Every gardener knows the health of their soil is one of the most important factors in achieving a successful gardening season.
Here are two FREE renewable resources that you have on hand that will save you money and build up your soil!
Benefits of Leaf Mold
- It's easier to make than compost as there is no mixing of greens and browns.
- It increases water retention. In areas where droughts are a constant threat, this can be really important. It really soaks up the rain. It has been known to hold up to 400% of its own weight in water.
- It can be used as an effective weed barrier.
- It provides a great habitat for soil life including earthworms and beneficial bacteria.
- It will lighten up clay soil.
- It will help prevent sandy soils from drying out too fast.
Why not just add the leaves to the compost pile?
While it's okay to add thin layers of leaves into your normal compost, too many Autumn leaves, even if they're shredded, will tend to mat together and prevent airflow in the pile and you'll notice the pile will start to smell. It's a better practice to decompose the leaves in a separate bed then incorporate the leaf mold directly into the soil.
Why not add the leaves straight into the garden beds?
This is something many gardeners choose to do, however, the leaves may take more time than one season to decompose into that wonderful crumbly texture.
Most leaves are slightly acidic as they fall, but as the leaves break down into leaf mold, the pH goes up into a more neutral range. This is the main reason gardeners prefer to let the leaves sit over the winter to decompose as opposed to placing them straight into the garden. Applying leaf mold will not correct a pH problem if you have one, but it will have a moderating effect.
How to Make Leaf MoldLeaf piles can be made at any size, but it's recommended to pile the leaves 3 feet wide by 3 feet high, water the pile and let sit. You can use rounded chicken wire to hill them up to the 3 feet.
Some gardeners recommend filling a plastic bag with leaves and cutting holes in the bags for airflow. For a small batch of leaf mold, this may work well. If you have the space for a 3 by 3 area, I see no benefit to the plastic bag.
Leaf Mold for your Veggie Gardens
For vegetable gardens. You can turn the leaf mold in at the end of the season which will create a soil that is less prone to compaction. Leaf mold is rich in calcium and magnesium which are essential for healthy vegetables. It is particularly good to incorporate in areas where you're growing carrots and members of the cabbage family. Remember that it does not provide the needed nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Apply up to 4”of leaf mold between rows and 2-3” around plants and till in at the end of the growing season.
Best Trees for Leaf MoldLeaves of any trees can be used. The smaller the leaves, however, the faster they will break down. Smaller leaves like Birch, Alder and Japanese Maple only take six months to break down.
Using different types of leaves together will help balance and improve the quality of the finished product.
Here at Sunset Hosta Farm, we have no shortage of leaves, so we take advantage of this valuable free resource by using it both as a leaf mold amendment to our container soil and garden soil and adding it to our compost pile.
Ways to speed up the decomposition processLeaves naturally decompose slowly to furnish plant nutrients gradually and improve the structure of the soil beneath. Because leaves are basically carbon, it takes longer to break down than, say, grass clippings which are nitrogen-rich.
This three-bin system is ideal for moving the leaves from one bin to another thereby aerating the leaves as they decompose. Other ideas:
- Run over the leaves with the mower before stacking. Small pieces always decompose more quickly.
- Add nitrogen such as grass clippings, fresh manure or blood meal.
- Turn your leaf pile over every few weeks.
- Cover the pile with tarps to keep leaves consistently moist and warm.
Use Leaf Mold in containers for its ability to retain water.
For perennial plants in containers or in the ground, you can use leaf mold as a mulch top dressing for winter protection. The best time to mulch with leaf mold is after the first few touches of frost. First, remove any dead vegetation and apply 2" of leaf mold. You easily can turn it into the garden or container next spring!
Second Free Soil Additive
Compost, The Gardener's Black Gold
Composting, in a nutshell, is turning your waste into nutrient-rich soil for use in your garden.
You can read about the subject of composting in such depth as to make your head swim and find it to be quite overwhelming. But whether you start with a compost bin or a designated 3 foot by 3-foot area, knowing a few basic principles will help you achieve that rich, earthy-smelling soil amendment that we all want.
Mixing Those Greens and Browns
A 50/50 mix of the greens and browns through the pile will create a reaction that breaks the organic matter down into usable compost.
Here are some examples of what you CAN add.
Green list: (Nitrogen)
Not always green in color, but the “greens” consist of mostly wet or recently-growing materials that will supply most of the nutrients that make your compost good for your garden.
- Hedges and grass clippings
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Lettuce and other leafy vegetables
- Weeds that have not gone to seed
- Vegetable shavings
- Fruit peals (in small amounts)
- Corn stalks
- Pulp from juicing
- Tea Bags
Brown list: (Carbon)
Brown materials add bulk to the mix and allow air to get into the compost heap.
- Dry leaves
- Paper products; shredded cardboard and newspaper (no color)
- Nut and nutshells
- Pine cones and pine needles
- Wood, bark, shavings, sawdust, wood ashes
- Used potting soil (with no disease)
Just as important is the DO NOT COMPOST list:
- Weeds that have gone to seed
- Colored paper
- Meat, bones, and fish (They will attract animals and cause a foul odor.)
- Pet feces
- Anything containing a pesticide
- Dairy products
- Oils and greases
- Onions and garlic
- Tissues or paper towels
- Leftovers that aren't vegan
A good mixture of wet greens and dry browns through the pile is a great recipe for success. The decomposition of materials in a compost pile is accomplished by microorganisms, especially bacteria and molds. These organisms need water and air for the greatest microbial activity.
WaterWater your pile thoroughly to the consistency of a damp sponge whenever it dries out.
AerationAeration of the pile will keep active the microbial activity you're developing. You can poke holes throughout the pile for airflow, or for faster results, turn the pile over every one to two weeks, whatever suits your schedule.
Tips for speeding up the process
- Cut food scraps up into smaller pieces.
- Crumble your egg shells or any ingredient that takes longer to decompose.
- Although adding twigs is okay, not adding them will speed up the process.
- Turning the pile every week to two weeks.
How to tell when the compost is ready to use
- The material will have broken down into small bits that are unrecognizable of what they once were.
- It will look black or dark brown and crumbly.
- It will have an earthy smell.
It's worth noting that at this stage the material is still decomposing which is what you want. Once you add this to your garden, microbes and other soil life will continue the decomposition. While this is happening, the soil structure is improving and nutrients are being slowly released. This is important as the larger molecules at this stage contain a lot of nitrogen, phosphorus and other valuable minerals.
How should it smell?
During the composting process, the matter is decaying and it is normal to smell things like grass or leaves as they decay. In a well-managed compost pile, there should never be a foul odor.
If there is a foul smell, the likely culprit is usually not sticking to the “Not to Compost” rule, especially adding pet waste, dairy products or fats and greases.
Remedies for the foul odor
- Add more brown material to the pile.
- Bury food deeper into the pile and top with some browns.
- Turn the pile more frequently.
Where to go next!