Making Magical Leaf Mould

Donal O’Leary

As well as helping people to become proficient and comfortable with composting, I try to show by example what can be done to maintain and build resilience, including soil fertility, at a local level.

Several years ago, during October, I placed an advertisement in a local magazine, saying that if you are disposing of bagged autumn leaves then I would take them. The uptake was enthusiastic, and I ended up with a surprising volume of leaves. It was a win-win situation. The gardeners and homeowners got rid of their unwanted leaves, and I got what for me was a valuable resource.

I simply piled the leaves in open 2×8 metre bays and let them turn to compost, turning occasionally to break up clumps. After 2 years I had a much-reduced volume of dark brown, crumbly, beautiful compost called leaf mould.

I have repeated the advertisement every year since and have continued to get a good return (except in 2017, when Hurricane Katrina blew most of the leaves clean off the trees before they dropped).

I do try to encourage people to make their own compost, but I still end up with tonnes of leaves each year, which is fine by me. I just hope that enough are left in situ for the wildlife that depend so much on them for shelter during the winter, and to rot down and feed the plants and animals in the soil where their parent trees grew.

I sell a lot of my finished leaf mould, with much of it going to Irish native tree growing projects. It is a perfect growing medium for tree seedlings. This year I hope to use some of it to grow native trees and shrubs myself for supply to people who want to support native biodiversity in their gardens.

Leaf mould provides the same fungi and microorganisms as the forest floor, so the tree seedlings feel right at home. Leaf mould also contains valuable minerals. Trees uptake minerals from deep in the subsoil using their roots. Whoever collects the leaves and makes leaf mould is also harvesting and saving the minerals that they contain!

Leaf mould is such wonderful stuff. Friable, crumbly, smelling of the forest floor.

It is great for adding to lawns, garden soil or raised beds, where it helps to loosen the soil and to retain moisture while aiding drainage too.

Leaf mould also works brilliantly as a seed compost, or it can be mixed with other ingredients such as sand, perlite, topsoil and compost to make a potting mix.

I want to reiterate that I encourage people both to let leaves go through their natural decomposition cycle where they fall and to make their own compost, but so many of them are bagged and dumped in ditches and forests, and even landfills, that I take advantage of the free bounty.

Hopefully, someone will see my strange advertisement some autumn and think “maybe I should start composting my leaves too”.

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