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Make Your Own Garden Gold

Mixing up Leaf Mold in the Back Yard
by Donna Balzer
by Donna Balzer


If you somehow missed her on the award winning garden show Bugs & Blooms (now in re-runs on HGTV and around the world), you can catch her in the summer answering listener questions on CBC. Failing that, open the Calgary Herald and you’ll find her on-going gardening column. There’s also a good chance you’ll see her work in either “Garden Life Magazine” or “Canadian Gardening”

Donna’s work has also been recognized through several awards. Her first book “Gardening for Goofs is a Canadian best seller and her second book “The Prairie Rock Garden” received the Carlton R. Worth award for writing. In 2003 Donna received “The Distinguished Agrologist Award” from her peers in Agrology. HGTV’s hit internationally broadcast gardening show “Bugs & Blooms” won Donna and her Co-Host Todd Reichardt the Garden Globe Award for best talent in electronic media in 2002.

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August 29, 2010

1pt.gif (86 bytes)Leaf mold compared to compost is sort of like skim milk compared to whole. Leaf mold is a thinner version of compost with all the extra fat cut out. While a compost is expected to be full of nutrients as well as fiber because of its ingredients which range from coffee grounds to lawn clippings and dry leaves, the thinner version - leaf mold - is strictly fiber. It is composed entirely of leaves saved in the fall and has special uses for locations in the garden where extra organic matter is needed to acidify the soil or to improve the soil's structure without adding extra fertility. It is most commonly known as the duff layer in a forest where fallen leaves have built up over the years.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)In the forest, this leaf mold layer is like gold. It lays on the soil protecting both the fine tree roots and the soil's inhabitants and is gradually drawn down into the soil by insects and other small soil dwelling critters. Before the leaves blowing around in your yard are swept up and tossed out or used in a mixed compost it is good to consider putting a pile aside to make your own garden gold. Once leaves are combined with other vegetable matter the compost created is best used as a soil topdressing, vegetable garden amendment or all purpose soil additive.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)Leaves, when separated and made into leaf mold are ideal for starting seedlings, mixing into potting soil or saving as a special topdressing for shrub and tree beds. Mold is very low in nutrients so makes a good soil additive where the soil is too rich from previous additions of manure or fertilizer.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)Leaves left on the lawn will rot where they lay and may ruin patches of lawn as they compost. Leaves naturally laying in soil beds may be left there because this is ideal for the health of the trees and shrubs. But what do you do with the pile of leaves drifting into your driveway or across the lawn and road? If you have the free ingredients on hand, here are the basics for turning this bulk commodity into gold - an excellent soil additive for the cost of a few minutes of effort:

  • The first stage in making leaf mold is to collect and crush leaves. While forest leaves compost down from whole leaves, garden leaf mold is made quicker from leaves that have been chopped up. Piling the leaves loosely on the lawn and then mowing over them and catching them in the mower bag will chop them finely enough to get a quick start. If you don't have a mower bag, simply bag the leaves and employ your kids to jump on the bags to crush the leaves finely.

  • The dry leaves can be stored dry in bags until you have gathered a quantity or they may be piled in the chosen spot, watered and left to rot. If you own a composter the leaves may be put exclusively into this special container. Excess leaves that are bagged may be stored dry until needed in the future if there isn't enough room in the compost area for all your leaves at once.

  • Within a year the ground leaves in the pile will be mostly rotted and ready to use. If you look at the pile and still see leaf parts this is okay for use on top of soil in shrub beds but it probably won't work yet for starting seeds.

  • If you want to skip step 2 and 3 you can simply chop up whatever leaves you have with your lawn mower and spread them directly on your shrub areas. I often wait to spread them until after the soil has frozen in the later fall but it is possible to do it as soon as leaves are available just to save steps.

1pt.gif (86 bytes)The final effect of adding leaf mold rather than raking up and tossing leaves away is that the organic matter added to the soil this way is invaluable for its fiber which greatly improves the soil structure. The chemistry of the leaves is also important. Most leaf molds - like composts - are acidic by nature and this acidity is a bonus for our soils which tend to be basic which is a negative trait for plant growth overall. One small reminder is that leaf mold, unlike compost or manure, is not high in nutrients so is not a substitution for fertilizer or for the other organic additives when plants require more fertility. Roses, for example, prefer a higher fertility and would do better with a fall bag of manure at each plant's base than a lean and nutrient meager addition of leaf mold.
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