Garden Magic: Leaf Mold

Having visited many magazine-worthy gardens and been on more garden tours than I can count, I’ve noticed that a lot of really good gardeners use leaf mold.

Leaf mold is one of three somewhat overlapping garden amendments that can be made with dried leaves. Here are the differences: Leaf mulch is shredded leaves that are left on the garden (or placed on a vegetable garden) to prevent weed growth and retain water. Leaf mold is made from shredded leaves that have been allowed to decompose for several months or more. Leaf compost is a compost made mostly of leaves, but with added green material, such as vegetable scraps or plant remains.

You can’t usually find leaf-mold for sale. The City of Madison, Wis., has done a lot to encourage residents to make leaf mold themselves, and through the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, it also collects leaves and then sells them back to citizens the next season as leaf mulch. But you can make leaf mold fairly easily.

To make your own, start in the fall with lots of leaves from your yard (or your neighbors’ yards, if they want to donate). The leaves decompose best if they are shredded, either by running a mower over them a few times or by using a shredder. Then, keep the leaves wet and let them sit in a pile for one to two years. The composting happens fastest if the pile is 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet or larger.

The leaf mold is a dark, rich looking mulch that also adds nutrients to the soil and improves the tilth of soil. It can be used as a mulch (don’t put it too close to the crowns of the plants) or even added to potting mix for container plantings.

Do you make your own leaf mold/mulch/compost? How does it work?

—Mary Lahr Schier