Patience pays off when making leaf mold

    “Fallen leaves lying on the grass in the November sun bring more happiness than daffodils.”

    — Cyril Connolly, “The Unquiet Grave,” 1944

    In his book named after an old English folksong, literary critic and author Cyril Connolly offers an interesting perspective about why November leaves are more pleasurable than spring flowers.

    “Autumn is the mind’s true spring,” he says, because one can imagine anything and everything lying beneath the fallen leaves. April, on the other hand, is “the cruelest month,” for when the daffodils emerge their reality suddenly ends all other imagined possibilities.

    I suspect Connolly was not a big daffodil fan, but I do share his enthusiasm for fallen leaves. They make wonderful leaf mold for our gardens, if we exercise patience. In fact, decaying leaves make one of the most effective soil conditioners.

    Leaf mold sounds like something to guard against, similar to powdery mildew. Yet, it’s really just decomposed leaves that have turned a rich brown color, feel crumbly, and have a pleasant earthy scent.

    Gardens benefit in several ways from the addition of leaf mold. First, leaf mold retains water up to 500 percent of its weight, so it reduces run-off from rain and irrigation when spread over the ground. When used as a mulch around the base of plants, leaf mold also reduces evaporation and helps keep plant roots cool during hot summer months.

    Annual application of leaf mold as compost significantly improves soil texture, called friability, and increases beneficial microbes and other life in the soil. Leaf mold is particularly good at reducing compaction of heavy soils, and it can be used in place of peat moss in plant containers.

    As the leaves break down completely, they provide a long-term source of nutrients to garden plants. Unlike fresh leaves, leaf mold does not draw nitrogen in the soil away from the plant roots.

    Be aware that many gardeners advise against using walnut leaves or horse chestnut leaves for leaf mold because they contain concentrated chemicals that can hinder germination and plant growth. Recommended leaves for leaf mold include but are not limited to oak, beech, maple, ash and alder.

    Try to avoid using diseased leaves for leaf mold because the cold composting process will not kill off the pathogens.

    The time it takes for leaves to turn into leaf mold depends, in part, on the type of leaves and the size of the leaves. Larger leaves take longer to decompose, and sturdier leaves with a lot of cellulose, such as oak and holly leaves, break down more slowly.

    To make leaf mold, rake up fallen leaves and shred them with a lawn mower or other leaf shredder. Unshredded leaves can be used, but they have a tendency to pack together in layers, sealing out air and moisture that is needed for decomposition.

    Moisten the leaves (but not too wet) to create an environment for fungi to grow and begin the decomposing process. For faster decomposition, pile the shredded leaves into a wire bin and stir occasionally to introduce fresh oxygen to the pile. Or place the shredded leaves in black plastic bags with several slits cut in them and leave them be.

    Be patient. The leaf mold will be ready for use in six months to a year. When the time comes, gently work the leaf mold into the garden soil as compost. Also use as mulch by spreading leaf mold 2-3 inches deep around the base of plants, leaving a 1-inch ring around the plant to avoid stem rot and other diseases.

    Right now, the fallen maple leaves have made a red carpet of my front yard. Like Cyril Connolly, the leaves make me happy, because I imagine all of the possibilities they could bring to my garden — like daffodils in springtime.

    — Rhonda Nowak is Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at For more about gardening, visit her blog at


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