all fallen leaves in the autumn. Even the ones with black spots. Running the mower over the lawn, with blades high, will collect a mix of grass trimmings and shredded leaves. These will rot down fast, especially when damp.

You can also collect leaves from parks or cemeteries – but not woodlands. Leave them under hedges, not only are they good for the soil, but creatures such as hedgehogs may be hibernating there. Don’t use evergreen leaves – such as holly, laurel or Leyland cypress and other conifers – as they can take up to 3 years to rot down. Although pine needles can be gathered. Yes, they will take a long time to rot down, so keep them in a separate pile. But they produce acidic leafmould, which is ideal for mulching ericaceous plants, such as rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, Pieris and blueberries. See below for the different types of leaves and their nutrients.

What container?

Thick plastic bin bags are perfect. They are portable, allowing you to store them out of the way. Once full of leaves, make sure they are damp before tying the top. Pierce the bag a few times to help aerate the contents. See picture.

If you have a lot of leaves you can make a simple heap. To stop them blowing away, build a frame round the heap using posts and netting.

Compost or leafmould?

Small amounts of autumn leaves can be added to your compost heap. They make a good balancing ingredient for wet and soggy materials like kitchen waste. However, autumn leaves are rotted down mainly by the slow, cool action of fungi – rather than the quicker acting bacteria that work in a compost heap. This is why autumn leaves in quantity are best recycled separately in a leafmould heap.

How to use leafmould

Young leafmould (1 or 2 years old): Leaves beginning to break up; easily crumbled in the hand.

  • Mulch around shrubs, herbaceous, trees, vegetables
  • Dig in as soil improver for sowing and planting
  • Autumn top dressing for lawns
  • Winter cover for bare soil

Well-rotted leafmould (At least 2 years old): Dark brown crumbly material, with no real trace of original leaves visible.

  • Use as above
  • Seed sowing mix – use leafmould on its own, or mixed with equal parts sharp sand and garden compost
  • Potting compost – mix equal parts well-rotted leafmould, sharp sand, loam and garden compost

The science of leafmould

Leaves contain up to 80% of the nutrients picked up by a tree. However, as they die, most of these nutrients are reabsorbed by the tree. What remains in the leaf is an important substance called lignin. It acts as a buffer for extremes of mineral flows within the soil, and can hold the soil nutrients in reserve. Lignin is also the fibre in the leaf’s cell structure, and is slow to break down. This is worth remembering when gathering your leaves for leafmould.

Leaves which are lower in lignin and higher in calcium and nitrogen: ash, cherry, elm, linden, maple, poplar and willow.

Leaves which are higher in lignin and lower in nitrogen and calcium: beech, birch, hornbeam, oak, sweet chestnut and magnolia

If you mix grass cuttings with the leaves you will increase the nitrate content of the leafmould.

By Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural

After the last tomatoes are picked, the standing greens harvested, the squash brought in and the carrots pulled, nature provides a bounty that assures the next year’s crops will have the best soil possible. Let your non-gardening neighbors curse autumn’s raking tasks. Composters rejoice in the piles of mineral-rich organic material that trees graciously shed just for them.

Okay, okay, maybe that’s a little too much hyperbole. Still, it’s hard not to get poetic about leaves. Sure, raking can be hard work even for composters who know the value in each and every leaf. But leaves have long been a treasure for the gardeners: easily available, rich in nutrients, an effective mulch in winter and summer and, once decomposed, extremely beneficial to the soil.

But making leaf compost isn’t as easy as piling up a bunch of leaves and spreading them in the garden the following spring. Leaves, by themselves, do not make the rich soil amendment that all composters strive to achieve (but they will make leaf mold, a valuable soil addition; more below). Many of us started composting with leaves alone and it took a few seasons worth of experience to learn just what to add and how to maintain our heaps to turn our leaves into rich humus. But leaves, in their abundance, can be the primary ingredient in successful compost. And their use is one of the most rewarding green practices a gardener can employ.

