Casual Gardener: Leafmould is garden gold

Fallen leaves should be seen as an asset rather than a nuisance...

Over a couple of years the dead leaves will transform into 'black gold'. Picture by Thinkstock/PA

SHARING a garden with two dogs has its drawbacks. I’ll not dwell on the detail, as it would be like punctuating my usual sweet-sounding, freshly-cut grass prose with a sudden unsavoury stink. It’s especially treacherous at this time of year when the ground is littered with damp, fallen leaves, the perfect backdrop when it comes to camouflaging dog turds. There are countless sources of leaves, from the apple trees and cherry in the orchard to the sycamores that where here before I arrived and the ornamental cherries I planted 15 years ago that are now reaching maturity.

It’s important therefore to stay on top of the leaves, sweeping and raking them up where possible, on an almost daily basis. Yet rather than seeing this a chore, I regard it as one of those essential seasonal tasks for which the full benefits will not be realised for some time - but hey, that’s gardening.

Rather than being disposed of in the brown bin, the dead leaves are of course recycled on site, turned into a more refined material that can be utilised down the line, reducing the need to buy less environmentally friendly products.

This is a process that mirrors nature’s cycle. In a woodland setting, the fallen leaves would form a carpet around the base of the tree, before rotting down, their organic goodness slowly absorbed into the soil and ultimately back into the tree via its roots. The dark, rich humus that the decomposed foliage is transformed into over time is the envy of many gardeners. However, it is a process we can mimic, creating a natural asset that can be used as a soil conditioner and mulch or as a key component in homemade potting compost.

Arguably the key thing about making leafmould is to keep your raw material separate from your conventional garden compost. Leaves tend to take longer to decompose that most garden waste – at least two years – while they are also less likely to be contaminated with weed seeds and other unwanted material, which is why you can end up with a much purer end product, suitable for potting.

Not all leaves are suitable though. Those from common deciduous trees, such as oak, horse chestnut, sycamore and birch are ideal, whereas evergreen leaves like laurel and holly aren’t. Conifers are also unsuitable but pine needles can be used to make a separate ericaceous compost for acid-loving plants.

The most straightforward method for transforming your leaves into a desirable, crumbly compost is the bin liner method. Quick and tidy, this simply involves filling large black bags with leaves, adding a bit of water and puncturing the bag with a fork before leaving them in a quiet corner of the garden. When you return, the leaves should be well rotted and no longer be recognisable – though very often I find the black bag has deteriorated too.

If you’re looking to upscale, employ the traditional pen method, which involves making a chicken wire cage and filling it with leaves, or use a large, cheap compost bin that’s well ventilated. Always add a bit of water to dampen the leaves and speed up decomposition. Shredding the leaves will shorten the process, while there are also some commercial accelerants available.

Your finished product can used as conventional compost, either by dug in or as a mulch, while when well-rotted and sieved it makes a great peat-free seed or potting compost.

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