The best Halloween prank my son and his friend ever concocted was not dropping plastic spiders nor rigging up elaborate descending ghosts, but rather hiding in a pile of leaves. A trick-or-treater would saunter down the garden path and upon hearing the approaching scuff of shoes, my son and his pal would leap out from the pile, hooting ‘boo!’ while we parents hid indoors, delighted by a true spooking on Halloween.
Many of our leaves are sopping wet by November. Heavy and suffocating, people rake them onto the boulevard for municipal clean-up. Here are a few arguments to keep your leaves at home.
Rotted leaves improve soil structure. While not long on nutrients, they act as a soil conditioner, incorporating air and holding water much like a sponge. What carbon they do contain feeds soil organisms.
When broken down into leaf mould (the creation of compost is mainly a bacterial process, whereas the creation of leaf mould is largely fungal), the leaves can be used to top-dress soil, improving water penetration and retention. Another bonus: leaf mould is weed-free.
Think of it this way: Leaf mould is to garden health what probiotics are to gut health; something you may not have known you needed, but now hopefully won’t live without.
The rub: Money can’t buy you this kind of garden love – you have to make it yourself.
The creation of leaf mould takes about two years in a simple pile, bags, or wire bin. We own a loud leaf-shredding machine which reduces leaf volume and provides more surface area for decomposing fungi to work, thus speeding process. If you have a weed-whacker, rake your leaves into a garbage pail and whir away. Or use a lawn mower to shred leaves (grass clippings will add nitrogen to the blend and accelerate the process).
Oak leaves are on the A-list for speedy leaf mould, while chestnut leaves are slower to break down. (This may not need saying, but the leaves used for leaf mould are from deciduous trees, not conifers, which are more acidic.)
If you don’t have room for a wire bin, you can fill garbage bags with damp leaves, adding a few holes for ventilation and drainage.
As you might expect, fungi are happiest mouldering away in dark and dank places, so keep your leaf bags or pile moist in dry weather.
If you can’t wait two years, shredded leaves work as top-dressing for bare soil in winter and also help suppress weeds in the spring. They do require some nitrogen to break down entirely in soil, so be sure to feed your garden some compost next year.
Christin Geall is an Oak Bay gardener and creative non-fiction writing instructor at the University of Victoria.