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Piling Up

It’s difficult to estimate the amount of leaves that go into U.S. landfills and, of course, the estimates vary by season and location (weight versus volume is also a factor; leaves are the largest component of yard waste by volume, grass the largest component by weight). The EPA says 13 per cent of municipal waste volume nation-wide is from lawns, parks and other growing spaces. By weight, it is over half. Eight million tons of leaves went into landfills in 2005. It’s estimated that amount is somewhat less today thanks to the use of composting.

Of all green waste, the amount of leaves included can range from 5 to 50 percent depending on the season. The McGraw-Hill Recycling Handbook, Second Edition states that overall leaves make up 25 percent of all yard wastes in the U.S. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection estimates that grass, leaves, and other wastes from lawns and backyard gardens account for an estimated 18 percent of the annual municipal waste stream. In the fall, leaves can account for as much as 60-80 percent of that waste. In New Jersey, five to 30 percent of municipal solid waste is believed to be leaves. In the fall, this figures jumps to almost half. Because of its dry climate and short-growing season, the state of Wyoming estimates that its percentage of green waste is far lower than the national average.

These figures are in constant flux as individuals and communities apply composting methods to their green waste. But the fact remains that leaves are a tremendous and largely unnecessary burden on our landfill systems. And as a valuable resource to the gardener, the shame is wasting them at all. Stu Campbell, the author of Let It Rot! writes, “throwing them away is one of the worst kinds of conspicuous waste I know.”

Leaf Nutrition

What’s wasted? Pound for pound, the leaves of most tress contain twice the mineral content of manure. Because they’re a form of organic roughage, they can dramatically improve drainage and aeration of the soil. And they provide the perfect nutrition for beneficial microbes. In short, they make soil come alive.

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Leaves are rich in the trace elements your soil needs. Trees are an effective mineral extractor, putting down deep and intricate root systems that funnel calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus from the soil into their trunks and out to its leaves. 50 to 80 percent of all the nutrients trees extract from the ground end up in the leaves. Gathered at their peak and composted correctly, leaves will transfer this nutrition to your soil.

But all leaves are not created equal. The leaves of the eastern hemlock have twice as much nitrogen as the leaves of the red maple. White ash leaves are loaded with calcium, hemlock not so much. White ash leaves have a pH of 6.8, sugar maple leaves have a pH of 4.30. Some leaves aren’t suitable at all for composting, or should be used very sparingly. The leaves of black walnut trees and eucalyptus trees contain a natural herbicide that may keep your garden seeds from germinating.

To avoid wasting all these valuable nutrients and roughage, it’s important to know how to use leaves effectively. Leaves are at their nutrient best shortly after they’ve fallen from the tree. Soon thereafter, their nutrient value begins to disappear. Leaves left on lawns or in piles over winter lose much of their mineral value to leaching. Leaves composted without shredding and not mixed with a green source of nitrogen may sit for years before decomposing. Without a source of nitrogen, leaves will not become compost but instead become leaf mold, a valuable soil addition in terms of drainage and water-holding capability, but not as valuable as mineral-rich compost.

Leaf Compost, Leaf Mold, Leaf Mulch

What you intend to make with your leaves will determine the process you use. Many gardeners, especially those with abundant access to leaves, will have use for all three leaf products: compost, mold and mulch. Some will be looking only to make compost to enrich their soil. Gardeners with soil drainage problems will want to make leaf mold to improve the crumb and friability of their soil. Those with perennial plantings and extensive shrubbery will want leaf mulch to protect their plants and improve the soil’s water holding capabilities. Making the decision easier is the fact that any of the products can be used more or less effectively for any of these uses. But for the best utilization of leaves’ nutrition, you’ll want to make compost.

