How to Turn Fallen Leaves into Gardener's Gold

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Fallen leaves on a lawn under a sycamore tree

At this time of year there are fallen leaves everywhere you look: on the lawn, on beds and piled up into pretty much any corner of the garden! Don’t bin them – collect them all, and you’ve got a valuable supply of organic matter that can be put to excellent use in your garden.

What is Leafmould?

Leafmould is simply what results when a pile of leaves has decomposed into dark, crumbly compost. This decayed matter is truly gardener’s gold and can be put to several uses in the garden: dig it into the soil to improve its structure, spread it on the soil surface as mulch, or use it as a basis for your own potting soil mix.

Leaves from almost any deciduous tree or shrub (that’s one that sheds its leaves in winter) can be used for making leafmould. Thicker leaves such as those from horse chestnut trees can take a little longer to decompose. Tough evergreen leaves are best added to the compost heap where the higher temperatures will help them to rot down faster.

Tough evergreen leaves are best added to the compost heap where the higher temperatures will help them to rot down faster.

Leaves raked into a pile

Leaf Collecting Methods

Collect leaves from anywhere they pile up in the garden – lawns, beds, and paths, plus driveways and guttering. Leaves from heavily trafficked roads should not be used as they may contain pollutants that could affect plant growth.

Use a spring-tine rake or a leaf blower to collect your leaves into piles, then scoop them up by hand or using improvised grabbers.

Alternatively, use a lawn mower fitted with a collection bag to scoop up the leaves. Set the mower to its highest height and the blade will chop up the leaves as it collects them. The smaller pieces of leaf will rot down into leafmould more quickly than whole leaves. You’ll need to empty the bag frequently as it will become full quickly, and it can be very heavy if the leaves are damp.

Mowing leaves

How to Make Leafmould

Leafmould couldn’t be easier to make. The best way is to create a leafmould cage by securing chicken wire or mesh to four corner posts hammered firmly into the ground. Use U-shaped nails or fence staples to hold the mesh into position. Fill the cage with your collected leaves. The mesh will stop the leaves from blowing away while allowing plenty of air to reach them. It will normally take about two years for leaves to rot down into leafmould.

An even simpler solution is to stuff leaves into sturdy plastic bags. Push the leaves right down into the bag then tie it shut at the top. To allow air into the bag puncture it repeatedly with a garden fork to create lots of holes. Store the bags in an out-of-the-way corner where they will remain undisturbed for a couple of years.

How to Use Leafmould

1. As a soil improver

After two to three years your leafmould will have a wonderfully crumbly consistency. It’s great for enhancing your soil, feeding the soil microbes that encourage healthy root growth, improving drainage in heavier soils and moisture retention in lighter soils. Simply lay a thick layer on top of the soil surface then lightly fork it in, allowing the worms to do the rest of the digging in for you!

Leaves rotting down into leafmould

2. As a mulch

Younger leafmould, between one and two years old, won’t be fully broken down yet but can still be put to use as a surface mulch where it will suppress weeds and work to slowly improve your soil. Lay it 3-5cm (1-2in) thick around fruit trees and bushes or any well-established perennial plants.

3. In a potting soil mix

The finest leafmould can form the basis of garden-made potting soil. Sieve it to remove any lumps and debris then mix with weed-free garden soil or sieved compost. Use it for growing in containers or potting-on young plants.

Nothing should go to waste in the garden, and fallen leaves are no exception! We’d love to hear how you use this autumnal glut in your own garden – why not drop us a comment below?

