How I Make Leaf Mold for My Garden

An expert gardener shows how a simple process provides a rich soil conditioner.

round wire mesh compost bins stuffed full with leaves

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As the leaves begin to fall, gardeners should think about making the most of this natural resource. In my own tree-filled gardens, gathering fallen leaves is an important part of the season. Making leaf mold for my garden is one of the key jobs I start to think about at this time of the year. 

Leaf mold might not have the most appealing of names, but it is one excellent way to make use of what is available to you as a gardener at next to no cost. The process is easy, providing you with the means to make your own growing media and to maintain fertility in your growing areas. 

What Is Leaf Mold?

This is the name given to a valuable soil conditioner which can be made by leaving leaves to decompose into a crumbly, friable mulch or potting ingredient. 

Leaves can, of course, be left to decompose on the ground below the trees, to enrich the soil below and to provide habitat for a range of wildlife. They can also be added as they are to build up the layers in a no-dig raised bed, or used in a range of other composting systems along with other biodegradable materials.

But, personally, I find it more useful to separate out autumn leaves to make leaf mold, as well as using leaves in all the ways mentioned above. This is how I like to approach it each year.

giant pile of broken down leaves, turned into leaf mold for garden beds

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How To Make Leaf Mold

It is very simple. Collect up fallen leaves from areas where you wish to do so, and create a leaf bin or other suitable containment area in which to place them.

All deciduous leaves can be used to make leaf mold, though some such as sycamore and horse chestnut, for example, will take much longer to break down. For optimal leaf mold, oak, beech, and hornbeam leaves are said to be among the best options.

I find that, when it comes to containment, a basic mesh bin works best. I have some branches used as stakes to hold up a bin made from reclaimed chicken wire fencing along a fence line close to my polytunnel, where much of the material gathered from the bin will be used.

The leaves are placed within this structure. Ventilation is good, so the air is able to circulate. I cover the structure during very wet periods and water it a little when it is very dry. Other than this, I simply wait for nature to do its work. Just keep your eyes open for any weeds and remove any that do take root.

After around a year, the leaves will have broken down into a crumbly material that can be used as a mulch around mature plants in your garden. But I like to leave them for another year, to be rewarded with an even more valuable material—a soil conditioner that's very useful in my vegetable garden, and which can be used as an ingredient in homemade potting mixes.

My leaf bin has two separate compartments, so I can leave the leaves in one half to break down for a second year, while retrieving first-year leaves for mulch from the other half, and refilling it.

Using Leaf Mold

I often use second-year "finished" leaf mold to add fertility in my polytunnel, top-dressing the areas where summer crops have been removed to make way for overwintering crops. I use it in addition to my regular homemade compost.

I also use fine, finished leaf mold as an ingredient—sometimes alone, sometimes alongside compost, loam, and other ingredients—in my homemade growing media for containers and seed starting.

Many gardeners view fallen leaves as a nuisance to be cleared up and tidied away. But we should all view these as a precious resource and realize how useful they can be in our gardens. Making your own leaf mold is one important way to make sure you are making the most of this seasonal, natural resource in your garden. It's a simple and easy gardening job, and one which all gardeners should consider when the leaves begin to fall.

View Article Sources
  1. "Leafmould." Royal Horticulture Society.