In The Garden

BOOST your plot with fallen leaves: tips on how to make use of all those glorious fallen leaves by making them into leafmould to use as a mulch on beds and borders.

AFTER the spectacular display of reds, oranges and yellows from the autumn leaves thanks to an unusually warm spell, it’s time to rake them up for recycling.

You may have seen the end of the visual brilliance of the autumn leaves, but their value doesn’t end there.

While many people might question the point of raking leaves at all if they are going to decompose anyway, especially in a woodland garden, don’t forget the more fragile specimens which are so often planted underneath the trees, such as herbaceous plants and pint-sized bulbs, which could be smothered by the thick blanket of leaves.

So dust off that rake and put your eco-friendly hat on by making leafmould, a humus-rich soil conditioner which makes a good mulch for beds and borders, although it provides few nutrients. Richer leafmoulds can be made by adding a few grass clippings.

It is ideal used as a mulch to suppress weeds and, while it doesn’t have much nutritious value, it will be taken down by worms into the soil which will improve its texture.

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 got a leaf vacuum which can suck them up 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 good to use on acid-loving plants.

For the best leafmould, use leaves from hornbeam, oak and beech, leaving 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 leafmould 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.

Adding these bulky organic nutrients will boost your soil and should improve crops and give you better quality plants.

Add blood, fish and bone to new planting holes or dig it into a new border or between plants in an existing one to give the soil a boost of nitrogen and phosphates.

Working in plenty of goodness to your soil now will reap you great harvests in the coming year.

Best of the bunch - Lilyturf (Ophiopogon)

Related to the evergreen perennial Liriope muscari, the ophiopogon, a small but striking perennial originally from the woodlands of China and Japan, is grown for its dense tufts of grass-like leaves.

Its unusual black grassy foliage lasts all year, but it also bears small pink flowers in summer followed by clusters of black-purple berries, although these aren’t too noticeable among the leaves.

Among my favourites is Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, with its almost black leaves. It looks both unusual and effective when planted in gravel-covered soil or interplanted with bulbs. It also looks good with ferns in shade or silvery plants in full sun.

Grasses such as blue festuca or yellow hakonechloa make good planting companions, as do pink or plum-coloured hellebores, which add flowering interest in early spring.

It is easy to grow, thriving in heavy clay or well drained chalk in sun or shade, but it will do best when given shelter from cold winds.

Good enough to eat... Planting blackcurrants

They provide one of the richest sources of vitamin C of any fruit and are delicious made into jam or added to pies and other puddings, and if you want future harvests, you should be planting young bushes deeply now.

If the neck of the plant, where the roots join the branches, is 5-10cm below the surface of the soil, it will produce a number of suckers which will become important framework branches.

Blackcurrants prefer to be placed in a sunny spot with rich, fertile, moist soil and will thrive in boggy areas where other fruits won’t grow.

Space the bushes around 1.5m (5ft) apart. Most will reach around 1.5m (5ft) in height. They should be watered well until established and the ground should be kept well weeded.

Feed and mulch the plants in spring and protect ripening fruits with netting, so the birds don’t eat all the berries.

In the first spring after planting, cut down all the stems to a healthy bud just above soil level, to boost the plant.

After that, prune them annually in winter, cutting out damaged branches and thin, weak or small shoots just above ground level.

Once they are ready to harvest in summer, pick the whole truss (or ‘strig’) when the fruit has turned glossy black and is swollen.

Good varieties include ‘Ben Sarek’, which produces rich harvests of large berries on dwarf bushes, and ‘Ben Lomond’, a heavy cropper which needs little pruning.

Three ways to... Add interest to a shrub border

1. Boost the interest of small-leaved shrubs such as box by clipping them into topiary shapes.

2. Plant a prized specimen in a large pot and set it at the front of, or within, your border.

3. Plant shrubs with decorative foliage to inject textural and colour contrasts and add grasses and perennials such as rudbeckias, to bring flowers and colour to your border in autumn when few shrubs are in bloom.

What to do this week

Prepare for winter winds by removing decaying or dead branches on established trees.

Protect newly planted evergreens with a temporary windbreak until they are established.

Group containers for mutual protection over winter, wrapping up vulnerable pots and plants.

Keep planting bare-root fruit trees and bushes.

Ventilate the greenhouse on sunny days.

Check around globe artichokes for signs of suckers and detach any you find and pot them up to increase stocks.

Pinch out the growing tips of young fuschias grown from cuttings taken in late summer.

Spike lawns with a hollow-tined aerator and brush grit into the holes to improve drainage.

Cover cold frames with old carpet or horticultural fleece on cold nights.

Use a net to remove leaves and plant debris from the pond water.

In the greenhouse, pot up hippeastrums in 15-20cm (6-8in) pots, soaking the dry roots until they become plump, then planting the bulbs to half their depth and placing them in a warm position.

Sow hardy varieties of peas in well-drained soil.

Pick off leaves which have fallen on alpine plants and sprinkle gravel around alpines to aid drainage and stop them rotting.

Lift and store beetroot, turnips and salsify in boxes of compost.