Leaves! Get ‘em while you can...

October 30 2018
Bristol East Allotments: Leaves! Get ‘em while you can...

There are tonnes of leaves around at the moment to be had for free, so pick up and store as many as you can, they’ll serve you well in the garden.

Choose your time to do this, a sunny day when the leaves have dried after rainfall is ideal. You don’t need anything too fancy or complicated to keep them in, a circular pen made of old chicken wire or mesh will do just fine. Make it as big as space permits, choosing your site over soil as this will invite insect activity and help start the de-composition process. If the leaves are exceptionally dry, a little water at various levels will be beneficial but winter rain will wash through of its own accord and do the job for you. No need for a cover, but thick, unprinted brown cardboard will act as a shelter for those creatures that set up home in your pile, and if the cardboard disintegrates simply replace it with another layer.

Your leaves will probably take a year depending on conditions to rot down fully and convert into leaf mould, but when it does it has several uses in the garden. You can spread it over beds to improve soil structure and help water retention or as mulch in perennial beds or vegetable plots. It's also fabulous in containers due to its water retaining abilities. But there’s yet another use: adding them to the compost heap.

Think of your leaf pile as a cash point for your compost heap; draw on it as you need it! Throughout the winter months the supply of green waste from the garden tends to be in short supply and your leaves can supplement this to keep your compost bin topped up. Other household green waste such as peelings and so on that normally go in the compost bin can be supplemented with your decaying leaves and they’ll continue to rot down, keep adding some plain cardboard, scrunched up newspaper  or even rabbit droppings and their bedding (assuming their bedding is something like paper, straw, hay or wood shavings). As vegetarian animals, rabbit litter from healthy rabbits does not pose a significant health risk (unlike meat-eating animals like cats and dogs) so it can be safely added to the compost heap.

The composting process in your heap will inevitably slow during colder winter months but with the addition of leaves your heap will continue to process all that’s inside and very quickly your efforts will be rewarded with lots of nutrient rich compost for spreading on the plot.

Some readers may have noticed that using plastic bags to store decaying leaves was not suggested here; whilst this is an alternative many will possibly agree that the use of plastic needs to be reduced wherever possible and using a wire cage is good alternative. Similarly, some allotment holder’s will cover their plots in black plastic sheets for the winter. This is effective it’s true to stem weed growth, but again it’s using plastic and all the while the ground underneath is being starved of vital moisture and air. Plastic sheets are also expensive to buy, and eventually they become brittle, tear easily and become near useless, in due course they end up in landfill.

So perhaps our dying leaves have yet another job to do throughout the winter months. Drawing from our stockpile spread about an inch or so of leaves over any vacant bed that will not be used for a few months during the winter. But instead of covering these with plastic sheeting obtain some large plain cardboard boxes; some readers may remember that we frequently use old bike boxes, most cycle shops are happy to give them away for free. Most of these boxes when opened cover an area about 10x4ft and are exceptionally thick and durable. Like plastic they will need securing with large stones, bricks or old planks of wood, but if possible use wood chips, these alone will hold down and offer protection to the cardboard from the weather whilst at the same time the cardboard will serve as an effective light obliterating membrane. The underlying leaves will encourage worm activity in the months ahead and they’ll continue to decompose together with the cardboard creating nutrients for the soil which will retain moisture and allow it to breathe. In the short term, if wood chips have been used as a top dressing very little else will need to be done, if not regular checks will be needed to ensure if any cardboard needs replacing.

At a later date when the bed is needed for sowing or planting simply rake up any of the larger remaining woodchips if you used them, what’s left of the cardboard can be removed. Both are useful additions for the compost heap so save them, and the leaves? They will have probably disappeared into the soil by then, if not let them stay on the surface, they’ll do no harm.

Leaves it seems have an extremely efficient life cycle we cannot ignore, from sustaining the tree from which it grows, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to creating nutrient rich material for the growth of other plants. Thank you trees!

If you have any thoughts on the use of leaves please let us know, we’ll be delighted to hear from you.


Bristol East Allotments Association,

Nicholas Lane, St. George. BS5 8TY.

Email: beaanews@gmail.com or call 0117-932-5852.