from the employee owners at Gardener's Supply Co.

Craving Leaf Mold

It’s not a disease—just finely shredded leaves.

Almost any garden will benefit from a dose of leaf mold.

Gardening could be an inexpensive hobby, but at my house it’s not. One of my many springtime splurges is the purchase (at $8.50 per bag) of six to ten bags of cocoa mulch. I use it in my perennial beds, applying it by the handful and only in the front of the beds where it will be seen. The fine texture and dark brown color really sets off the plants, it doesn’t rob nitrogen from the soil, and it packs tightly enough to stifle most weeds. But after 20 years of buying cocoa mulch, I have found something even better: leaf mold. It has the same fine texture and dark brown color. It packs tightly when moist and improves the soil—probably even more so than the cocoa mulch. Best of all? It’s free and locally produced. In fact, I make it in my backyard. How green is that?

I’ve never seen leaf mold for sale commercially. But with all the press it has been getting lately, that’s probably just a matter of time. Until then, all you need to make your own is a good supply of leaves. Our how-to instructions will get you started. If you’re already an experienced leaf mold producer, please leave a comment and let us in on your own secrets to success!

By the way, below is a picture of Leslie Ward from our customer contact center. She is one of our most avid gardeners and is a long time fan of shredded leaves and leaf mold. This photo shows Leslie (on the left) with her friend Jane who is a market gardener. Each fall, Leslie helps Jane at the Saturday farmer’s market and in exchange, Jane uses her truck to pick up bags of leaves from curbsides and drop them off at Leslie’s house. Leslie uses our electric leaf shredder to shred more than 100 bags of leaves. (The photo at the top of this post shows one of her shade gardens mulched with leaf mold.)

Leslie and Jane with their haul.

-Kathy LaLiberte Director of Gardening, Gardener’s Supply

28 Comments

  1. September 29, 2008    

    I always make leaf mold. I usually just run over them with the mower a few times then bag them up.

  2. Anonymous
    September 30, 2008    

    Why do you call it leaf mold? Isn’t it just shredded leaves? Or do you wait to use it until it is moldy?

  3. September 30, 2008    

    Good question. Leaf mold is nothing more than partially decomposed leaves that are somewhere along the continuum between shredded leaves and humus. If you wonder what it looks like, next time you’re in the woods, just kneel down and push away a small area of dry leaves. Underneath, you’ll reveal a layer of leaf mold – a crumbly brown material with a pleasant, earthy scent.

  4. September 30, 2008    

    We also make leaf mold by mowing, however, sometimes, they fall so fast there are too many to mow, so I created a couple of leaf bins to put them in and add coffee grounds to break them down faster, it makes mulch!!!

  5. Anonymous
    September 30, 2008    

    And it’s not toxic to dogs like cocoa mulch is!

  6. phil
    September 30, 2008    

    I have made leaf mold for 20+ years and have very rich soil for it. I found in the past that if the leaf mold is still active in the spring it seems to attract slugs. These are also a problem with other tender plants. I add about 20# of hydrated lime to my ~ 1000 sqft garden to control the problem. The hydrated lime(calcium carbonate) also eliminates blossom end rot on tomatoes. The garden is also loaded with worms.

  7. September 30, 2008    

    Unknowingly I have used leaf mold for my perennial gardens for about 5 years. Every late fall, as I mow up leaves and grass I spread my leaf clippings in my gardens, my main plan was to blanket my perennials for the sometimes harsh New England winters, but every year I noticed my gardens came back better than before, now I know why.

  8. Anonymous
    September 30, 2008    

    It’s already been said below, but merits repeating… cocoa mulch can kill a small dog, and make a large one seriously ill! Leaves are a much better solution!

  9. Anonymous
    September 30, 2008    

    I started making leaf mold last year when I ran out of room in my compost bin. I just let the mower do the work of picking up the leaves as I gom over the lawn. Then I empty them into a large black plastic bag, add some water, and tie the bag up. These are then stored in the back of the garage for the winter. In Spring I have the finished product. I save the bags for the following year.

  10. Judy
    October 1, 2008    

    I have used this for the past three years, we have a leafer, mulcher and works great, I generall spary white vinegar on the ground 1st (to help deter weeds) and then spread. In the spring NO WEEDS>>>>Yeah!! Judy

  11. October 4, 2008    

    Though I confess I love cocoa mulch since it smells like chocolate (who can resist). It isn’t something I use often. Leave are so much cheaper an more sustainable.

  12. Anonymous
    October 5, 2008    

    I have also used leaves over the years as my mulch. However, I don’t shred them, I just rake them over to the flower beds. Being single and getting older (65), it’s just much easier for my poor old back. I have a question about paper mulch. Since I have so much shredded paper now, could I lay down a layer of shredded paper and then put the leaves over the paper? Would that help?

  13. momerichsen
    October 5, 2008    

    Yes….I also use shredded paper, more in my composter, but I lay it over my garden also.

