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Organic uses for autumn leaves
7:00am Saturday 20th October 2012 in Homes & Gardens
Tips on how to make good use of the fallen leaves in the garden by turning them into leaf mould - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson
Recycling garden debris is one of the best and most economical ways of boosting your soil and now's the time to put your eco-friendly hat on and make some leaf mould out of fallen leaves.
Leaf mould is a humus-rich soil conditioner which makes a good mulch for beds and borders, although it provides few nutrients. Richer leaf moulds can be made by adding a few grass clippings.
Fallen leaves can be stored in a wire mesh bin, or packed into black polythene sacks which have been perforated to allow air in. The bags can be tied up and placed in the corner of the garden, where the leaves will decompose and can be used the following spring. Leaves which are left in open bins may take longer to decompose.
It's best to collect the leaves after it has rained, to ensure good decomposition.
If you haven't a leaf vacuum which can suck them up, blow them out and shred them. A quick way of collecting them from the lawn is to use a lawnmower, which will shred leaves and add grass at the same time. Shredding will speed up the decay of tougher leaves such as horse chestnut, sweet chestnut and sycamore.
Thick evergreen leaves such as holly and cherry laurel need to be shredded and added to the normal compost heap. Pine needles break down extremely slowly - it may take three years before they are fully decomposed and ready to use, but they are excellent for use on acid-loving plants.
For the best leaf mould, use leaves from hornbeam, oak and beech. It's best to leave them for at least a year before using. If you leave them for two years or more, you should be left with a very fine crumbly leaf mould that can be used as a potting compost.
Of course, there are many other soil improvers you can use. Many gardeners make their own compost, while others splash out at garden centres on spent mushroom compost, horse manure and composted green waste.
In theory, you can compost anything organic, from kitchen peelings, teabags and coffee, to eggshells, ash, newspaper and cardboard, as well as garden trimmings, but never add fish or meat which may attract rats and leave out tough perennial weed roots, weed seeds and any diseased materials.
The bigger the heap and the more you put in at the same time, the faster the debris will break down. Start the heap off with something coarse and twiggy, to let in the air. Aim to add about half green materials to half dry, such as paper or straw.
Never add too many grass clippings or you'll end up with green sludge, but make sure the dry materials are kept moist. You need patience because it takes around a year to break down. Turn the heap every few weeks to help the material rot faster.
Adding bulky organic nutrients will boost your soil and should improve crops and give you better quality plants.
And it doesn't have to be all hard graft. A trial of soil improvers on both vegetables and plants by Gardening Which?, the Consumers' Association magazine, found that digging in the soil improver boosts the soil in the short term but spreading it over the area as a mulch has a longer-lasting effect.
Best of the bunch - Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata)
This vigorous, deciduous, self-clinging climber is grown for its attractive leaves which give an amazing bonfire-like show of colour in autumn, when the bright green leaves turn brilliant red and deep purple.
This vines can be trained to cover walls, fences and ugly garden structures and are easily controlled, but take care where they climb because suckers can leave unsightly marks on walls and fences.
Boston ivy can be grown in any fertile, well-drained soil in sun or shade. Guide young plants into the support until they cling for themselves and prune back in late winter to keep them in check.
Good enough to eat - Lovely leeks
Leeks are now in season, adding flavour to casseroles or simply as a stand-alone veg. They work well in soups or cooked with lardons and can be harvested from October through to spring, as you need them.
Sow seeds in pots in March, keeping them somewhere cool but frost-free. They should be ready to plant out after hardening off, following on from early crops such as early broad beans or peas in late June or July. The plants should ideally be around 20cm tall and pencil-thick when they are ready to plant out into their final position.
If you want a lot of plants for a vegetable plot, sow the seeds in drills 1-2cm deep and 15cm apart, sowing thickly as the thinnings can be used for salads. They will germinate at fairly low temperatures but in colder areas cover the beds with cloches or garden fleece.
The soil should have been forked deeply and given a boost of general fertiliser and a thorough soaking if the soil is dry. By August and September, leeks planted with a dibber should have a long white stem, while others can be earthed up as they grow by drawing soil along the row to increase the length of the blanched stem.
They don't need protection from the cold, but don't lift them from frozen ground. If hard frost is forecast, lift a supply of leeks and heel them in temporarily in a sheltered part of the garden near the kitchen. Good varieties include 'King Richard', which is ideal for a quick crop of winter leeks which can be pulled in bunches and used as a substitute for spring onions, and 'Bandit', which has some resistance to leek rust.
Three ways to... Improve garden security
1. Use surfaces that crunch on your pathways, such as gravel or pebbles, which will act as a burglar deterrent.
2. Keep your boundaries in good condition and consider growing prickly, unforgiving plants such as berberis, holly or pyracantha as hedging to deter unwanted visitors.
3. Security lighting doesn't have to involve bright halogen floodlights, which can be surrounded by deep pools of shadow in which people are almost invisible. Try using a lower-powered light with a more diffused beam to merge pools of light together.
What to do this week
:: Sow hardy annuals, sweet peas and lettuces to overwinter under grass. Sweet peas can also be sown direct in the ground in mild areas and protected with cloches.
:: Continue to plant trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and alpines.
:: Lift gladioli and other summer-flowering corms such as ixias and sparaxis as soon as the foliage has been blackened by frost.
:: Add compost or well-rotted manure to ground which has been dug for new beds.
:: Overwinter chrysanthemums in a cold frame, cutting the stems down to around 15cm (6in) and cutting off all green flowering shoots at ground level.
:: Plant container-grown clematis 5-8cm (2-3in) deeper than the soil level in the container to help protect the lower stem buds from clematis wilt.
:: Continue to pick and store late-maturing varieties of apples and pears.
:: As the weather becomes colder, cover fruiting strawberries with cloches, tunnels of plastic sheeting or horticultural fleece.
:: Reduce damping down and watering in the greenhouse as the days become shorter and the nights get colder.
:: Leave old growth, stalks and seed heads on plants in the herb garden to provide nourishment for the birds and a shelter for beneficial insects such as butterflies and moths.
:: Plant Pacific Coast (Californian hybrid) irises, soaking the roots of new plants in water overnight before planting in slightly acidic soil with added leaf mould or humus.