The Rake’s Progress

Let’s start at the beginning. Leaves should be gathered as soon as they start falling from your trees. At this point, they contain the most nitrogen and their cells are still pliable and friendly to decomposition. Not only do leaves give up nitrogen as they sit around, the cells walls harden, becoming resistant to break down. As the lignin between cell walls dehydrates, it not only resists decomposition but its ability to transmit nutrients through the soil (cation exchange) is decreased. Using freshly fallen leaves to make mold or compost not only preserves the leaves’ mineral content, it increases the function that transmits that nutrition from soil to plants. Lignin also provides nutrition for the bacteria that will facilitate the decomposition process. The more viable the lignin, the faster you’ll have compost.

The Green Cone Food Waste Digester has been designed to break down these materials in a safe way. The waste is digested rather than composted and is primarily reduced to water. Very little waste residue is produced and unlike traditional composters, there is no need to manually turn the waste.

Yes, gathering leaves is a chore, one that extends a month or two through the fall season. But as The Complete Gardening Compost Guide by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin points out, it’s also good exercise. Plan to spread your raking out over the season and you can give up your gym membership for the entire fall. Pleasant lists “12 Rules of Raking” to make the job easier and more effective. While most of these rules come from common sense, the last, “Keep in mind that leaf season will last for several weeks, so you have plenty of time to let yourself enjoy the weather and the work,” is one the more ambitious among us might need to be reminded of.

Shreddin’

Leaves break down slowly. A pile of unshredded leaves without added nitrogen sources may sit for years before it will be completely decompose. Early-season raking of clipped grass and leaves help solve this problem by supplying an already mixed source of leaves and grass. As the season moves on, only leaves will be available. To make quality compost, leaf shredding is essential. This can be done by commercial shredders, which are notoriously expensive, noisy and fragile. Or shredding can be done with your home lawn mower. Don’t be content to run over your leaves once. Maximum shredding is important for quick breakdown. It’s easier if you employ help to pile up the leaves again once you’ve passed over them with the mower. Several passes will give you a fine, quick-to-decompose product. This is true if you’re making compost or leaf mold. In a pinch, a Weed Whacker or other line trimmer can be used to reduce leaves to a more compostable size.

Unshredded leaves left to mold will pack tightly in layers, delaying the molding process sometime for as much as two or three years. Even in a compost tumbler, unshredded leaves will sit through the season while all other green materials around it decompose.

Piling On Leaf Mulch

Now’s the time to decide what to do with your leaves. If using them as mulch, they can be applied directly under trees shrubs and plantings to protect the soil and provide insulation from the cold. Don’t be afraid to pile it on. Loft is important; the higher the pile and the more air trapped inside it, the better the insulating properties. Several inches is a good start. The leaves will compress and layer as the season progresses. In extremely cold climates, a foot of leaf mulch is not too much. Remember that leaves generally increase the acidity of soil. It’s a good idea to test soils in the spring and add lime or other alkaline substances if you pH is not to your plants’ liking. If using whole leaves or those not finely shredded, you’ll want to pull them back in the spring to allow the soil to warm. Unshredded leaves can also make a sort of canopy over soils, allowing moisture to run-off and not get to the ground. Finely shredded leaves tend to work themselves into the soil and encourage moisture absorption. Also, shredded leaves will not inhibit the spring soil warming process as much.

Studies have found that mulching leaves directly into turf, lawns and gardens has many benefits and a few drawbacks (see The Problem with Leaves). Generally, mulching directly into turf increases aeration and friability of soils, allowing grasses to spread and thicken. It will also lower nitrogen to carbon ratios of soils if done to extremes. Large amount of shredded leaves left on turf results in leaf litter being apparent the next spring and a chance that new grass growth will be discouraged by the cover.

If you have an abundance of leaves, it’s a good idea to store some in contained heaps to use later during the growing season as mulch. Yes, they’ll lose some of their nutritional benefit through leaching and off-gassing. But come spring, they’ll help conserve moisture in the soil during the growing season and will slowly become integrated into your garden. The decomposition that occurs during the storage process is beneficial. You’re making leaf mold.