  14. October 6, 2008    

    Thanks, everyone for your enthusiasm and good ideas for using leaves as mulch — whether whole, shredded or in the form of leaf mold. Like you, I also use newspaper, cardboard and coffee grounds from my local coffee shop. Now is the best time of year to pile on the organic matter, which is so conveniently around in abundance. It’s like money in the bank (maybe a bad analogy right now)! – Kathy

  15. October 21, 2008    

    I have a question for those using a shredder. What do you do about little rocks in the bags of leaves that you get from the neighbors etc. Do you screen first? I tried asking neighbors but when I used the shredder I couldn’t just dump the bags in.
    Barbara

  16. Anonymous
    October 21, 2008    

    I’m interested in the comment by Phil from Sept. 30 as I have a big problem with slugs. When do you spread the lime – with the leaf mold in the fall? Later, in the spring? Any help on this would be appreciated.
    Ellen, St. Paul, MN

  17. Anonymous
    October 22, 2008    

    I garden in Central Florida. Now is our growing time, not our sleeping time. With the winter rains, chopping up the leaves is important, otherwise the water just sits on top and goes nowhere.
    Does anyone else find gardening in Florida difficult?

  18. October 22, 2008    

    Tipsfrom Leslie, the No. 1 shredder enthusiast at Gardener’s Supply:
    When using bagged leaves, it helps to shake the bag so stones and pebbles migrate toward the bottom.
    Keep in mind that you can’t just dump a bag of leaves into the top of the shredder. I lift the bag and rest the opening on the rim of the hopper. Then, I slowly push a handful of leaves out of the bag. This way you have leaves constantly entering the machine but you don’t end up with a big blob stuck in the top while the cutting cord is whizzing below. This way also helps you snatch out any large stones or branches that may be in the bags. Smaller stuff just rattles on through. If you should accidentally drop a large stone or branch in there, it may break the cutting cord and you will have to replace it. Sometimes I can get away with 20 or 25 bags of shredded leaves before replacing the cutting cord.
    Eye protection is a must!

  19. October 22, 2008    

    An answer for Ellen in St. Paul:
    It’s best to spread lime on your garden in the fall. The pH-lowering effect of granular lime takes awhile to work, so it’s good to have those 5 or 6 months of winter between application and planting. Be sure that your garden soil actually needs an application of lime. Some soils are already neutral or even alkaline, and adding lime wouldn’t be a good thing for those soil.

  20. Anonymous
    October 22, 2008    

    Black walnut leaves are toxic to many plants and shrubs. So if you have these trees, don’t mulch with your leaves! You will kill azaleas and rhododendrons as well as many perrenials.

    What about bagging grass clippings in the same way? Would that work?

  21. October 22, 2008    

    I LIVE IN ZONE 11, SO WE DO NOT GET THE OAK/MAPLE/ ETC. LEAVES I WAS USED TO UP NORTH. MULCH HERE IS ALWAYS A PROBLEM. CAN ANY OF THE PLANTS I HAVE HERE BE A GOOD SUBSTITUE? HEAVEN KNOWS EVERYTHING GROWS SO FAST I AM FOREVER TRIMMING AND MOWING.

  22. Anonymous
    October 28, 2008    

    I made leaf mold by accident! I was a new homeowner and fledgling gardener, but I instinctively shredded my leaves during the first Fall and stored some in a large covered plastic trashcan. I placed it beside my new compost bin and planned to use the leaves as my “brown layer” but, over time, they turned into leaf mold. So now I’ll have to find a larger place to store the leaves this Fall and use them to mulch and enhance my nutrient-starved planting beds.

  23. Anonymous
    October 29, 2008    

    Gardener’s Supply said “The pH-lowering effect of granular lime takes awhile to work”. Lime makes soil more alkaline which means it raises the pH.

  24. Anonymous
    October 30, 2008    

    Don’t forget your lawn needs crushed leaves for mulch too. When composting crushed leaves in black trash bags, Should I like make holes in bags for air? add some type of greens? coffee grounds? organic fert. to break down the brown leaves? lime? sand? Suggestions needed

  25. October 30, 2008    

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. October 30, 2008    

    I have made leaf mold by putting nothing but moist, shredded leaves in a black trash bag and then sealing it with a twist-tie for the winter. The result is a purist’s version of leaf mold — nothing but decomposed leaves. The rate of decomposition and the consistency of the finished product depends on the types of leaves you put in, moisture content, winter weather conditions, etc. Adding other organic materials to the bag, as you suggest will also work. Your finished product will be different in appearance and nutrient value, but I’m sure your garden will love it as much or more as “official” leaf mold. How about filling some bags with different mixtures and letting us know what you think when you open them up next spring? I think I’ll try that myself! – Kathy

  27. Anonymous
    November 2, 2008    

    I use leaf mold to start my garden seedlings inside before spring planting. My husband made a 5 x 10 fenced area where I dump the leaves when raking our 4 acres. The leaves pile high in the fence area. In spring the pile is very low and beautiful fragrant leaf mold is there. I don’t chop them up, but might consider that this year. Great idea! Thanks I am in TN.

  28. Anonymous
    November 4, 2008    

    Just a note about cocao mulch – don’t use this mulch if you have dogs or if dogs ever visit your yard. Cocao mulch can be toxic to dogs – it has the same ingredients as chocolate and will poison dogs if eaten by them.

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