Gold in the garden
For avid gardeners, fallen leaves in the garden are an asset of which you can never have too much.
Leaves needs raking up regularly in the harmmatan and dry season but instead of burning them, turn them to leave mould – a valuable free resource that is worth its weight in gold.
Fallen leaves are like gold in the garden because they can be used for so many things. Burning leaves was a common practice years ago, and that smell can bring back childhood memories of watching leafy mounds disappear into flames and fragrant smoke. But burning is no longer an acceptable way to deal with leaf piles. Think about air pollution, the depleting ozone layer, smog, and out-of control fires. There are much better things you can do with so called those “constant nuisance in the garden,” than burning them, even if you are not an avid gardener.
Just running over them with a lawn mower a few times might shred them enough so that they filter down the lawn to the lawn’s benefit. You can collect and use them to make leaf mould which is excellent for soil amendment.
Leaf mould is a wonderful free gift nature when stored overtime, it will produce a fantastic organic soil conditioner promoting better growth and general health of your garden.
The two nicest thing are its free and its easy to produce and has a huge impact on soil health.
What is leaf mould?
Leaf mould is the result of letting leaves sit and decompose over time. It is dark brown to black, has a pleasant earthy aroma and a crumbly texture, much like compost. In fact leaf mould is just that: composted leaves. Instead of adding a bunch of organic matter to a pile, you just use leaves.
Benefit of leaf mould
You may be wondering why you shouldn’t just make compost. Why bother making a separate pile just for leaves? The answer is that while compost is wonderful for improving soil texture and fertility, leaf mould is far superior as a soil amendment. It doesn’t provide much in the way of nutrition, so you will still need to add compost or other organic fertilizers to increase fertility. Leaf mould is essentially a soil conditioner. It increases water retention of soils. According to some university studies, the addition of leaf mould increased water retention in soils by over 50 per cent. Leaf mould also improves soil structure and provides a fantastic habitat for soil life, including earthworms and beneficial bacteria.
A rubber rake is the best tool for gathering leaves from lawns, paths and pavings, but spring tined lawn rake or even ordinary garden rake can be used. If you fancy power tools, use a leaf blower to huff leaves into heaps. Clear fallen leaves once a week. Large plastic grabbers (like extended hands with long fingers) makes it easy to lift piles of leaves all in one go, into a barrow, sack or tarpaulin.
If leaves are so abundant that they would smother the lawn, go ahead and rake them beneath your shrubs. A blanket of leaves there keeps the soil from washing away and exposing delicate feeder roots. The results your shrubs will grow and look better. The easiest way to go about tapping the benefit of fallen leaves is as described: just rake them beneath shrubbing.
After shrubs, next in line for leaves are perennial flowers. Benefits in the perennial flower bed will be similar to those for shrubbing. Blanket the flower bed with a few inches of leaves. By this time next year, that layer will be almost gone and your soil will be ready for another dose. Tuck leaves right up around but not on top of bulb plants, and a few other perennials that don’t like their crowns covered.
Vegetable gardens and annul flowerbeds also benefit from leaves. An advantage of leaves over some mulches is that leaves are free of weed seeds.
Yet another way to use leaves, anywhere in the garden, is to compost them first. A six foot cylinder of chicken wire can hold as many as about 25 large, plastic trash bags, and that’s before the leaves even begin to settle and decompose. No reason to rush it, but if you did want to hurry the decomposition, sprinkle some high nitrogen fertilizer, such as soybean meal, onto the leaves as you pile them up, and make sure the pile is moist throughout. Or you could shred the leaves. Or add leaves to your regular compost pile, where their high carbon content is perfect complement to high nitrogen kitchen scraps.
If you are thoroughly inundated with leaves, there is one more option for dealing with them, besides burning. That option is to bag them up. Don’t be surprised though if some leaf-hungry gardener snatches up nature’s valuable bounty before they are picked up as ‘trash’ by municipal council’s waste disposal vehicles.
To make leaf mould
If you have only a few leaves, mix them with other ingredients and add to your compost heap. For larger quantities it pays to compost fallen leaves separately. Most deciduous leaves take a year to become good leave mould. Leaves are basically carbon which takes a lot longer to break down then nitrogen rich materials such as grass clippings. The decomposition process for leaves takes at least six to twelve months. The good news is that basically six to twelve month with very little work on the gardener’s part.
The sack method
Pack leaves into large perforated black bin liners as you collect them. If leaves are dry, dampen them with hose first. Tie the neck of the bags, then stab them with a fork to let in a little air and stack them somewhere out of the way in a shaded area while they rot down.
The Wood or Wire bin method of make leaf mould consist of either piling your leaves in a corner of the yard or into a wood or wire bin. The pile should be at least three feet wide and tall. Pile up your leaves and thoroughly dampen the entire pile. Let it sit, checking the moisture level occasionally during dry periods and adding water if necessary.
Make a leaf mould cage. Hammer four 5ft (150cm) long wooden posts into the ground to form a square measuring about a yard in each direction. Tack wire netting round all four sides. Tip fallen leaves into the cage as you collect them; dampen thoroughly, tread down well and cover the top of the heap with a sheet of plastic (this speeds the rotting time). Keep adding new layers till the supply of leaves run out, then cap the heap with a l inch layer of soil.
When is it ready for use?
For good quality potting compost the mould should be left for two years. For general garden mulch and conditioning it could be ready for use after six months to one year.
This may seem a long time to wait for those starting a vegetable garden but if you intend to keep on your patch for ‘time immortal’ you will reap the benefits.
Impatient? There are a couple of things you can do to speed this up:
Before adding leaves to you pile or bag, run over them a couple of times with your lawn mower. Smaller pieces will decompose more quickly.
Use shovel or garden fork to turn your leaf every few weeks. If you are using the plastic bag method, just turn it over or give it a firm shake. This will introduce air into the process, which speeds decomposition.
If you are using the pile or bin method, cover your pile with a plastic tarp. This will keep the leaves more consistently moist and warm.
Using leaf mould
Leaf Mould’s unique properties make it invaluable for some garden uses. As for nutrients, leaves are not much different in composition from popular horse manure. It is a good source of fibre that helps soil return moisture and improve drainage, making it especially good as a soil improver where you want to grow annuals, dwarf bulbs, and alpine plants in raised beds.
It is also a favorite ingredient (along with loam and grit) for making specialist composts mixed by enthusiasts for growing alpines in containers. Its fabulous in containers, due to its water retaining abilities.
You can also use leaf mould to enrich soil in raised beds rock features, the vegetable garden and your usual compost in patio containers.
When used in pots or other containers it is advisable to pass leaf mould through a course riddle or large garden sieve to remove twigs and coarse or under composed material first.
Leaf mould is simple, free and effective. If you are lucky to have a couple of trees (or ten) on your property, you have got everything you need to make great garden soil.