Anyone can easily make leaf mold! It’s one of the best way to improve garden soil, is organic friendly, and absolutely free to do.
Fall is definitely upon us now! Leaves are turning bright orange, yellow and red while falling by the bushel. The air is milder and has a distinctive coolness now. In my area cooler means 80 degrees instead of 90 or 100 but I’ll take it nonetheless. I love this time of year!
Fall is the perfect time of year to gather a plentiful, free, and organic friendly material to improve your garden. There’s garden gold falling from those trees, so don’t let it go to waste. Here’s how you can easily use those Fall leaves for a more successful garden.
What is Leaf Mold?
Leaf mold is simply decomposed leaf matter. Leaves are gathered up and set aside until they are broken down into what’s basically a leaf compost. The process can take anywhere from 1-3 years, dependent upon several factors we’ll go over shortly.
Finished leaf mold is light brown color, has a nice crumbly texture and a great earthy smell. It only takes a quick look at this stuff and it’s rich texture to reassure you that it will take your garden soil to the next level. Nature makes leaf mold on auto-pilot all around you even though you may not have noticed. All you have to do is look in an area with a lot of trees. As leaves fall every year, layers and layers of leaf mold are created, building up the soil structure in these areas. Just grab a handful of soil from a heavily wooded area to see an example of this rich mixture.
What makes leaf mold great?
Unlike the name sounds, leaf mold is actually a good thing. Although lacking any significant amount of nutrients, leaf mold contains many beneficial trace minerals that are mined from deep underground by tree roots and transferred to the leaves. Hearing the word mold is usually all bad, but leaf mold is actually one of the greatest soil conditioners you’ll ever use. Leaf mold can retain up to 5X its weight in water. That is comparable or even better than peat moss. For that reason, leaf mold makes an excellent mulch. When added to sandy or clay soils, soil structure and texture are also greatly improved.
Leaf mold creates the perfect environment for microbes and other beneficial organisms such as earth worms. This creates a thriving, and very much alive garden soil. There’s also the whole, it’s absolutely free thing! Even if you don’t have leaves in your yard don’t let that deter you. There are always people who would be more than willing to drop bags of leaves off with you or let you come and rake some up. Just ask your neighbors! People who hate fall leaf clean up are your friend!
How to use leaf mold
Leaf mold is very versatile and can be used all throughout the garden. Mix it into potting soil for added aeration and water retention. Remember leaf mold retains water at rate of 500% of its own weight so it makes a great alternative to peat moss.
Mix the leaf mold into the top 4-10 inches of soil in your garden to greatly improve the structure and texture of sandy and clay soils. Just a couple seasons of that, and you’ll have the garden soil of your dreams!
Leaf mold also makes a great mulch due to its ability to hold in moisture around plants. Great for hot climates with soil that dries out easily. Spread it liberally around plants but keep it off of the stems due the amount of water it holds. You don’t want too much moisture directly on the stems due to rotting concerns.
A composters best friend is a pile of leaf mold! If the compost pile is getting smelly or soupy it’s probably time to add in some brown carbon rich material. Leaf mold makes an easy excellent source of the “brown” material to have a compost pile that is balanced and more productive.
How You Can Make Your Own Leaf Mold
One of the most appealing things about leaf mold is that it’s super easy to make. There are a few slightly different methods. Here’s how it’s done.
The most simple method is to rake up your leaves into a giant pile and let them sit. That’s it! I told you it was easy. Just make sure the leaf pile is big enough to retain moisture and heat. That will ensure you get leaf mold quickly. Three or four feet high is usually plenty.
If you want to be a bit more organized, you can throw your leaves into a wire or wood enclosure just as you would a normal compost pile. This will keep your leaf pile more compacted which speeds up the decomposition process. Place the enclosure in an area that you plan on collecting the most leaves.
The final leaf mold method is my personal favorite. Gather up some leaves and stuff them into large trash bags. Moisten the leaves slightly and tie up the bags. Poke some hole all around the bags for proper ventilation. Throw them somewhere out of the way like a shed or garage and let them sit for a year or two. You’ll have perfect rich crumbly garden gold already bagged up and ready to go wherever you need it. Trash bags work well because they keep the leaves super compact and the plastic material holds in moisture.
Tips to speed up leaf mold production
Leaves are high in carbon which means they will take a long time to decompose. Typically 1-3 years is the standard completion time. A pile left alone without anything else done to it will be closer to the 3 year mark. Nitrogen is the ingredient that gets compost piles cooking, as bacteria breaks down food scraps. Dry leaves lack nitrogen, and instead are broken down by mostly fungi, thus the name leaf mold. Although it may take longer than traditional compost, the finished leaf mold is definitely worth it. If you’re impatient like me, here are some tips to speed up your leaf mold efforts.
Keep your leaves moist. Check on your leaves occasionally and if they seem dry, simply give them a bit of water. Spray piles or bags of leaves with a garden hose until damp. A pile of dry leaves will take much longer to break down.
Build your leaf pile in a shaded area to keep in moisture. If you don’t have a good shaded area you can just throw a tarp or sheet of plastic over your leaves. Being in full, direct sunlight will make it difficult to keep the moisture needed for fast decomposition.
Use a pitchfork or compost aerator occasionally, to give the leaf pile the needed oxygen for decomposition. This will also help to evenly distribute moisture.
Layer in some material high in nitrogen with your leaf pile. This could include grass clippings, kitchen scraps, or manure. The added nitrogen will super charge the rate of decomposition for the leaves just as it does for a compost pile. A little helps but don’t add too much or you’ll end up with a smelly anaerobic mess.
Number One Way to Speed Up Leaf Mold
Probably the best and most effective way to speed up your leaf mold is to shred the leaves. Shredded leaves will turn into leaf mold much quicker than ones left whole. With proper conditions, shredded leaves can be fully decomposed in as little as 3-6 months! Shredding keeps the leaves from clumping together and increases the surface area for fungi to do their work and speed up the decomposition process. Leaves that are shredded also take up much less space. This is ideal for smaller yards. One way to shred the leaves is running over them with a lawnmower. Just make a few passes, rake them up, and throw them on your pile.
Another option is a leaf shredder. There are many simple and easy to use leaf shredders on the market. We’ve reviewed our favorites here. Most shredders reduce leaves to 1/10 their original size. This means a giant pile of leaves can be reduce down to a few handfuls. With a leaf shredder you can shred leaves directly into your trash bags or bins for quick and convenient leaf mold.
Know your leaves
Certain leaves are better than others for making leaf mold. Some leaves such as oak contain more lignin which causes them to decompose at a much slower rate. Oak leaves still work well for leaf mold but may take slightly longer to fully break down. Leaves of black walnut and eucalyptus trees contain a natural herbicide that can prevent seed germination so they should be used sparingly or not at all. Ideally you want a good mix of many types of leave for the best results. Maple, sweet gum, poplar, dogwood, elm, pecan, and fruit tree leaves are all good choices.
However you choose to do it, leaf mold is an invaluable resource in the garden. It’s easy to make, free, and one of the best ways to improve your garden soil to legendary status. I’m off to rake up some leaves right now!