Botanix – A journal about plants and gardening

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How to make you own leaf mould soil

Leaf mould is a wonderful soil for your plants. It contains very little nutrients, but it is rich in minerals and minor nutrients. Plants can be planted in leaf mould directly or other substrates (for example peat, sand…) can be added to create soils specific to certain uses. Leaf mould is great for growing your own vegetable seedlings. Due to a balanced minor nutrient content it is also useful in treating sick or damaged plants. And the best thing is that with a little patience you can make your own leaf mould soil.

Leaf mould is a soil made from fallen leaves. Instead of throwing the dead leaves of your trees and shrubs away or composting them together with other organic household waste, you can do the following: somewhere in your garden prepare a spot, a leaf composter, where you will compost only leaves. If needed a leaf composter can even be a big garbage bag on a balcony. It is important that the spot you choose is as shady and as moist as possible. You may dig a hole in the ground, you may make your leaf composter out of old wooden boards or you may choose pre-made plastic composters, but these are not necessary the most practical. The dimensions of your composter are arbitrary, however it makes sense that it is at least ¾ m long and wide and at least 0,5 m high. In the autumn you need to simply collect the leaves and conifer needles as they fall – use leaves from all species (including walnut leaves) – but you may want to avoid any that are diseased (mouldy, mildew…) just to be safe. When your leaf composter fills up squish the leaves by walking on them – thus the composters’ minimal sensible dimensions). This way you get extra space and you also ensure that the maximum amount of moisture is retained in the heap. You may mix chopped thorn-less branches among the leaves, but they should be no thicker than a pencil. When you run out of leaves you are done for this year. Do not cover the composter as it must get very well watered (if there is no rain or snow during winter you can soak the heap with tap water). In the spring rake up all the remaining leaves and add them to the heap. During the summer dry spells the composter can be covered by a lid by some soil or it can be left as it is – nobody covers decomposing leaves out in the wild. During the year (sometimes longer), that decomposition process takes, the leaf composter will be colonised by many organisms: fungi, bacteria, nematodes, earthworms, wingless insects (e.g. springtails), isopods, myriapods, insects and their larvae. The leaf heap in your garden is an excellent hiding place, hunting grounds and place for reproduction for all those useful critters you need in ecological and organic gardening. And only all these organisms together, with adequate moisture and heat, are able to decompose old leaves to a soil that is oily to the touch, soft, airy and high in humus content. This soil is coal black and called leaf mould. After a year or two (in dry years or when composting hard-to-digest species) you open your leaf composter you will notice that all the soil is tightly packed into a lump that is hard to brake up. Apart from this you will probably not want to plant flowers into a soli swarming with little creatures, due to esthetical reasons. Chop the lump up with shovel; apply vertical swings to chop it into thin slices. Then transfer the slices onto a horizontal sieve net (holes in the net should be around 5×5 mm). Leave the slices for a few days in the sun, with the net suspended just off the ground in your garden – heat and light from the sun will drive all the creatures thru the holes back in the ground. After a few days brake up the slices and sieve the soil, add some water and your leaf mould is ready to be used. In case you keep chickens they will gladly help you: after slicing the leaf mould lump into thicker pieces allow your birds to enter the leaf composter. Chickens will gorge themselves with their usual invertebrate prey thus removing all the crawly critters and will brake up the slices in the process. This way you only need to sift the leaf mould removing any larger pieces. Also you do not need to rehydrate the soil.

Leaf mould you do not use immediately may be stored in dark plastic bags in a garden shed or cellar. As leaf mould takes time make and if you have enough room it may be worth the effort to build two leaf composters side by side – this way you will have enough leaf mould no mater what the years’ weather will be like.

If the leaf mould is to be used for sowing seeds you will need to sterilise it, just like all other sowing substrates. You can bake it in the over or pour boiling water over it. In any case do leave it to cool down and dry if necessary.

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Sunday 6th December 2009 20:13 | print | Growing substrate

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