How to make soil from leaves
Over the summer I was introduced to a woman who is the Ghandi of zero waste. Their organic garden is larger than their house and they’ve had a small Wegmans bag of garbage every week for as long as I’ve been alive. She even mailed me something in a reused envelope.
When I started asking questions about their organic garden she invited me over for a tour and I spent several hours dragging my jaw behind me as they picked things for me to sample.
One practice they shared with me was using composted leaves (known as leaf mold for reasons that are not clear to me) as a soil amendment. Because they have a smaller plot of land they don’t have nearly enough trees to satisfy their plants, so they drive around in the fall and collect bagged leaves from their neighbors. She then added, “usually under the cover of darkness.”
I never would have thought of that.
And so, this year, at the expense of my pride, I drove around and collected around 50 bags of leaves, under the cover of darkness. I thought about doing it during daylight but couldn’t shake the feeling of judgment from passing cars. And of course, there is absolutely nothing weird about turning off your lights as you pull up to someone’s driveway and quickly pile huge garbage bags into your van and then drive off as quickly as you can.
I wasn’t sure when she told me about this idea in the summer if it would be hard to find them since many people pile their leaves curbside for the giant vacuum. Which, by the way, would be amazing for gardeners except that the municipalities mix it in with all yard debris including wood. Ironically when I drove around looking I couldn’t find bagged leaves, but driving near my house I found all 50 bags – usually within less than a mile. I have my eye on another 15 bags down the street but my husband is trying to talk me out of it.
Even if you don’t garden this is worth doing because if you plant anything for any reason, leaf mold will make your plants happy. And it’s free. And organic. And keeps bagged leaves out of landfills.
This is about half of what I’ve collected (so far? It’s kind of hard to drive by leaves without picking them up now).
There are a few awesome things about this and they are:
- Composting leaves is a one time thing – collect them, throw them in, and then reap the harvest. You don’t have to go outside all winter like you do with food scraps. You do nothing and they turn into soil.
- It’s free dirt. If you’ve ever had to pay for dirt you understand.
- It’s not gross like food scrap composting.
- You don’t have to worry about what’s “allowed” and what isn’t, or about attracting animals
I’m not saying this replaces food composting, because it doesn’t, but we’ll never have enough food compost to really amend the garden much anyway. This is a fantastic way to add nutrients to the soil that’s relatively low effort (and free!).
And it’s even less effort when you enlist the help of kids.
My father-in-law built me this composter to hold them (here are the plans). If you don’t have anyone handy around or don’t have time to make a behemoth like this, you can also get this $30 composteron Amazon, or use chicken wire, or pallets, or just make an open pile somewhere in your yard. We chose to do this instead of the black bins behind the house because our back yard is very visible to our neighbors and we didn’t want them to hate us.
Unfortunately my father-in-law didn’t catch that it would need to be opened from the front and thought he was simplifying the design. It will have to redone in the spring, but for now it’s busy composting 26 bags of leaves that were diverted from a landfill. Sometime in the future that will be 2 to 3 cubic yards of gardening goodness.
The rest of the leaves we’re going to put directly on our new garden and cover with composted horse manure, which will hopefully be decomposed enough to plant something in the spring.
So there you have it, an easy way to get free dirt. Happy leaf collecting!