Leaf Mold = Free Soil Conditioner
One of the great things about fall is the abundance of leaves that you can turn into a fabulous soil conditioner! Soil conditioners are different from fertilizers (although you can have substances that do both) in that they primarily improve the texture of the soil. Soil is made up three basic components: sand, silt, and clay. The proportions of sand, silt and clay determine the type of soil you have. You may also hear the term loam which is considered the “ideal” and is 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. Though loam is considered ideal, some plants prefer something different.
Soil texture affects drainage/water retention, air infiltration (so plant roots don’t suffocate) and nutrient retention. You can find a good article on good soil here. Most county extension offices offer soil testing. Our local extension office offers free general soil testing for county residents and testing for soil texture ($12) as well.
In our area we have heavy clay soil. It is very difficult to work with. If I dig in wet soil, the clumps will dry into pieces so hard you need a hammer to break them up. Leaf mold improves the soil texture so every fall, I try to get some started. Leaf mold is easy to make. All you need is a pile of leaves, moisture and time. Leaves are a high carbon (brown) material and they can be added to a compost pile along with nitrogen (green) materials but leaf mold has value as a soil conditioner separate from the compost pile if you want to use it that way.
A common way to make leaf mold is to make a simple circle of wire or light weight fencing and pile the leaves inside. As long as you have some rain or snow the leaves will eventually break down into leaf mold. We have a plastic surround that was obtained for free from a city or county program. Decomposition can take up to a year or more but I’ve added the partially broken down leaves to soil in the spring and they continue to decompose and improve the soil. You might find that leaf mold is such a great soil conditioner that you’ll volunteer to rake the neighbors leaves so you can make more!