How to build a leaf heap

Do it:

Sep, Oct, Nov

Takes just:

one hour

Autumn leaves are mainly broken down by the slow action of fungi rather than by bacteria that decompose other compost bin ingredients quickly, so it's best to compost them separately in a simple cage.

The leaves of all deciduous trees make good leaf mould. Small thin leaves such as birch break down fairly quickly, while large leathery ones such as chestnut benefit from being shredded first. Evergreen leaves and conifer needles take far longer to rot and should not be included in great quantities, and then only when chopped.

After a year, the leaves will have only half rotted, but will break up easily when handled. They can be used for soil improvement or for mulching around shrubs, where they will continue to rot down in situ. After two years most will have turned into fine, dark leaf mould. Use it as a seed-sowing medium or mixed with equal parts of fine garden compost, loam and sharp sand for potting.

Before you build your leaf heap, choose a position that's out of sight but easy to get at. It should be shaded in summer but not too sheltered from the rain.

You will need

  • Weed-smothering membrane
  • Chicken wire
  • Four tree stakes
  • Hammer
  • Rubber mallet
  • Wire or twine

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Cut a piece of weed-smothering membrane to about 1m², allowing a little extra at the edges to tuck around the chicken wire. Use it to line the base of the heap to stop roots and weeds invading your leaf mould and rendering it unusable.

Depending on the width of your chicken wire, cut four tree stakes and hammer them into the ground about 1m apart, using a rubber mallet.

Cut a length of galvanised or coated chicken wire to go around the four posts, allowing some overlap, and secure it with wire or twine.

Your cage is now ready. If you chop up the leaves first to reduce their volume, you'll be able to cram more in. They will shrink down by about two-thirds once they start to rot and should be ready in a year or two.

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Although no stirring or turning is strictly necessary, after a few months, it's worth incorporating any still-dry leaves into the damper middle.

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