We wait for crisp, dry, sunny days. When the weather obliges, routine winter work planned for the garden is left aside and leaf mould is then on my mind. The mounded heap of layered leaves is one of the joys of the December garden; it is a lifeline of earthy shades of damp decay and fungal aromas. Were it not for leaf mould, the soil in many of this garden’s beds and borders would remain compact, dense, unworkable.
The leaf mould heap lies secluded amongst Portuguese laurels, half way down the castle drive. Leaves from the deciduous trees in the drive end up here, piled higher and higher. As they fall they are raked and barrowed, or mechanically blown, to the heap during late autumn. There are other organic additions to the leaf heap from time to time: straw bedding from the chicken shed or sawdust left over from tree work.
The leaf mould heap cooks for a year. Rain, wind, insects, worms, birds and fungi; they all play their part in the natural process that softens the leaves and gently rots them down, leaving fibrous remains and intact leaf skeletons interspersed with brittle textures from fragments of twigs, bark, beech nuts and other seed coats. Gardening books will tell you to allow leaf mould decompose for at least two years or longer before using but I prefer to add it to the soil after one year. It is well-enough broken down but I can still see the shapes of the foliage and know exactly which trees the leaves have come from. While I am digging, there is a visible contrast between packed, heavy soil that lacks substance, and the organic looseness and fluffiness of the rich leaf mould I am adding.
The leaf mould is barrowed from the heap by hand down the castle’s tarmac drive and then along a grassy section of the public footpath before it is brought into the vegetable garden. The footpath needs to be dry and solid underfoot for access, and the soil in the garden needs to be as dry as possible for the health of its structure while it is being worked. Leaf tends to be low in nutrients, but for Rose Castle vegetable garden which suffers from regular flooding, there is no better remedy for soil that needs help to keep it open and airy for summer harvests. Winter sunshine, leaf mould, soil and spade. A natural combination. True work.
December Days 2017
Mole heaps are raked and levelled – mild November weather encouraged a late flourish of moles.
After blustery winds, small branches are cleared from the castle drive and the moat woodland.
Troublesome elder is cut away from the castle drive fence-line that borders the farm lonning.
Ivy is cut away from the base of some of the mature oak trees in the castle drive.
Portuguese laurel in the castle drive is thinned.
Weeds and grass around the stew pond are strimmed and Robinia seedlings are removed.
Glasshouse is cleared for the winter.
Dahlia tubers are removed from the glasshouse and stored under sacks in the garage.
Poplar and alder suckers are removed from trees in the bog garden.
Pruning of climbing roses is completed.
Small branches of spruce are collected from the square wood to use for summer staking in borders.
Low tree canopies are trimmed to allow easier mower access in spring.
Beehives are treated for varroa mites, winter honey stores are checked, and fondant is added where stores are running low.
Bales of straw are bought from a neighbouring farm at Welton for winter bedding in the chicken shed.