Mold Does Mulch One Better

Leaf mold is a step past leaf mulch. It’s made in much the same way as compost, but with little or no nitrogen added to the leaves. Leaves left in contact with the earth and its wealth of beneficial microbes will slowly turn to leaf mold. The speed at which this happens depends mainly on the size of the leaves, shredded or not. Just leaving leaves where they fall will eventually result in leaf mold, not a bad thing in wooded areas, but not a good thing on your lawn (see “leaves on turf above). Some gardeners with whom patience is a virtue, see little reason to “artificially” make leaf mold. Those of us without that patience are glad to encourage the natural process.

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Making leaf mold is similar to making compost. Piling leaves in heaps or in bins and cages is about all that’s necessary. Keep the piles uniformly moist. Turning them on occasion is helpful but not necessary. Matting, a problem with leaf-only piles, is minimized by frequent turning. Keeping the pile under a plastic tarp will help conserve heat and moisture. Be sure that the pile has access to air. Even piled in cages, leaves can take three years to reach optimum condition. But if you shred finely, turn the pile and keep it uniformly moist, you’ll have usable product in six to 12 months. Leaf mold can also be made in plastic bags by filling lawn bags with shredded leaves, dampening and poking a few holes to let in air.

Making leaf mold (or compost for that matter) in raised beds can greatly increase the volume of your soil. Filling a raised bed with shredded leaves in the fall and turning them into the soil as soon as possible is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your contained soil. Covering the bed with plastic over the winter will speed the assimilation process.

Leaf mold absorbs five times its weight in water. Turned into hard and clay soils, it will help make them more friable and root-friendly while maintaining good moisture levels. And any leaf mold not used in your garden makes a great addition to your compost heap.

Leaf Compost

Making leaf compost isn’t different than making other compost. Bins, cages, piles and tumblers will all give satisfactory results though at different speeds. Because leaves are mostly carbon (60 parts carbon to one part nitrogen) more attention must be paid to the carbon-nitrogen balance. Not only will the right ratio of leaves to green material or manure yield a more nutritious product, it will also give you compost more quickly.

Chopping and mixing leaves with other brown and green ingredients will speed decomposition by four times. Five parts leaves to one part manure will get your compost pile up and hot. Using only grass clippings requires five part leaves to two or three parts clippings. Kitchen waste including coffee grounds and those last trimmings from your garden will also increase the nitrogen content of your pile. But don’t over do it. Too much nitrogen will help make your heap smell or turn anaerobic. Being sure your pile gets enough oxygen will help prevent this problem. To avoid matting, frequent turning of leaf piles is a must. Turning distributes moisture among water-repellent leaves, making for more uniform decomposition.

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Maintaining correct carbon-to-nitrogen ratios is not always easy. Measuring green and brown materials in buckets, bushels or wheel barrow loads, not an exact science, will give close proximity. Because manure has more weight per volume, less of it than what appears to be 20 percent by volume will give a correct balance. While the traditional layering method isn’t necessary to make compost, it does help you eyeball well-balanced green and brown ratios.

Because leaves are often available in such large quantities, it is impractical to expect your compost tumbler to consume all of them. If you have a bounteous supply of leaves, you’ll want to use bins, cages or heaps to begin the compost process. Leaves from the heaps can always be added to your tumbler when a new batch is being started. Again, because of their availability, it’s tempting to construct very large piles. But large piles are harder to turn and contain. Two or three manageable piles, all with sufficient nitrogen source added, are much more effective and more easily worked. The classic “three bin” method of composting is a great way to keep large amounts of leaves organized and progressing through the decay cycle.

