Garden Dilemmas, Delights & Discoveries, Ask Mary Stone, New Jersey Garden blog

Leaf Mold – Better than Mulch

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Hello fellow readers, “Is fall a good time to mulch,” asked John of Washington, NJ? I think so, mainly because when spring arrives, there’s much to do in the garden. And for me, the madness of the season speedily unfolds. This spring, like most springs, mulching didn’t happen despite my best intentions. Why not consider leaf mold, which may be better than wood mulch.

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While visiting a new client nearby, my friend and design colleague Marty Carson suggested leaf mold would be a far better mulch.

A 101 on Wood Mulch

We’ve talked before about the detriments of generic wood mulches and dyed mulches, which are often made from construction debris containing pressure treated wood chock full of chemicals. Hence one reason why hemlock mulch, when made from local fallen trees, is my preference. Recently I was chatting with a friend and design colleague while visiting a client nearby who just put hemlock mulch around their perennial garden. Marty suggested leaf mold would be far better, adding that wood chips steal nitrogen from the soil much needed by plants. So, I put on my research cap and learned fresh wood, especially sawdust, a no-no around plants, is the culprit of nitrogen theft far more so than aged wood such as naturally aged hemlock mulch. By the way, not all hemlock mulch sold is aged. Aged hemlock mulch is a pleasing deep burgundy-brown, while fresh hemlock mulch, not ideal, is reddish.

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Leaf mold is composted leaves packed with minerals.

How to make leaf mold

Leaf mold is composted leaves packed with minerals. When added to your garden, they’ll feed earthworms and beneficial microbes, mixed in, they’ll lighten clay soils, and used as a mulch, they’ll help retain moisture and suppress weeds. You can make leaf mold by simply raking leaves into a big pile and letting them decompose. If shredded, which is easy to do by running over them a few times with the lawnmower before raking them up, they’ll decompose faster. After one to three years, your leaves will break down to a rich, earthy smelling black material like compost. There is a technique to make leaf mold in plastic bags punched with holes, adding water to moisten and a scoop of soil, which accelerates the process to six to twelve months.

The benefits of mulching with leaf mold

John’s question has inspired me to lay down two to three inches of leaf mold this fall after the perennials are dormant. That way, over the winter, the nutrients can sink into the soil to nourish roots, which remain active all winter, absorbing nutrients for next year’s growth. As with any mulch, I’ll be sure to keep it away from the stems or trunks of plants to prevent rot, disease, or critter damage. Come spring, the leaf mold will serve its role of suppressing weeds, and I’ll be well ahead of the game. Humm, we’ll see… Garden Dilemmas? AskMaryStone@gmail.com (and now on your favorite Podcast App.)

You’ll enjoy Episode 5 of the Garden Dilemmas Podcast that features Vitamin Packed Leaf confetti

Mary Stone, Garden Dilemmas, Ask Mary Stone,Gardening tips, Garden Blogs, Stone Associates Landscape Design, Garden Blog, Leaf Mold, Leaf Mold as Mulch

Seems only fitting, I began my leaf mold mulching below hellebores gifted from Marty’s garden. They already look happy :^)

Column updated November 24, 2020

Mary Stone, owner of Stone Associates Landscape Design & Consulting. As a Landscape Designer, I am grateful for the joy of helping others beautify their surroundings which often leads to sharing encouragement and life experiences. These relationships inspired my weekly column published in THE PRESS, 'Garden Dilemmas? Ask Mary', began in 2012. I dream of growing the evolving community of readers into an interactive forum to share encouragement and support in Garden and Personal Recoveries - seeking nature’s inspirations, stimulating growth, weeding undesirables, embracing the unexpected. Thank you for visiting! Mary
  1. Dan Reply

    Is there any good reasons why you couldn’t distribute the freshly shredded leaves right into the plant beds? I don’t have an area for composting at the moment.

    • Mary Stone Reply

      Hello Dan, Great question! As long as you shred them and don’t apply them too thickly, which could inhibit good water flow or trap too much water, you should be good. And, it is a great way to use the confetti of nutrients! Thanks for asking and for reading my column, Mary

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