Fresh air, exercise & leaf mouldAlison Marsden
I was brought up in a fairly rural village and my mother’s mantra for a healthy childhood seemed to be “fresh air and exercise”. That suited me pretty well as we children roamed the country lanes on our bicycles (more likely to meet a tractor than a car) and I spent many happy hours in a huge tract of National Trust wood- and grass-land nearby.
What has this got to do with gardening in November? Well late autumn is the time to rake up nature’s bounty of fallen leaves and turn them into the marvellous soil conditioner that is Leaf Mould. And the first part of this activity certainly provides you with ample fresh air and exercise! The autumn weather can be discouraging to gardeners but as light levels fall it is even more important for our wellbeing (and vitamin D levels) to get out into the daylight every day, if possible. Of course, if raking and shovelling leaves is out of the question for you, then running the lawnmower over the grass is a very effective method of collection. It also chops up the leaves so they rot down more quickly and the additions of a few blades of grass just increases the nitrogen available to the decomposition process – all good.
If you have a small quantity of leaves then just add them to your regular compost bin and they will rot down in the general mix of organic matter and add vital carbon to the bacterial process. If you have a large quantity then it is better to stack fallen leaves separately and let them decompose into leaf mould – which takes a bit longer than mixed composting – but produces a fantastic soil conditioner.
The process of leaves on deciduous trees and shrubs turning red, yellow or brown is, in fact, the plant reabsorbing important nutrients from the leaf once the process of making chlorophyll for photosynthesis has stopped at the end of summer. This means that leaf mould acts as a soil conditioner but not a source of nutrients in the way that garden compost does. The benefit of adding leaf mould to your soil is in how it affects the soil structure and consequently the water holding capacity. In a heavy clay soil, it holds apart the clay particles improving the soil’s ability to drain away excess water. In light, free draining sandy or silty soils it binds the particles together and increases the ability to retain water. Either way, your plants win.
One of the simplest ways to make leaf mould is to rake the leaves into piles and transfer them directly into plastic sacks. The leaves do need to be on the surface wet to start the decomposition process so if it is a lovely dry day then you will need to water the contents once you have a full sack before tying the top.
Poke a few holes in the bag towards the base so that excess water can drain out, stack the bags somewhere out of the way – behind a shed is ideal. If you collect a larger quantity of leaves and have the space to create a permanent container to stack them, then consider a circle of chicken wire, roughly a metre in diameter and supported with wooden stakes woven through to keep the sides from collapsing. Just pile the leaves in and again, water them if necessary.
Be prepared to wait for about 18 months for nature’s magic to happen. As the leaves rot down of course the bags or the heap flatten and this is the easiest way to tell when the contents is ready. A dark ‘pancake’ is a well rotted slab of organic matter, just waiting to be fluffed up with a fork and added to your soil.
Happy Gardening from Alison
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