Some gardeners have developed shortcuts that help them utilize fall’s bounty more efficiently. One method is to rake leaves directly over the remains of your vegetable garden at the end of the season, then rototill the entire plot to break up the leaves and greens and mix them with the soil. The plot can then be covered with plastic if the size of your garden makes it feasible. Adding a little manure or fertilizer will help the carbon to nitrogen balance. A second rototilling a week or so later further breaks down the leaves, integrates them with the soil and aerates it all. Recover for the winter. Spring rototilling should reveal that the leaves have become part of your soil.

One last caution when using your finished leaf compost. Some leaves will yield a more acidic product, especially if pine needles have been included (though it takes large amounts of needles to effectively change the pH). Measuring the pH of your soil after adding compost is a good idea. Supplement to bring soil pH in line with your plants’ needs. Or just add a bit of lime to compost high in pine needles and acidic leaves (oak, maple) before using it.

Leaf Mold is Gold

Leaf mold—a type of organic matter, not a fungus—is what you get when leaves are partially or completely decomposed, explains Dawn Pettinelli, a soil scientist and assistant extension educator at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You use it like compost, but it’s a lot less work, and you don’t need to worry about food scraps attracting critters. Just rake all your leaves into one area of your yard—ideally where it’s not an eyesore, and wind won’t undo your work—and leave them be. “Add to your pile every year in the fall,” Pettinelli says. “After a year or so, you’ll be able to remove leaf mold from the bottom of it every spring.”

Can’t wait? You can get leaf mold in as little as six months. “If you want leaf mold for next spring, get started early and aim for a pile that’s about four feet in every dimension,” says Pettinelli. “As the leaves decompose, it’ll start to shrink.” Shred the leaves first to give them a head start; add a source of nitrogen like alfalfa meal, manure, or blood meal, making sure the pile’s got adequate moisture, and turn it twice a month. “If you don’t turn it, you’ll get a hard crust on top so moisture and air can’t get in, and the leaves in the middle won’t get oxygen, slowing decomposition,” she adds.

Building a DIY bin is a snap. A cylinder of chicken wire, wood stakes, and heavy-duty staples are all you really need. “Hardware cloth is sturdy and long lasting, but it can make it harder to turn the pile,” says Pettinelli. That said, the easiest way to turn the leaves is to simply lift off the bin, set it to one side, then refill it, so the leaves that were on the top are on the bottom.

Leaves from a mix of tree species make better mold. “If you’ve only got one type, you’re limited in what organisms will help break it down,” Pettinelli says. Soft leaves from trees like maple, ash, and birch will attract bacteria. Tougher leaves, like oak, are great food for fungi. In addition to these microorganisms, insects like pill bugs, centipedes, and beetles are natural shredders who love a good leaf pile. “Whether you shred the leaves yourself or nature does it for you, finer particles will help hold moisture in and speed up decomposition.”

There are leaves you shouldn’t keep. Unlike composting, where temperatures within the pile can soar, making leaf mold is a cold process. That means you shouldn’t include any leaves from trees that have fungal diseases. “A hot compost could kill the spores, but in a leaf mold bin they will winter over and re-infect your trees in the spring,” Pettinelli explains. Black walnut is another to be careful with: These trees contain juglones, a natural herbicide. Though you could use leaf mold that included black walnut around trees and shrubs, don’t use it in flower or vegetable gardens.

Your garden will thank you. “Leaf mold is a great way to add organic matter to your garden without overfertilizing it,” says Pettinelli. Manure-based compost can have more nutrients than plants actually need, and the excess will leach into the soil. Decomposed leaves have fewer nutrients—most have been taken up by the tree—making them an ideal amendment to enhance soil’s permeability and water retention. All that, and they’re free.

Thanks to: Dawn Pettinelli, manager of the Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory and assistant extension educator, University of Connecticut, Storrs

When the leaves start to fall in autumn, you’re faced with the question of just what to do with all of those dead brown leaves fluttering around. Many people simply rake and bag them to be tossed in the landfill.

