Before the advent of commercial fertilizers, trees lived exclusively on what exists in the soil plus nutrients derived from decomposing leaf litter. This demonstrates one of the problems with trees in the landscape: Their leaves are removed in the fall or raked periodically during the year. This interrupts the year-round decomposition process invented by nature to feed and protect the root system.
That is why gardeners are keen on gathering fall leaves to use later in their gardens and landscapes. They are our most valuable home-produced bio-resource, and anyone can harvest them. What my family tries to do with autumn leaves is collect them in a round or square wire corral. They get wet and packed down to begin decomposing over the coming year. The result next summer or fall is a clean, soft, dark material called leaf mold. It’s black gold for mulching or to work into your new planting holes and vegetable garden soils without spending a penny.
The easiest way to get started is to repurpose old woven wire fence, or use new chicken wire. Create a round circle and secure the ends together, then pound in a couple of stakes for stabilizers. Fill the corral with leaves in layers about a foot deep. Throw in bio-active material such as native soil, compost remnants, manures or any leftover organic fertilizers from the current season. Spoiled pelleted farm animal feeds also can be used in a thin layer. All of these enhance decomposition speed and increase fertility levels in the final product.
Corralling leaves is the ultimate family gardening project. Here’s why. After each foot-deep layer of leaves, drop the little kids in there to stomp it all down. Remove them, then water the surface to begin decomposition. Then add your manure or soil on top of the compressed layer. Add the next foot of leaves, throw the kids back in, and start all over again. Repeat until the corral is full and nicely packed.
It can take a year for fall leaves to decompose into mold, but in warmer winter climates, the process can be a lot quicker. It also depends on what kinds of leaves you use. Those of most American street trees are great mold makers, but beware of conifers and some oaks, because their foliage can be very acidic. Eucalyptus and palm fronds are not recommended for this either.
You can make as many leaf mold bins as you have room for in out-of-the-way parts of the backyard. You don’t have to turn them like compost, but adding water during the dry season maintains steadier decomposition. When very hot, the rotting process grinds to a halt, while in humid regions the rot goes into overtime.
Our contemporary way of gardening is dependent on pricey big-box bagged soils and amendments. Did you ever wonder how folks gardened without them in the old days? They created their own locally generated amendments that could be replaced by their own trees and animals each year for free. Nothing went to waste. Spoiled feed is used in a different way. It’s the sustainable solution to autumn leaves that frees you of stuffing it all into black plastic garbage bags before it blows away. And if you need to do it in phases, just rake or gather a layer at a time, adding more when you’re ready until the holidays arrive.
This is a concept you can pass down to your kids, and they’ll remember it. Don’t lecture; just make sure they have a ball hopping on the leaves. Take pictures, get dirty and celebrate this gift of fertility. Corralling the leaves is a memory maker for the whole family. Make it your annual ritual of fall, when everyone gets in on yard clean-up day, then shares a wonderful meal together afterward.