Build Your Soil Using Leaves

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Raking leaves

Lovely, lovely leaves! Fall is here, and with the leaves coming down thick and fast, gathering them all can seem like an endless task. But if you’ve ever looked at leaves with a heavy heart, please don’t – because every single one of them is gardener’s gold! We’re going to look at some awesome ways to make the most of this abundant annual windfall, plus discover a really easy way to supercharge the leaves you collect.

Reasons to Love Your Leaves

Buying in soil amendments such as manure and pre-bagged compost can be pricey, so using the leaves that fall in your yard will save you loads. They’re great for improving soil and feeding all that wonderful life within it, can be used to keep plants cosy over winter, and be a key ingredient in your own beautifully crumbly potting mixes. What’s not to love!

Feeding and Protecting Soil Using Leaves

Spread collected leaves on garden beds where they will either break down or be taken down into the soil by earthworms and other soil dwellers. The leaves will contribute extra organic matter, improving your soil’s structure and making it a great place for plant roots to be! And as it breaks down, it will feed all kinds of soil life, from hard-working earthworms to the universe of beneficial bacteria that help create healthy soils – and healthy plants.

Leaves spread on a vegetable bed will gradually break down and enrich the soil

Your leaves will have all winter to slowly break down, and the extra protection they provide will help to suppress any weed growth while protecting the soil from storms and intense downpours.

To prevent them from blowing away spread netting across them, or lay long canes or boards across the leaves to weigh them down. Chopping them up into smaller pieces with a lawnmower will make them more likely to knit together on the soil surface, and less likely to blow away (more on that below).

If you have loads of leaves, consider keeping some aside to use as a mulch during the growing season. Like any mulch, they’re superb at conserving soil moisture by slowing evaporation and, of course, keeping weeds in check. Best of all, leaves are free and super lightweight, making them a frugal and easy-to-handle alternative to bought-in mulches such as bark chippings.

Leaves add valuable carbon when mixed into your compost heap

Boost Your Compost

Compost additions fall into two camps: fresh greens such as lawn clippings, which have a relatively high nitrogen content, and drier, carbon-rich browns like straw and, of course, fallen leaves. During the growing season there’s often an excess of greens from all the pruning, weeding and chopping back, and those greens need to be balanced with browns. This is where your stash of leaves comes into play!

If your compost is a bit wet and claggy, the drier leaves will help to offset some of this wetness and bring the whole heap into harmony, giving you better compost, faster.

Leafmold usually take two years to become fine enough to use in potting mixes

How to Make Leafmold

Leafmold is basically composted leaves. Leafmold is a great source of valuable plant-building minerals such as magnesium and calcium and has a superb, crumbly texture that’s ideal used as the basis for your own potting mixes.

Making leafmold couldn’t be easier. If you only have a small amount of leaves, stuff them into plastic sacks, wet them if they’re dry, then tie the sacks closed. Poke some holes into the sacks for aeration then stash them somewhere out-of-the-way where you can forget about them for a year or two. For larger quantities, make a leafmold bin by driving four corner posts into the ground and then wrapping round some chicken wire mesh to prevent the leaves from blowing away. Cover the leaves if it’s very wet to stop them getting too soggy.

Now all you have to do is sit back and wait. You’ll have a product great for adding to garden beds within a year, and something crumbly for potting mixes within two. And if you think that’s a long time, think of it as an investment. Lay down leaves like this every year and you’ll soon have a steady supply of beautiful, crumbly leafmold.

Spread leaves around root crops and container plants to insulate them from frost

Use Leaves to Insulate Plants

Just like straw, bracken or bubble plastic, bundles of dry leaves trap air, offering excellent insulation. Pile them up around frost-susceptible plants over the winter months, or layer them deep over root vegetables that could do with a little protection from extreme cold. The soil will remain unfrozen for much longer, so when you need the roots, simply push the blanket of leaves aside and get digging.

Break Down Leaves Faster

And now for a super-simple way to turbocharge your leaves: shred them! Shredding leaves kickstarts decomposition by tearing them up into smaller pieces so there’s more exposed surface area for bacteria and fungi to work on. You could use a leaf shredder for this, or simply run over piles of leaves with your lawnmower before raking them up.

Mowing leaves shreds them into smaller pieces that decompose quicker

Remember, you can collect leaves from just about anywhere. Paths and paved areas are a good starting point because you don’t want them to get slippy, and if you’re especially proud of your lawn it’s worth gathering them from here too, to stop them from choking up your grass, or use a mulching lawnmower to break the leaves down even further so they can be left where they are to feed your lawn.

Most leaves can be used but avoid black walnut leaves, which contain juglone, a substance that’s toxic to some plants. It’s worth avoiding leaves from conifers too, which can take ages to break down! Leaves from heavily trafficked roads or from sources where herbicides may have been used are also worth bypassing, for obvious reasons.

When you realize how incredibly useful leaves are, your world view changes. Fallen leaves? Absolutely – bring ’em on!

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