A Guide to Homemade Leaf Mold: Nature’s Free Compost

Imagine mulch with no smells and no work! Here’s how to make leaf mold. It’s easy, green, and free. Leaves from your own yard make the best leaf mold possible.

A wooden bin filled with autumn leaves breaking down to become leaf mold.

Today, I will share the wonders of this natural compost and its incredible benefits for your garden. Picture a mulch that requires no work and has no unpleasant odors – that’s leaf mold! In this guide, I will delve into what exactly leaf mold is, the benefits it offers, and how you can easily make it using leaves from your own yard. Say goodbye to expensive fertilizers and hello to a sustainable, nutrient-rich, eco-friendly, cost-effective solution. So, let’s jump right in and discover the secrets of nature’s compost: homemade leaf mold.

What is Leaf Mold?

 Leaf mold is basically a compost made entirely of broken-down leaves. One difference between leaf mold and compost is the fact that compost involves bacterial breakdown, and leaf mold involves fungal breakdown. Where compost is hot and breaks down quickly, leaf mold is cool, slow to break down, and well worth the wait.

The best leaves to use for leaf mold are small types from oak, beech, hornbeam, lime, and hazel trees, all of which break down easily. You don’t need to be too choosey about your leaves, though. All leaves and conifer needles will eventually break down into leaf mold.

The Benefits of Leaf Mold

Leaf mold will perform in your garden as a mulch, compost, and soil conditioner. If you have ever had your soil tested, I am sure the results indicated you need more organic matter. It says organic material levels are low for all of us. 

Think about what the ground is like in a deep forest where nature adds a nice layer of leaf mold every autumn. The ground is soft and airy, thanks to the leaf decomposition. It has an amazing richness to it. It’s a gorgeous dark brown and loaded with nutrients. 99.9% of us do not have soil like that. 99.8% of us never will, but using leaf mold will get us a bit closer.

A gray tiger cat hiding in a pile of leaves.

As I said before, making leaf mold compost isn’t a quick process. It takes time, but the results are worth the wait. If you didn’t start making it last year, you won’t be using it on your beds this year, but you can get ready for next year. And did I mention it’s free?

What is the NPK of leaf mulch?

NPK values are not particularly high, as it’s primarily a soil conditioner, and obviously, the leaf content changes the values, but on average…

Nutrient Concentrations in Municipal Leaves (dry weight basis)

  • Carbon 36-52%
  • Nitrogen .66-1.62%
  • Phosphorus .02-.29%
  • Potassium .09-.88%
  • Calcium .13-3.04%
  • Magnesium .02-.46%
  • Copper 2.8-31.5%

The leaves offer a significant amount of nutrients for the soil, but not all are immediately available after application. However, as they break down, they will eventually release their nutrients, and it’s best to think of using leaves as a long-term fertility solution.

How to Make Leaf Mold at Home

A little time and a lot of leaves are all you really need to make this free soil enhancement. This video from Fine Gardening will show you how simple it is to get started.

How to Make Leaf Mold by Fine Gardening

If aesthetics are important to you and you don’t want a huge leaf pile in your yard, create “bins” of field fencing. A 3-bin system works well for me. I always have one I’m using, one that’s breaking down, and one to put fresh leaves and plant debris in.

A word of caution in your leaf collecting: People are more than happy to give away their leaves. Some may actually pay for you to rake them and take them away. Be sure that the source of the leaves does not use pesticides or fertilizers on their property.

Leaves to Avoid

Walnut, eucalyptus, and camphor laurel leaves may inhibit plant growth. These leaves (if you have a lot of them) should be composted instead of used in a leaf mold. Traditional compost piles/bins get hot enough to break down these inhibitors.

Toadstools growing out of the forest floor.
Thanks to naturally intensive plantings and yearly additions of organic mulch, the forest floor develops incredibly fertile soil.

How I Use This Free Mulch in My Gardens

I use leaf mold from time to time in my vegetable garden, both as a soil amendment and as a mulch, but I’m excited to share where I use it so that it shines: my perennial beds. I find it so hard to amend the soil in my perennial beds.

So many amendments need to be worked into the soil, but you can’t really dig in around tight clusters of perennials. I also have bulbs scattered throughout all of my perennial beds. These bulbs are the first sign that spring is here when they peek up through the snow. I would hate to damage them unknowingly.

