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Last call for leaf reapers

  • Last call for leaf reapers
  • Last call for leaf reapers
  • Last call for leaf reapers

Making leaf mould is a long-term investment – but it’s one that pays rich dividends, and your returns are guaranteed.

‘Chack-chack-chack’: my scolding from a lone fieldfare, high among the grey, black-tipped fingers of the ash tree, reminds me I’m behind schedule. A gang of long-tailed tits seeps through a thicket laden with brooding, gin-destined sloes, their terse chirps and tut-tutting nagging me on.

It’s not my fault; my leaf mould-making has happened in fits and starts this year, due to autumn’s coyness about getting going, and spells of oh-no-you-won’t rain, which made the rusting carpet too heavy and knee-soaking to rake up. But what the fieldfares missed was me bagging an early fall of the ash’s bright yellow confetti a few weeks back; a few chilly nights convinced the ash it was autumn, while the rest of us were still in tee shirt-donning denial.

But now I’m back, fleeced up, with a vengeance, armed with a long-tined rake, a well-pumped wheelbarrow, a mini ‘builder bag’ and two lengths of old floorboard, to reap one of nature’s greatest and infinitely renewable gardening gifts. A few buttery hazel leaves still spot the ground, but the oaks, sallows and sycamores lost their rusting lustre a while back, and disintegration is already setting in. Drab they may be, but they’re all free, easy to muster and – for now – move around; delay your leaf gathering any longer and you’ll be hauling sodden mush come Christmas. Do it now.

My reaper’s technique is simple: sit the builder bag in the wheelbarrow (edge it slightly forward so it sits as far over the wheel as possible), rake the leaves into goodly heaps, clamp as many as you can hold between the boards, then drop them into the bag. It pays to fill out the base of the bag with the first few leaf drops, to avoid it toppling over when full. Tamp the leaves down as you go, using the board ends, to get more in.

A niggly back has me using, sensibly, a ‘mini’ bag right now; I usually use a full-size one, snaking it around any fatal, barrow-toppling potholes en route to my leaf mould cages. Leaves are decanted – use the board-clamping technique – and the fleeting hard work is over. Don’t let your spirits sink as the mountain of leaves surely will; they lose their bulk through decay, eventually bequeathing around a third of what you piled in.

A year from now you’ll have part-mouldered leaves, and still be able, just, to tell oak from sycamore. You’ll have a coarse, weed-smothering, soil-feeding mulch. But if you can, let them be. Two years from now you’ll have crumbling, much-mouldered, barely recognisable leaves. Sieve out twigs and chunks (more mulch) and use the crumble in home-made compost mixes, or as soil food. If you can, keep holding on. Three years from now (or more, it only gets better) you’ll be scooping up tumbling, anonymous handfuls of fine, dark brown crumble. Sieve it if you need to (for use in potting/propagation mixes), but otherwise it’s ready to go; your garden or allotment can imbibe it just as it comes.

More chack-chack-chacking from the fieldfares (they’re ganging up on me now) spurs me to keep raking. They’ve got their eyes on the sloes, too.

Comments (5)

  1. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    Splendid post John!

    I wonder, is leaf mould like champagne, with some years deserving of declared vintages?

  2. Grower

    John Walker

    Thanks. I'm pretty convinced that every year is a vintage one when it comes to leaf mould, but there can be striking differences depending on which leaves you use. Nowadays my mould comes from a right old mixture, but I once gathered up walnut leaves (the rake-up smell is divine) and they turned into fine, almost black crumbs. To stick with the drinks analogy, a bit like a rich port, I guess. What has anyone else found?

  3. Grower

    Amanda CW

    Nice post. I've read that leaf mould 'matures' in a quite different way to compost. It's the slow action of fungi, rather than the activity of bacteria that hots up a compost heap. For that reason it's best not to mix compost with leaf mould. Is that right?

  4. Grower

    John Walker

    Thanks Amanda. I don't think there are any 'rights' when it comes to making leaf mould or compost. My leaf mould cages (in the picture above) are getting quite warm inside now, but at around 6ft across and 3ft deep they hold a lot of leaves. On these cold mornings a whisp of steam rises from them. But they'll only be warm for weeks, then cool off and moulder slowly for 2-3 years. I also have 'cool' compost bins, which take mostly kitchen/household waste. I just drop more into these and it all breaks down, and gets turned over by brandling/tiger worms - there's no turning or anything. I also sometimes make big 'hot' compost heaps in summer using various mixes, such as bracken, grass and old straw/hay. These need turning every few days and get scorching hot inside. They're a lot of hard work. It's a good idea to add a sprinkling of soil (or leaf mould) to kickstart the decomposition process, but it's not essential.

    I don't see any reason not to mix compost-destined material with fallen leaves, in fact you probably get a better all-round compost out the other end. The great advantage with leaf mould is the raw materials are free, easy to gather, and you get a known (and relatively weed-seed-free) end result which can be used in different ways. Fungi and bacteria work their respective magic on whatever it is that's breaking down, albeit at different stages in the process.

  5. Grower

    Amanda CW

    That's really helpful. Thanks John. You have a new leaf convert in me!

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