Make mulch of it


A leaf blower is a useful tool at this time of year, and the debris you collect can be put to good use 

I am not one of life’s risk-takers, so much so that there was a time in my late teens, early twenties when I was more than a little wary of any piece of garden equipment that came with an engine, a fuel tank and a pull cord. Fears of accidentally amputating a digit/limb (mine or someone else’s) loomed so large that I only used a lawnmower with great reluctance and left the strimming and hedge-cutting to someone else.

Things changed when I became a student at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, where it was made clear that I was expected to be as familiar with the workings of an internal combustion engine as the intricacies of Linnaean taxonomy.

The result was that not only did I overcome my mechanophobia, but I also began to fully appreciate what one wise old “Bots” lecturer pithily described as, “the importance of never doing with your hands what a machine can do in a fraction of the time”.

An example is the leaf-blower, that noisy, fuel-guzzling machine that is the magic broom of any garden. Just don’t be conned into using one of the puny upstarts that parade as the real thing. The best leaf-blower is powerful enough to sweep all kinds of garden debris up in its wake – wet leaves, old hedge clippings, grass clippings, dead weeds, stray pebbles, blown-in litter, fallen twigs, even stray plastic pots.

I’ve even used one to clear blocked house gutters and clogged drains, while the same machine is brilliantly effective at clearing freshly-fallen snow from steps, pathways, patios and driveways. The result is a garden that not only looks tidier and better-tended, but is also a lot safer.

As to what you might do with those fat piles of gold and russet leaves that you’ll collect, the answer is simple. Either add them to your compost heap or turn them into leaf mould, a rich, dark, crumbly soil conditioner that’s a wonderful addition to any garden soil or potting mixture. All you need to do is tightly pack the fallen leaves into black bin bags or custom-made leaf bins.

If using bags, remember to puncture a few holes around the base before packing them full of damp leaves. Alternatively, to make your own leaf mould bin, you’ll need wooden tree-stakes, chicken-wire and U-shaped nails to build a simple wire cage in which the leaves can be stored.

Start by hammering the stakes securely into the ground, positioning them roughly 2ft to 3ft apart to make a square frame about 3ft tall, then wrap the chicken-wire tightly around it. Secure the chicken-wire using the U-shaped nails, pack the cage full of leaves and wait. Whether using bags or a bin, try to choose a cool and shady position in the garden as leaf mould is formed by fungal action and doesn’t require much heat.

It will take at least a year for the leaves to break down, after which the leaf mould can be used as a soil conditioner or moisture-retentive mulch. You can either dig it into the top six to eight inches of soil, where the roots of most plants feed, or spread it as a four inch-deep mulch in autumn or late spring. If you’d like to raise the nutrient-levels further, you can add chopped-up comfrey leaves (these are exceptionally rich in plant nutrients, especially potash) to the one-year-old mix and leave it again for another few months. Left a little longer, it can be used as one of the constituents of your homemade seed and potting mixes.

Not all leaves are equal when it comes to making leaf mould – some rot down quickly, some slowly, while others (the leathery leaves of evergreen trees/shrubs) aren’t suitable at all. Beech, oak, alder and hornbeam are amongst the best while horse-chestnut, sycamore and walnut are slower to break down and should be shredded/chopped up with a garden shears to speed up the process.

Diary date

Alongside fellow authors Michael Kelly and Trevor Sargent, I'll be taking part in the Dublin Book Festival today. Well be giving tips on how you can grow your own kitchen garden and have fun while doing so. (noon, Main Theatre, Smock Alley Theatre, Temple Bar, free entry)

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