For many, autumn is a special time of year because the foliage changes into beautiful hues of orange, red, and yellow. It drifts down from the trees on gusts of wind and blankets the very pathways we are walking on. Beautiful!
For savvy gardeners, it’s a whole different type of appreciation: Free composting material. Leaves are rich in trace minerals. They are abundant. But most importantly, if they are put into a timely compost pile before the snow comes, maintained a little in the off-season, then by the time spring rolls around and the weather is fit for growing, there is a good lot of compost to get things fertile.
It’s all about the timing, and right about now is just the right time to get a quick-leaf compost going. Luckily, it’s not at all difficult to do.
Step 1: Choose Good Leaves
Leaves, like plants, are complex things, each with their own set of characteristics. Some are actually horrible for compost. For example, oak leaves tend to make things way too acidic and take a long time to break down (as do waxy leaves), or the leaves from black walnut and eucalyptus actually contain a natural herbicide that stop seeds from germinating. A good leaf for composting has high nitrogen and calcium levels but low lignin levels, as this ratio breaks down faster. Some top options are maple, elm, ash, poplar, willow and fruit trees.
The other thing to keep in mind with leaves is their color. Most of us think of autumn leaves as red and orange, but in actuality, some trees shed green and brown leaves as well. Green leaves (higher in nitrogen) in moderation can do a compost good, the fiery colors are great, and brown are carbon-rich. The best choice is a good mix of them all, with primarily the orange, reds and yellows we enjoy seeing.
Step 2: Cut Them to Pieces
For a good (and quick is part of “good” here) compost made with leaves, it is very important to shred them before mixing them into the pile. This is for a couple of reasons: The whole leaves will take a lot longer to break down, as they are much larger, and whole leaves have a tendency to mat together, preventing sufficient oxygen flow with the the compost heap. Taking a moment to shred the leaves before composting them takes months off of the process.
Now, scissors are an option in this endeavor, but there are easier ways. A shredder would be the first and obvious choice, and this can be gotten in combination leaf blowers/shredders. The lawn mower is a viable option, and it works really well if the leaves are raked into row. Just run over them a few times with the mower. The slightly more insane way is to put the leaves in a garbage can and use a weed whacker to rip them apart. Eye protection is strongly suggested for all methods.
Step 3: Add the Fire (Not Literally!)
Experienced composters know well that, in order to get things breaking down, it’s important to add something nitrogen-rich to the mix. In essence, this is the fire that heats up the compost and gets things rolling, fueling all the microbes and good bacteria on the quests of decomposition. Without a nitrogen element to heat things up, the leaves will likely remain in the same state in which they were piled.
Nitrogen or “green” elements are available to us in many ways. Fresh, green grass clipping are a rich source. The food scraps from our kitchen are actually a nitrogen element in compost. Manure (if you are into that) works wonders. Coffee grounds also works really well, and the paper filter and all can be tossed in with it. The ultimate goal is to have one-part green for every five-parts leaf, also known as the carbon or “brown” component.
Step 4: Pile It, Wet It and Turn It
Lastly, to create a compost pile, it is actually very important to pile it. Anything less than a cubic yard simply is not large enough to get to the temperatures necessary for quick composting. In reality, it’s better to actually make heaps larger than this, closer to two cubic yards. As well, layering the green and brown components, and watering each brown layer as things stack up, can help get the fires burning throughout the compost.
After that, it’s a matter of a little maintenance. Compost needs to be moist. An ideal level of moisture would be one in which the spongy compost squeezed tightly provides a drop or two of water. It shouldn’t be allowed to dry out. The other thing is to turn it. Turning adds oxygen, which reinvigorates the decomposition. A compost always needs a four or five days to get going, but after that, it can be turned as often as every other day, depending on how quickly the compost is needed. If turned regularly, some composts can actually be ready in under a month.
So, there it is. Relish those leaves as they fall this fall. Enjoy the colors and beauty of the changing of the seasons, and then get out in the yard, pile them up, and make some compost for the spring. They are Mother Nature’s little gift to gardeners.
Lead image source: Sergey Peterman/Shutterstock