Waiting for those last leaves to fall - usually in the last week of November
As I sit looking out of the window on a rainy November day I get the sense that the garden really is preparing to go to sleep for the winter. But don’t be fooled. The more you can get done during the winter months, when your garden is supposedly dormant, the better your garden will be next year. So….time to get down to work and look forward to 2020.
Your garden may well be like mine and covered in leaves which, throughout November will fall from the trees making the whole place look an absolute mess. They are invaluable to your garden however, and, given the right treatment will make a superb organic soil conditioner and mulch in about a year’s time. Don’t leave them where they fall, because they will look untidy and although they will be fantastic at stopping weeds from germinating underneath them (or will stop the grass from growing) they will also take valuable nutrients from the soil – such as naturally occurring nitrogen – as they rot down. In woodland this does not matter and naturally occurring leaf mould is an important element of the slowly evolving forest floor, but in your garden leaf litter in the wrong place will suffocate and starve what you are trying to create.
Rake your leaves up and put them somewhere out of the way to rot down. By doing this you not only tidy the place up, but you create your own leaf mould, which can take over a year. The resulting crumbly dark brown material can then be spread back onto the soil as a mulch and conditioner, feeding the soil, inhibiting weed growth and, very important in this part of the world, helping to retain moisture.
This is how we do it in our own garden:
Ideally choose a day when the leaves are wet. Moisture is an important part of the plan and your leaves will be heavier and less likely to blow away. Sweep all of the leaves off the flowerbeds and onto the grass with a springtine rake, making sure that you do not include stones and large twigs. Then, get out the lawnmower and mow over the leaves (while they are on the grass). This will chop them up and speed up the rotting process. Once you have done this, sweep them up into manageable heaps. You can then store your rotting leaves in bags or in a bin.
The bag method – this is quicker, but does involve the use of garden refuse quality plastic bags. Fill your bags with leaves, make sure the leaves are wet, fasten the bags and punch some holes in the bottom. Put them in a pile somewhere out of the way and leave them for a year. Make sure you pack them next to one another and on top of one another because the communal warmth they create will speed things up. That’s it. I have done this very successfully in the past, but this year we are using a variation on the more old fashioned, and slower, method of using a leaf mould cage. We are doing this for two reasons – as part of my drive to use less plastic, but also because our friendly local badgers, for two consecutive years, have ripped open the bags and scattered the leaves everywhere. They are searching for the worms and insects which move into the bags (through the holes) to help the composting process.
Neatly bagged up - at least until the badgers attack
Creating a leaf mould cage – The traditional method for doing this is to create a cage about one to one and a half metres square and of similar height out of chicken wire and then simply sweep your leaves into it. You fasten the fourth side shut with more chicken wire and leave it for a year or two. The leaves gradually rot down and voila you have your leaf mould. The badgers have thwarted me here too, in the past, by ripping through the wire and once again throwing the leaves everywhere. I love wild animals as much as anyone, and accept that we are all part of life’s great cycle, but sometimes it is a battle to outwit them.
This is bigger than most leaf mould bins - it is in Central Park, New York.
THIS YEAR I am experimenting with a leaf mould pen made from old wooden pallets. It will sit next to our compost bins, behind the hen run, and, I hope, be strong enough to keep the furry little blighters out. Watch this space.
Points to note when making leaf mould are:
· Not all leaves are equal. The best leaves to use are thin – such as oak, hornbeam or beech. Pine needles and thick leaves such as holly or laurel will eventually rot down but they are slow to do so (and in the case of holly they are painful to handle), so either keep them separately and compost them in the slow lane, as it were, or use them on woodland paths/add them to general garden waste. We have walnut and fig leaves in our garden, which are not the best to use, but once chopped up by the lawn mower they rot down well.
· Make sure the leaves are wet enough. They need moisture to help with process of decay. If they dry out in their plastic bags they will remain like that for years.
· Don’t be upset when you find lots of little red worms in your leaf mould. It is a sign that things are working well.
· It is an annual cycle and initially you require patience – collect your leaf mould now for use early in 2020 or even 2021. In 2020, you collect leaves for the following year and so on.
Next year, when you have your leaf mould you can use it to mulch around appropriate plants to help control weeds, retain moisture and as a soil conditioner. I will write about all three of these in future blogs.