Skip the peat moss and the coir - make leaf mold!
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Truth be told, I haven't given leaf mold a fair shake. I didn't think I had enough leaves in my tiny yard to have much of an impact on my unrelenting clay. You know - the clay that Acme Brick actually turns into bricks about a mile from my house. (Yes, I whine about it constantly, but it really sucks!)
Besides, what could be better than the black gold that is compost? I'm constantly churning that out in my yard and have been for years. That's where 90 percent of my leaves have always gone, into the compost. I dabbled with making leaf mold, but what's the big deal about it anyway?
For as many years as I've been adding leaves to my compost, I've been mixing up enough potting mix to fill several of the 25-gallon tubs that I use as containers for vegetable gardening. There's never enough room for all the things I want to grow, so every year, I add a few new containers. Creating more potting mix meant buying lots of peat or coir.
And I felt guilty every time I loaded either into my little Subaru.
There's a debate in the U.S. - about everything, frankly - but in this case on whether peat moss is or is not sustainable. Others don't even get into the sustainability argument but simply assert that the amount gardeners are using doesn't have an impact on peat bogs. Rather, commercial applications are the problem. If it sounds like pointing blame, that's what it sounded like to me as well.
Coconut coir, which is the processed fibers from coconut shells, has quickly risen as an alternative to peat moss, particularly in Europe where they're a little more convinced using peat is a bad idea.
My gut told me that there had to be a lot of machinery churning out lots of CO2 in order to break down coir and get it to my corner of the world, far removed for coconut trees. Have you ever tried to crack a coconut? I have and those suckers are TOUGH! I did some reading on coir production and learned I was partially correct - it takes a lot to break those suckers into something usable - but there are many other concerns with its creation. These include lots of chemical use, diverting limited drinking water resources to washing coir, and inhumane labor practices. Gasp!
After that, I knew I had to pick a demon and it ended up being peat. I crossed my fingers that there was some truth to the argument that peat bogs can sustain themselves and avoided eye contact as I loaded the bags.
Still, in the back of my mind, I've wished for an alternative and like an answered prayer, I stumbled onto some exciting facts about leaf mold.
Leaf mold is an alternative to peat moss and coir!
If compost is black gold, then of container gardeners typically dependent on large quantities of peat, leaf mold could very well be black platinum! It can be used in almost every application as an alternative to peat moss and coconut coir. Use it in homemade potting mix. Use it in garden beds to loosen and aerate soil or to improve water retention. Did you fight Blossom End Rot on your tomatoes last year? Work leaf mold into the soil before planting. Whether your soil was holding too much or not enough water, leaf mold can fix it. Compost can do these things too, but leaf mold is arguably more effective.
Leaf mold is THAT amazing! About the only time it can't be used as a straight-out substitute for peat moss, is in seed starting medium.
I'm ready to get out there and load the whole world on the leaf mold bandwagon!!! Jump on with me and learn how to make your own. If you don't think you have enough leaves, don't worry, I have some ideas on that too.
What is leaf mold
Leaf mold is partially broken down leaves that have not been mixed with other forms of organic material. If other material is added, it becomes compost. The term mold is a little misleading because I've never seen any fuzzy stuff growing in my leaf mold. As I admitted at the beginning, I haven't worked with it a lot but I've kicked through many piles of leaves in my life and I've just never seen fuzzy mold in leaves. However, leaf mold is the organic decomposition of leaves, so there are definitely microscopic organisms (mold) at work but it's nothing like the gross science experiments found in the depths of the fridge!
How to make leaf mold
Making leaf mold is pretty simple. First, pile some leaves. Second, get them wet and keep the damp. Beyond that, Mother Nature and time will do the work for you! You might choose to turn the pile occasionally but if you don't, you'll still get leaf mold, it will just take longer.
Shredding the leaves before piling will help the process, but it isn't necessary. A lot of the information read online will suggest running the leaves over with a bagging mower but that might not be a good idea. Bermuda grass is the primary turf grass in my part of the country and it is the devil! It spreads above ground by runners and by stolons below ground. You cannot contain it and it seems that even one little brown bit will root itself and attempt to take over the world!
The risk of Bermuda grass getting into my leaf pile is why I don't run leaves over with a mower to shred them. I've had good luck simply turning the leaves often but this will have different results because some leaves are sturdier than others and will crumble faster or slower as they're turned. I've also put leaves on a tarp or in a pile and skipped through them, with some help from children and dogs, to "shred" them.
Most hardware stores also sell leaf shredders and that is an option but it is another piece of lawn equipment you'll need to find room to store. Storage space is a big inhibitor for me because my HOA is pretty strict on secondary buildings, ie: sheds, which means my garage is where all of this must go. If you're in the same boat, a tarp takes up a lot less space. Or don't bother to shred them at all.
Un-shredded leaves are okay to use. They'll need longer to be ready for use as true leaf mold but with regular turning they'll still break down enough to make an excellent top dressing come Spring.
The real trick to leaf mold is moisture. Keep the inside of the leaf pile moist throughout the season. Even though my winters err on the dry side, my leaf piles typically don't need a lot of care. However, it's been a few weeks since my last measurable rainfall, so as soon as weather permits, I'm going to hit them with a spray from the water hose. They should be damp, but not soaked. Just like with compost - too much water prevents adequate airflow from getting to the microorganisms hard at work.
Finding enough leaves
I didn't think I had enough but remember the Chinese proverb that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Anything you're able to produce is better than nothing.
If you live in suburbia like I do, the hunger for a pristine, golf-course quality stereotypical lawn could work in your favor. You will most definitely find neighbors piling bags at the curb. If they're not, just post on the Nextdoor app, your HOA's Facebook page, a local online garage sale group (usually found on Facebook) or on Craigslist.
Where I live, you have to pay an additional fee to have bags of leaves hauled away. That's meant my neighbors have been glad to find someone willing to haul them away at no charge. I have seen some advertise that they'll give away leaves to anyone willing to rake them. I don't have time for that - I barely find time to rake my own leaves - but if time permits offering to do the work is always an option.
What about browns for the compost pile
There are lots of places to find browns other than leaves. Ask for old papers on the same sites you might ask for leaves or check with older family members to see if they still get the paper. Find out what your local library does with their dated copies and see if you could pick them up. Once I thought about it, I produce almost as much brown material as kitchen scraps and that's without leaves! You can check out some of my ideas here.
Yes, you still need to make compost.
I know that I said leaf mold is black platinum but making traditional compost is still important. Both leaf mold and compost are important to all gardeners. In fact, my potting mix recipe require more compost than it does leaf mold (as an alternative to peat).
Leaf mold is in essence a monoculture, providing limited nutrients but superior soil improving properties.
Compost is still extremely beneficial because it adds a broad spectrum of nutrition and micro-organisms to the soil. Compost rich soil improves the nutritional quality of food grown in it, supports healthier plants, and encourages more flowering or fruiting.
Even though the first day of winter is less than a week away, there are still lots of leaves being bagged up by my neighbors. If yours are doing the same, grab a few bags, some chicken wire, and a couple posts to make a leaf corral. Give leaf mold a try, I'm sorry I waited so long to do it myself!