As we are only a year and a bit into this new property beside the coast, there are no trees. It didn’t come with trees and I haven’t quite got to the point of planting some – well not quite, but that is a shameful story for another day! Besides, if I had planted any since moving here, they certainly wouldn’t be big enough to fulfil my needs. Obviously, there is the usual benefits – the fruiting that comes from fruit trees and the whole aesthetic appeal a tree can add to the environment and they can also be a place of shade on a hot summer day. Any stick-esk saplings I plant won’t be any good to me for several years.
But at this time of year, a tree – in particular a deciduous one can be of tremendous value, from what the unwary would consider nature’s litter. The fallen leaves. I have long coveted a large tree dropping rake-able leaves so I can scoop them all up and treasure them. Unfortunately, we just weren’t at the last place long enough and now we have to start over.
Fortunately wonderful friends of mine, the lovely ones who helped with my garden beds by making the brackets so I could whip together all the beds in no time at all, mentioned they had a large tree outside their workshop and were getting a little sick of sweeping them up. So, I offered to help them out, if I could take the leaves away.
This may sound like I’m a tad crazy but fallen autumn leaves are like gold – not only in colour but for the potential they hold. You see, if you leave them to rot down – on their own, they can become the most amazing soil conditioner. As I have only seen this happen and helped others make it happen, I’d never really had my very own leaf mould. And this season it is all about to change.
So, I popped along to my friends’ workshop, dragging a couple of unwilling teens with me – but I needed someone to hold open the bag! And we raked up all the leaves out the front of their place and got a large bag full of gorgeous autumnal leaves. Much to the bemusement of my kids, you could even say I was excited.
Once I got by bag of loot home, we poked a few holes in the bag with a garden fork and moistened the leaves with a couple of squirts of the hose and tied the bag shut. Then I popped it behind what will soon be my shed. And now we wait – an entire year, for it to turn into the loveliest well-rotted, crumbly, sweet smelling leaf mould that makes an awesome soil conditioner and is worth its weight in gold.
The science behind it is the leaves no longer contain much in the way of nitrogen, which is pretty much what makes them dry and crispy. All that is left behind in the leaves in great quantities is lignin and cellulose, which are very slow to break down. You can put them in the compost as a brown material in a balanced 2:1 brown : green ratio. However with a mature tree at this time of year and taking into consideration most of the garden will have given up the ghost and fresh green material is sparse and there is only so much that can come out of your kitchen, the balance could easily look like a million to one! If you put too many autumn leaves in your compost, then it is highly likely they will still be there when the rest of the compost is done.
Normal composting is generally done with the help of bacteria who do a great job, however turning leaves into the incredible leaf mould is a job for fungi as there isn’t all that much present in the leaves to interest bacteria. They get onto the task of breaking it down in the material you will often find on a forest floor in the humus layer.
And the reason to go to all this effort is it is an amazing soil conditioner – one of the best. While it doesn’t provide much in the way of increase fertility or nutrition, so it doesn’t replace compost, it improves soil structure, and improves the soils ability to retain moisture and nutrients. It also makes a fabulous home for all the beneficial creatures and organisms that live in the soil.
I hope one day I will have my very own source of autumn leaves from my own trees. In an ideal situation, because it takes so long, if you gather leaves in a bag and pop them behind the shed each year then you will end up with a constant supply. But until then I may just become the crazy lady out there willing to rake your leaves. If you do have too many leaves that need a rake – let me know…
Come again soon – winter is knocking on the door and I’m not sure I’m ready to let it in.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Thank you to the good people at Gardena, this is a paid post.