Gardening with Pat Duke: Make space for this most essential of soil conditioners

Collecting leaves to make leaf mould - soil improvement at Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.

Collecting leaves to make leaf mould - Credit: RHS / Tim Sandall

At times, gardening can feel like the opposite of modern life and hardly ever captures the zeitgeist.

This is even more accurate today when we rush around at pace trying to keep up with the increasing amount of admin and information coming our way. 

I think part of the charm and attraction of planning a garden is taking the long term view with an objective in mind that can be years ahead.

Just planting a tree is a good example of this. We can wait years for it to provide privacy, never mind fruit. If we can recycle of re-use something in the meantime, even better.  

With this in mind and thinking about being self-sustainable after all the attention of COP26,  I’ve been saving leaves for future use.

My wife quite often points out that my enthusiasm for all things green could easily be misconstrued as me being the world’s most boring man.

Having spent the best part of the last two weeks raking up leaves to help keep the lawn dry and moss free, I've been storing the leaves to use as precious leaf mould in around one or two years' time.

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A neat trick if you can is to use the lawn mower where you can, and if it’s dry enough to act as a hoover for the leaves, the great thing is that it cuts them up and they will turn to leaf mould quicker.  

When I was a child we used to dig up rich leaf mould from the local woods to use as a soil conditioner.

As this is understandably frowned upon, especially now we can very easily make our own by placing the leaves in a bin bag, spraying them with water before puncturing the bag with holes and leaving for around two years.  

After this you will have bags of rich, dark brown crumble to mix into your soil.

A garden will only ever be as impressive as its soil. Adding leaf mould annually in this way will give all your plants a lift when absorbing nutrients and also help with the drainage to prevent water logging.  

Funnily enough in the summer it has the opposite effect in that it’s dense texture will also keep moisture in the ground when its bone dry.  

The term mould is used because you are creating the ideal environment for bacteria to break down the leaf matter into a heap of trace elements that promote growth, particularly in spring.  

Although most gardeners will know that leaf mould isn’t high in nutrients, it will assist in root development which increases the plants ability to ‘suck up’ the nutrients it needs to grow healthily.

This is particularly true in the case of vegetables.  

All this from something that can be seen as a problem at this time of year and a bit of a headache to remove from the garden.

It’s a great example of when life serves you lemons, make lemonade.  

You can make lemonade on a much greater scale than using bin bags by putting them in a heap covered with sheeting and turning them like compost and keeping them moist where you can.  

Some people just shred them in the mower and dump them on the beds but this takes longer for them to break down and they can get blown all over the rest of the garden when the inevitable storm comes.  

Having a pile of leaf mould on the go is what every sensible gardener does and always makes space, and time, for this most essential of soil conditioners.

If you add some every year, you won’t go far wrong and you will definitely notice the difference.  

In fact, if you are lucky enough to have a lemon tree to look after, leaf mould will absolutely make certain that you can make lemonade instead when summer finally arrives again.