Courtesy of MARION OWEN

Leaf mold is simply partially decomposed leaves that are somewhere between shredded leaves and humus.

Since Wednesday is the autumn equinox, I thought I’d celebrate with an icon of the new season: Leaves.

Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as manure.

For many gardeners, the end of the gardening season is bittersweet. It’s hard to say goodbye to all your carefully tended plant friends. On the other hand, there is plenty of goodness about this seasonal transition. Fall colors, the start of northern lights viewing, silver salmon fishing, and the sweet smells of fall.

Autumn is the best time to reap the season’s most abundant crop: Leaves.

The longer you garden, the greater your appreciation for the value of organic matter. And one of the very best sources of such goodness is autumn leaves.

That’s because leaves are packed with trace minerals that trees draw up from deep in the soil. It’s a wonderful cycle of life: When added to your garden, leaves then feed beneficial microbes and earthworms. They fluff up heavy soils and help sandy (in our case, ash) soils retain moisture. And they are a fabulous source of carbohydrates (brown) and active microbes for inoculating your compost pile.

Compost isn’t the only way to utilize leaves.

My friend in the UK says that no gardener is worth her salt if she doesn’t have a bin filled with leaves for making into leaf mold.

In Britain, leaf mold is the connoisseur’s choice for mulching around perennials. It’s easy to see why this cocoa brown, sweet-smelling, moisture-retentive mulch is so popular. In the U.S., however, few gardeners even know what it is. That’s probably because the only way to get leaf mold is to make it yourself.

Leaf mold is simply partially decomposed leaves that are somewhere between shredded leaves and humus. If you wonder what it looks like, next time you’re in the woods just kneel down at the base of a cottonwood or alder tree and push away a small area of dry leaves. Underneath, you’ll reveal a layer of leaf mold — a crumbly brown material with a pleasant, earthy scent.

Now you might be wondering, aren’t leaves considered acidic? True, most leaves are slightly acidic when they fall, with a pH below 6. However, as they break down into leaf mold the pH goes up into more a neutral range of 7. Incidentally, leaf mold will not correct pH problems, but it will have a moderating effect.

If you have a bumper crop of leaves and you can’t compost all of them, consider making leaf mold. Leaf mold is not as rich a fertilizer as composted leaves, but it’s easy to make and is especially useful as mulch. Keep in mind, it takes longer to get finished leaf mold when they are not run through a compost pile.

Making leaf mold is easy. Mother Nature does it all the time! Here’s a poem to get you started. Be patient, it will take about a year.

Gather leaves and pile ’em up

A wood or wire bin is best.

Dampen them as you go

For moisture, be sure to test.

Here is how to make leaf mold, step-by-step:

Gather leaves.

Pack them in a large bin. Four or five feet square is ideal. It takes about 15 to 20 trash bags full of leaves to make a pile this big.

Moisten if necessary


Another easy, yet very effective way to make leaf mold is to pack the leaves into heavy duty black trash bags. If the leaves are fresh and shredded, just moisten them and close up the bag.

If the leaves are whole or dry, moisten them well and add a shovelful of garden soil, compost or manure. Then just stash the bags out of the way for a year or two.



Leaf mold is ready to use when it’s soft and crumbly. Distribute it around your perennials, vegetables, and shrubs (if you have a lot of it!), 2 to 3 inches thick. Because leaf mold retains so much moisture, be sure to keep it several inches back from the crown or base of the plant. This helps prevent pest and disease problems.

You can also incorporate leaf mold right into the soil. Unlike raw leaves, it will not rob nitrogen from the plants around it, so it’s safe to use in vegetable gardens and around annual flowers.

You can also:

Add it to new garden beds

Use it instead of peat moss to lighten the soil in containers

Use it to enhance the soil in a shade garden

Or to improve any soil that’s too sandy or too heavy

My hope is that someday, gardeners in the U.S. will catch on to the value of leaf mold and stop throwing leaves into the garbage. Leaves are certainly an abundant natural resource in many parts of the country. For now, they’re still free for the taking, so grab a rake and start making your own premium, extra-fancy leaf-mold mulch.

Got a gardening question? Send it to: mygarden@alaska.net or visit my blog at: MarionOwenAlaska.com.


(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.