As the end of the growing season approaches, I head out to the gardens with clippers in hand. Some perennials perform best if cut to the ground, others need light pruning at the end of the season, and some are fine just as they are. I go through and do all my pruning at one time. When I’m finished, I head out and grab a couple of buckets of leaf mold. I like to do a nice 2-3″ layer along the entire bed.

The self-seeded annuals and the bulbs can push right through in the spring, but it keeps the soil rich and keeps the weeds at bay. If I have a tender plant (like my coleus that shouldn’t over-winter in my area), I’ll heap leaf mold around it about 6″ thick. When temperatures warm in the spring, I’ll come out and pull some of it off.

A wheelbarrow filled with an assortment of leaves.

You will love the difference some leaves can make to your soil structure. If mimicking nature is up your alley, check out my Back to Eden Gardening Series.

Want to learn more about gardening and how to care for your soil? You will love The Shoestring Gardener.

Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice the mineral content of manure… And they provide the perfect nutrition for beneficial microbes. In short, they make soil come alive.

Composter Connection

Frequently Asked Questions

While it is possible to make leaf mold with wet leaves, it may take longer for them to break down compared to dry leaves. Wet leaves tend to compact together, slowing down the decomposition process. Gathering dry leaves for making leaf mold is generally recommended as they will break down more easily and quickly. However, if you have wet leaves, you can still utilize them by mixing them with dry leaves or incorporating them into a traditional compost pile to facilitate decomposition.

Leaf mold generally benefits all plants by improving soil structure, adding organic matter, and releasing nutrients over time. However, some plants may be sensitive to certain types of leaves, such as walnut, eucalyptus, and camphor laurel, which can inhibit plant growth. It’s important to compost these leaves instead of using them directly in leaf mold. Additionally, be cautious of using leaves from sources that may have used pesticides or fertilizers on their property.

If you’ve found value in this blog post and enjoyed reading it, why not share it with your Pinterest community? Pin the image below and spread the love!

A pinterest-friendly image for leaf mold.

Homemade leaf mold is a valuable resource for any garden enthusiast. Not only is it easy and free to make, but it also serves as a versatile mulch, compost, and soil conditioner that can greatly enhance the health and fertility of your garden beds. So why not harness the power of nature’s compost and give your garden the nourishment it deserves with leaf mold?

What are your thoughts on using homemade leaf mold in your garden? Have you tried it before or are you interested in giving it a go? Share your experiences and opinions in the comments below!

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  1. Jo McKeag says:

    Is this limited to (tree) LEAVES? Essentially, any vegetative matter that is decomposed through fungal activity can be classed as a “mold”…?

  2. I love that I found someone like-minded about not throwing leaves away. I blow all my leaves up into my flower gardens for mulch. While friends are raking and bagging or burning, I am collecting their bags and adding to my own stash. One year, my son worked in the lawn business. He needed a place to drop the leaves. I had the best vegetable garden the next year. I found that you could lay potatoes under the leaves and not have to dig them in or dig them out. Just pull the leaf mulch back when the potato crop was ready!

  3. Anna@GreenTalk says:

    I am in a master gardening program and was told that leaf compost increases the pH of your soil. So be sure to add in other non-leaf compost to your gardening areas.

    I hoard leaves for the composter!

  4. Mike the Gardener says:

    I love this time of year. Leaves a plenty and my neighbors don’t want them 🙂

    1. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. You should see me hoarding the neighbor’s pumpkins after Halloween so I can give them to my chickens. I’ve gotten over being bashful about asking.

  5. Mike @ Gentleman Homestead says:

    It’s the time of year where any conversation with a neighbor has them starting out with, “Ughh. Almost leaf raking time. I HATE blowing all those things.”

    I love the leaf drop. I use leaves from our five acres for chicken bedding all year long, vermicompost bedding, mulch on the garden beds, and I make huge piles right at the edge of our woods just like you describe to have them break down over the year. I then use those piles when helping to establish new trees and bushes in my up and coming food forest.

    This year I’m also going to corral in a large area with chicken wire to hold leaves to kill off the grass in preparation for seeding a huge wildflower patch in the spring for bee forage.

    Bring on Fall! 🙂

    1. Mike, you are a man after my own heart. I love the plans and the desire to make the most out of resources available.