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Show Comments


"My husband uses a mulching mower with a bagging attachment to collect leaves and grass (more leaves than grass) and stores it in plastic bags. After our raised bed vegetable garden finishes the season I put a two or three inch layer on each bed and cover it with landscape cloth to keep the Minnesota wildlife and neighborhood cats out. In spring I remove the cloth and the leaves to let the soil warm up, then put some leaves back as mulch. Each year the soil gets better!"
Marty on Friday 3 November 2017
"What a brilliant system you have there Marty - thanks for sharing!"
Ben Vanheems on Friday 3 November 2017
"I've been composting leaves for years and this fall put the 2 year old mulch on my raised garden beds again. When my trees were small and I didn't get my own leaves I would go into town and pick up the bagged leaves on the curbs. This year I am leaving leaves on all my perennial beds and just cleaning the lawn areas I will remove some of those in my pathways in the spring. I have oaks, maples and birch but the maples and birch break down much faster than the oak. I do appreciate any information I can get on composting. I love my gardens and work very hard even in my senior years. "
Bonnie on Friday 2 November 2018
"Hi Bonnie. So pleased to hear you're making the most of your leaves. Keep up the good work - your plants are thriving because of it I'm sure."
Ben Vanheems on Friday 2 November 2018
"Heya, speed up your leaf mould with milk. Lactic acid bacteria will help breaking it down much faster. Use whole milk (dilution ~ 1:10) or skimmed milk (dilution ~ 1:3). Fill your watering can with this mixture and spray over the leaves at each 30cm/foot while filling your compost container. Get the gardener's gold in less than one year. If you have piled it up already don't worry. You can apply it through wholes pierced in the heap 5 dots of a dice for 1m². Happy gardening!"
Ela on Saturday 3 November 2018
"That's a fantastic tip, thanks for sharing Ela!"
Ben Vanheems on Monday 5 November 2018
"I use a tarp to collect raked leaves (primarily maple trees on property) and pine needles and place them on unused portion of driveway in the back. When they have dried, I run them over with a mulching lawn mower - no bag attached. The confetti sized result go into the compost pile, interspersed with organic household waste (egg shells, vegetable and fruit seeds, skins, coffee grounds, house plant waste,...) added as produced throughout the year and dirt/weeds I skim shovel off the garden space before replanting bulbs and annuals. The resulting compost breaks down within a year and is spread on top of flower and herb garden each Spring. I used to bag leaves and retrieve compost from local landfill but that was too expensive, too much work and it's a crap shoot what pesticides lurk within retrieved public compost. I take my own trash to the dump so by composting home organic waste the dump trips are less frequent and garbage is not stinky, fermented nor wet. It's a win-win for the environment and us. We recycle our organic matter in place."
John P Gaffey on Saturday 20 April 2019
"Hi John. Sounds like you've got a really great system going there. Always good to be as self-sufficient as you can when it comes to soil amendments. Certainly mowing over the collected leaves will help to break them down far quicker. Keep up the good work!"
Ben Vanheems on Monday 22 April 2019
"Every year I put newspapers topped with shredded straw on my vegetable garden to keep weeds down and moisture in the ground. Should I remove it every fall, till it in, or what? Sometimes I leave it over winter, then till it in in the spring/summer before I plant again. I usually put compost on the garden before planting if enough has broken down in the compost barrel in the previous year."
Audrey on Sunday 6 October 2019
"I think what you're doing is just fine Audrey. If the leaves aren't decomposed by spring you can either till them in, or rake them clear of the areas where you are going to sow and plant to do so. There's no harm in leaving the leaves where they are to decompose over time - it's just they sometimes get in the way that's all! "
Ben Vanheems on Monday 7 October 2019
"Will leaving the leaves over the winter encourage mold and fungus? Does anyone have experience with sycamore leaves? (I'm in Virginia)"
Louise on Sunday 25 April 2021
"Hi Louise. If the trees are healthy then leaving the leaves over winter would be absolutely fine. It's nature's way and a great way to sustain healthy soil and keep beneficial bugs onside until the next growing season."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 26 April 2021
"I live in Jacksonville, Florida, and retired this past September. I have been planting flowers all over my yard. I read so much about the benefits of composting, I started my own. I purchased red wiggler worms and started composting by adding 1/3 nitrogen sources, 2/3 carbon sources in a 30 gal plastic drum, full of holes and painted flat black. The temperature is around 90 degrees inside the container which is cooking nicely. I have been composting since April and half of what I put in the container is already decomposed and its easy to see the worms have been multiplying in mass. I can't wait to get some compost on my roses and hibiscus. I also intend to use it to make Compost Tea."
Kenny on Sunday 18 July 2021
"I have a large amount of magnolia tree leaves. I pile them in big plastic containers and let them just rot with the rain adding water. After a few weeks the liquid in the bottom of the containers is full of high powered nutrients for my plants and flowers. I usually water my flowers to wet the ground and then drip the decomposed leaf solution around the drip line of my flowers. I works GREAT!! Plus once the magnolia leaves decompose, they are great for use as compost"
Kenny on Sunday 18 July 2021
"Hi Kenny. For someone who has only been composting since the spring, you already sound like you have a fantastic system going and are clearly seeing its benefits - great stuff! It's so rewarding turning all of that 'waste' into valuable plant food."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 20 July 2021
"I collect the discarded coffee grounds from my local Morrisons garage and my courgettes are amazing every year! "
Jon Parker on Monday 13 February 2023
"Coffee grounds are another really useful organic material Jon, agreed."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 14 February 2023

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