JoAnne Skelly: The pleasures of leaf mold |

JoAnne Skelly: The pleasures of leaf mold

JoAnne Skelly

We have leaves, lots of leaves. I used to pile all the leaves on my shrub and flower beds. I wanted them to decompose and feed the soil, but with the extreme winds here in Washoe Valley, they continually blew back against the door. We ended up raking and moving the same leaves over and over again. Well, that’s not happening anymore!

A few years ago, we started dumping the 50 or more large cartloads of leaves into an old enclosed garden. We weren’t gardening there anymore because of the tree roots. The fence is four feet high, so when we put the leaves there, they stayed. As the leaves receive rain or snow, they compress and break down. The underlayer of leaves becomes this luscious (to a plant) wonderful leaf mold.

Leaf mold is decomposed organic matter and it’s a great soil supplement. It increases the water-holding capacity of a sandy soil. It breaks up a clay soil allowing water movement, enhancing drainage and encouraging root development. It improves the overall structure of the soil. It creates soil conditions optimum for beneficial organisms, which create a soil that helps plants thrive.

Leaf mold is easy to make. Collect leaves in large chicken wire or pig wire cylinders supported with stakes. Do you too have an area you can enclose? Ours is 12 feet by 25 feet and we fill it every year. Or, do it the lazy gardener way. Just pile leaves up in a secluded corner and let them sit for a couple of years. For faster leaf mold production, turn the pile occasionally. Add a few shovels of healthy soil when you turn the pile to speed up decomposition. Provide moisture periodically if nature doesn’t. Keep checking the bottom of the pile to see how the mold is developing.

For added benefit, mix leaf mold with other organic matter, such as grass clippings (pesticide-free) or green kitchen scraps to create leaf compost. Use leaf mold or leaf compost as a soil amendment, mixing it in at planting. Or, put it on top of the soil as a water-conserving mulch. And, according to, you can make a seedling mix of “one-part leaf mold with one-part well-aged compost or worm castings for a nutrient-rich potting mixture for seedlings.”

If you don’t have a lot of leaves, neighbors might give you theirs, especially if you help them with raking.

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at