How to make leaf mold

It's that time of year again, when the garden is winding down just as the leaves are falling and filling up the yard! I know it's a pain in the butt and a lot of work, but I look forward to the leaves falling because they are so great for the garden!

Leaf mold pile, How to

Not only do leaves make great mulch, but they help insulate the plants for winter and protect the garden. They also give insects a place to hide over winter which could be bad or good depending on the types of insects! 

You can also use fallen leaves to make leaf mold. If you spend any time in the woods you'll notice the forest floor is covered with a thin layer of really dark earth. This is the breakdown of fallen leaves and helps improve the structure of soil while supporting plant growth and helping the soil to retain moisture.

You can use your Autumn leaves to do the same thing on a larger scale and use it in your garden and landscaping. This is similar to compost except you're only using fallen leaves and it takes a super long time compared to compost!

Leaf mold however, is worth the wait! It is a great addition to your soil and you're plants will absolutely love it! Plus, it can also be added to the soil of houseplants to lighten and aerate the soil.

How to make leaf mold

1) make a giant pile of leaves

2) moisten with water

3) cover with a tarp 

4) let it sit there for over a year

Isn't that easy? 

Tips for better leaf mold

To better contain leaves use snow fencing and metal posts (or orange construction fence) to make a large bin. I prefer it to be 6 foot by 6 foot and the fencing is usually 4 feet high. Don't use wooden fence stakes, the fungus from the leaf mold will cause them to start rotting. Guess how I know that?

It's ok to overfill your pile or bin. The pile will shrink as it composts. 

You don't need to flip or moisten the pile regularly like with compost, but some people do and swear it speeds up the process. I'm lazy and use the set it and forget it method!

If you want to speed up the process a bit, you can run the leaves over with your lawnmower a time or two before adding to the pile. If you have a leaf shredder or a chipper/shredder you can toss the leaves through there. Just like in compost, the smaller pieces breakdown faster.

If you don't have space for a big pile of leaves, you can fill one of those thick black contractor garbage bags with leaves and use it. You'll want to cut a few slits for air circulation and shake the bag like once a month. Leave it in a shady spot.

When you're ready to use your leaf mold you may notice that the outside edge (and sometimes the very top) still has large pieces of leaves and has created a sort of 'crust'. These sections still need more time to process, so pull them off and put them aside to start your next pile, or add them to another pile you have that's processing.

Leaf pile for leaf mold

How to use leaf mold in the garden

You can use it like any other soil conditioner and mix it into he soil when tilling. This is a great help to clay, sandy or compacted soils.

Put some into the hole when planting seeds, seedlings or transplants.

Spread a layer of leaf mold 2" thick on the top of garden soil before planting. 

Leaf mold can be used in place of peat moss. Peat moss is a little bit controversial anyway because it is not a renewable resource so replacing it with leaf mold is a win-win.

Mix in with potting soil when repotting house plants.

How are leaf mold and compost different?

There are a few interesting differences between leave mold and compost. 

Compost is made by bacteria breaking down the compost ingredients to get that final black gold result. Leaf mold is made by fungus breaking down the dried leaves.

The bacteria in compost is a hot process and the fungus in leaf mold is a cold process, which explains why it needs so much  more time.

Regular compost is much higher in nutrients but the leaf mold is much better at water retention.

When a compost pile gets hot it can destroy any weed seeds that may be present. If weed seeds get into the leaf mold bin they will probably still sprout when you go to use it in the garden. You should really try to add only leaves to the leaf mold pile for this reason.

Since it aerates the soil so much earthworms love it.

Do you have enough leaves to make leaf mold?

As mentioned earlier, I'm surrounded by trees so I have lots of leaves, however the average yard only produces a certain amount of fallen leaves on it's own so you may want to get creative. 

Lots of people bag up their leaves for the city (or waste management company) to take away. Simply ask people you know if you can have their bagged leaves. You could even post on somewhere like NextDoor or Facebook.

If you're willing to rake the lawns for your neighbors (or better yet if you have a lawn vacuum or a bagging attachment on your lawn tractor) you'll probably have no problem finding people who would love for you to collect and remove their leaves! Could be a nice outreach project for elderly neighbors who can't do yard work themselves.

Also someone in one of the gardening groups I'm in says their city park bags their leaves up for pickup. They asked if they could have them and were told yes. Someone else mentioned helping their church with leaf clean up and taking several bags home. Anywhere there's a big lawn that needs raked is potential for free leaves for your garden! Most places will be happy for the help.

Related reading: Have you started Preparing your garden for winter yet? I'll show you which chores I do every Autumn.


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