Fallen leaves can be a nuisance in the autumn if you like your lawns and paving to stay neat and clean, and can be slippery in wet weather. But instead of bagging them up for disposal or burning them, they can be turned into leaf mould compost – a wonderful substance that works just like peat. Leaf mould compost (usually just called leafmould) is simply compost made entirely from fallen leaves, and makes a great low-nutrient soil improver or mulch. It is also a vital ingredient in home-made seed compost. It couldn’t be simpler to make: just pile the leaves up in a container or heap and leave them for two years to rot down.

handful of leaf mould before sieving

a quick sieve and you're ready to go

Benefits of leaf mould compost

  • No effort to make
  • Absolutely free
  • Good for the soil when applied as a mulch
  • A vital ingredient for many seed and potting compost mixes
  • Can be used at any time of year
  • Is clean and pleasant to handle, and stores indefinitely

How to make leafmould

  1. Gather your raw ingredients, namely: fallen autumn leaves. Sweep or rake them up from your own plot, or from local paths and pavements. Try not to take them from busy roads where there may be tyre rubber dust and other contaminants.
  2. Heap them up, or (for smaller containers) put them into a container to stop them from blowing away. You can make a dedicated leaf mould bin for them (see picture), make a loop of chicken wire attached to an upright post, or just stuff them into a plastic bag. There’s no need to cover the leaves to keep the rain out, but if you do then check the pile from time to time to make sure it’s still moist.
  3. As the leaves start to break down the leaf pile shrinks, and you can add more leaves on top if you like.
  4. Leave the pile alone to rot down into leaf mould compost. If you’re using it as a top-dressing or mulch, then one year of rotting is sufficient. If you need it to break down completely for home made seed compost then it really needs two years to break down completely. Rubbing it through a garden seive helps to break down the last few flakes.

Leaves you shouldn’t use in leafmould

Any fallen leaves are fine to use in leafmould, but you shouldn’t use evergreen leaves. These are extremely slow to break down, so small amounts are best composted in a regular compost heap. Larger amounts can be used to make leafmould as above, but take three years or even longer to compost completely. Pine needles are well worth composting alone in this way, as the leafmould that they make is quite acidic – perfect for acid-loving plants like blueberries and heathers.Try not to collect leaves near busy roads because of the risk of environmental contamination. Also, be careful if you are collecting piles or drifts of leaves that have been there for some time. These can often contain sheltering wildlife such as hedgehogs.

Other compost articles

Seed compost courtesy Jay Pettitt, leaf bin courtesy Far Closer.

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