But why not turn them into superb sustainable mulch or compost instead? Leaf mulch and compost are free, beautiful, and rich in nutrients and organic matter for your garden.

Leaf Compost, Leaf Mold and Leaf Mulch: Is There a Difference?

Leaf compost is made from dried leaves (a source of carbon) that are mixed with moist, green organic matter (like grass clippings and kitchen scraps) to provide nitrogen and then left to decompose. Compost is usually added to soil to improve soil structure and nutrient levels.

Leaf mold is like compost except that it’s made only with leaves (so no “green” material) and is broken down by fungus instead of bacteria. It can be used the same way as compost (to amend the soil) or like mulch (spread over the soil).

Leaf mulch is also made from leaves but they’re not fully decomposed. Mulch is generally laid on top of the soil as a protective layer; it helps to suppress weed germination, retain moisture, insulate the soil, and reduce erosion. Some leaves can also increase soil acidity as they decompose, but with our alkaline soils that’s generally not a problem.

Why Use Leaf Mulch, Leaf Compost or Leaf Mold?

There are a ton of benefits to using chopped and/or decomposed leaves in the garden (quite aside from the fact that you’re saving them from the landfill).

For example, leaf mulch:

  • is lightweight,
  • decomposes quickly,
  • doesn’t bind available nitrogen in the soil like bark mulch can,
  • suppresses weeds, and
  • it’s attractive.

There are also long-term benefits from organic matter provided by the leaves as they break down, including:

  • improved soil organic content, and
  • increased presence of important soil microbes.

2 Easy Steps to Make Leaf Mulch & Leaf Mold

Just follow these easy steps to create your own ‘black gold’.

Step 1—Collect and shred the leaves

There are several easy options for gathering and chopping up leaves:

  • Rake them up, place them in a large trash can (a metal one is best) filled about half way, and shred with an string trimmer inserted into the can. Be sure to wear eye protection if you do this!
  • Rake them into a pile and mow over them with a mulching mower (just don’t make the leaf piles too deep or the mower will get bogged down). If you have a bag attachment, this will make clean-up much easier.
  • Vacuum them with a leaf blower with a bag attachment. Your neighbors may not appreciate the noise (be aware that some neighborhoods prohibit the use of lawn blowers) but it’s an effective way to collect and shred leaves.

Whichever option you choose, be sure to remove sticks and stones first, and start with dry leaves – wet ones will just clump together and clog your trimmer, mower or vacuum.

If you’ll be using the leaves as mulch, you can simply spread the chopped leaves throughout the garden. This works well but the leaves tend to blow around a bit so you may want to first rake them into a pile and let them sit for a few weeks to “season” (they’ll break down a bit and be less likely to get wind-blown).

Don’t be afraid to pile leaf mulch high – 6 to 8 inches is good.

If you’re creating leaf mold, go to Step 2.

Step 2—Store the leaves

Place the shredded leaves in a pile, in an empty trash can, in a wire bin or composter, in a large bag – anything that will hold them and prevent them from blowing around. The Compost Sak from Smart Pots works exceptionally well for this. Just be sure that the leaf pile is at least 4-feet high and wide to generate enough internal heat for composting. And don’t pack the leaves tightly; good aeration helps the composting process.

Add a little water to moisten the pile (but don’t turn it into a soggy mess).

And that’s it. Just leave the pile until spring and you’ll have a plentiful supply of leaf mold to use as a mulch or soil amendment. If you’re feeling energetic, you can turn the pile periodically over the winter to aerate it and speed up the decomposition process.

A well-tended composting leaf pile will take 4 to 8 months to fully break down the leaves. Expect the pile to shrink. The final product should be dark, soil-like and crumbly; if it smells bad then it’s not yet ready.

So this fall, don’t remove all that “garden gold” from your yard. Use those leaves and you’ll be rewarded with fertile, rich leaf mold and mulch made possible by your own yard!

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