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.