Too good for the bin

Fallen leaves are everywhere in autumn and, for gardeners, they can sometimes be a bit of an inconvenience - messing up the lawn, clogging up ponds, suffocating our plants and making our paths treacherously slippy. For ponds and lawns especially it is important that we rake up these leaves but the savvy gardener knows that, far from being an inconvenience, autumn leaves are a bountiful resource, just as nature intended them to be.

In a woodland setting these fallen leaves are a vital part of the eco system. As the leaf litter decomposes, it provides nutrients and a home to many different life forms including small mammals, insects and fungi. Deciduous woodlands depend on the annual leaf fall so don't collect leaves from a woodland site. Its best not to disturb leaf piles under hedges and shrubs either since they may be sheltering hibernating hedgehogs and other wildlife.

Collecting leaves

In the garden of course, it's a different story. With a spring tine rake, gather all the leaves from your lawn. This will ensure you have no brown patches appearing and also protect against the development of fungi and diseases which may be encouraged by the damp conditions.

If you have a garden pond, make sure you remove fallen leaves with a net. Leaves can block pond pumps as well as causing harmful bacteria to develop on the pond.

Sweep up all the leaves from your paths and driveways. If you have a gravel driveway, wait for a dry day and use a garden vacuum. This will pick up the leaves but is not strong enough to pick up any gravel. It is especially important to remove leaves from graveled areas since the leaves can break down and form a soil of sorts that will allow weed seeds to germinate.

You can sweep up leaves from the streets if you want to but they are likely to contain litter and pollutants in small amounts. Not a really big problem if you have to pick out the odd crisp packet or two.

Making leaf mould

Leaves can be added to the compost bin in small amounts and if you're short of brown materials, they can help to dry up a wet bin. However, leaves decompose in the presence of fungi whereas compost relies on bacteria for its decomposition so it is better to allow leaves to break down separately from other plant material.

The simplest way to make leaf mould is to fill black plastic bin bags about two thirds full, tie a knot at the top, punch a few holes in the sides, give the bags a shake, leave them somewhere out of sight and forget about them for at least a year. Couldn't be easier.

If you don't fancy the idea of bin bags, you can make a leaf bin using four posts and wire mesh. Put the leaves in the bin, cover them with a piece of carpet or anything else to block out the light and, again, forget about them.

Whichever method you use, after one year you will have pretty decent leaf mould. If you can wait for two years, you'll have even better stuff.

Autumn colours

Ever wondered why some years are better than others for autumn colour?

As the weather gets colder, the chlorophyll (which is responsible for the green colour in leaves) begins to break down and this reveals the carotene which is yellow in colour. Leaves turn red when there is a high sugar content in the leaves (such as in maples) and the ideal condition for concentration of sugars in the leaves is a dry summer. So, for a good autumn display, you need a dry, sunny late summer, followed by a dry, sunny autumn with cold, but not freezing nights. Autumn storms and very wet weather will bring the leaves down from the trees before they have had a chance to go through all the transitional phases.

Using leaf mould

Unlike compost, leaf mould isn't really considered as useful in terms of supplying nutrients to plants. It does however make a great soil improver and peat substitute and will help to break up clay soil as well as helping sandy soils to retain moisture. Use year-old leaf mould as mulch in the autumn to keep moisture in the soil and to suppress weeds.

Mix it with sharp sand and use as an autumn top dressing for lawns. Sieve the leaf mould if you can be bothered, mix with the sand and spread over the lawn, brushing it in well with a stiff brush. Top dressing like this will give your lawn a great start in the spring.

Two year old leaf mould can be mixed with sharp sand, topsoil and home compost to make a good potting compost. The leaf mould acts as a bulking agent and helps to retain moisture in the compost. You can also use leaf mould along with sand and a small amount of home compost for seed sowing.

In any situation where you might have used peat, leaf mould can be used instead.

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