The main ingredient of leafmould is freely available everywhere right now, says Monty. So, why isn’t anyone outside gathering up every fallen leaf?
I love leaves on trees but I also like them on the ground. Which is just as well, because they are now falling like fat confetti as the wind whips across Longmeadow, ruffling and flicking the branches like a shaken rug. But by Christmas every last fallen leaf will have been gathered, mown and stored in our leafmould bay, which will be gently steaming and converting as a million fungi put their digestive systems to work. (Do fungi have digestive systems? Probably not, but you get the gist.) By next autumn, this will all be soft, black leafmould, clean to handle and smelling sweetly of a sunny woodland floor. It will radiate an aura of health and goodness that matches its performance in the garden. We use leafmould as an essential part of our potting compost mix, and as the perfect soil conditioner and mulch for all woodland plants − at least half the planting at Longmeadow is woodland. In short, it is gold dust and we never have too much, so we take the business of gathering fallen leaves as seriously as making good compost. So why do so few people do this compared with compost making? Every garden has leaves in it at this time of year and there are leaves in every street. Everyone could gather them up and store them, chopped up or not, either in a dedicated container or simply in a bin bag or two. Why don’t all gardeners − good and talented at so many aspects of horticulture − do this as a matter of course? It is one of the great horticultural mysteries of our age, and in future years anthropologists will look back over our troubled times and agree that the rot really set in when we stopped making leafmould. Stranger still, why don’t local councils do this with all the leaves from their parks and streets? And if they did not wish to use the leafmould in their own gardens (though you have to wonder why that would be), then they could make it available to anyone who wanted it for free. To not use it is such a waste and so at odds with the whole tenor of modern life when we are trying to recycle and conserve as much as possible, and make our gardens as healthy as we can. I suspect it started with the rise of the garden centre in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when for the first time plants became widely available already potted up in compost. Until then, most plants were bare root and had to be planted out or potted on. No one sold potting compost, so you had to make your own, which we all did, using leafmould, soil, garden compost and perhaps, shamefully, some peat. We all now know that peat is a no-no but, in any event, leafmould makes an almost perfect substitute. However, although I keep banging on about home-made potting compost, I am fully aware that very few people make any. Even so, I find if you add a measure of leafmould to proprietary bark-based, multi-purpose compost you greatly improve it. For the record, this is how I do it. Rake or sweep up leaves. If it is dry, take them to where they are to be stored and spread them out in a windrow along the ground. If it is wet, do the same on a hard surface like a path. Set the mower blades higher than normal and mow them, which will chop and collect in one easy process. This works fine on a brick or paved path and the chopping greatly speeds up the conversion process. Then store them in a bay − chicken wire is ideal − with a wide surface area for exposure to rain and air, or put them into bin bags pierced with drainage holes to let out excess water. Make sure they are thoroughly wet when stored and check every month or so to see if they are drying out − the conversion to crumbly leafmould is much faster if they remain moist. Do nothing else at all while the fungi quietly do their thing. So, go and gather ye leaves while ye may. It really does make sense.
Leafmould is gold dust and we never have too much