By Crow Miller – Do you know how to compost leaves? If you have trees on your property, chances are, you’re missing out on an opportunity to add a wonderful source of homemade compost to your gardens. Since most trees are deep rooted, they absorb minerals from deep in the soil. A good portion of these minerals go into the leaves, and if you know how to compost leaves, you can return these minerals to the ground for healthier soil.
Leaves, these multicolored gifts from above, are most valuable for their fibrous organic matter they supply. When you know how to compost leaves, you can take advantage of their humus-building qualities to improve the structure of all soil types. You probably already know what makes good soil, and the addition of leaf compost can help improve your soil profile. They aerate heavy clay soils, prevent sandy soils from drying out too fast, soak up rain and check evaporation.
Some of the people who attend classes here at Spring Meadow complain to us that they have had no luck when learning how to compost leaves. “We make a pile of our leaves,” these people say, “but they never break down.” That is indeed a common complaint. But you can learn how to make compost from leaves easily in your own backyard.
How to Compost Leaves: Tips for Successful Composting
Well, there are a few things you can do that will guarantee success when learning how to compost leaves.
- Add extra nitrogen to your leaf compost. While many people debate what is the best manure for gardens, manure is the best nitrogen supplement for compost and fertilizer. A mixture of five parts of leaves to one part manure will certainly break down quickly. If you don’t have manure, and many gardeners don’t, nitrogen supplements like dried blood, cottonseed meal or bone meal will work almost as well. Nitrogen is the one factor that starts a compost heap heating up, and leaves certainly don’t contain enough nitrogen to provide sufficient food for bacteria. Here is a rough guide for nitrogen supplementing: add two cups of dried blood or a different natural nitrogen supplement to each wheelbarrow load of leaves.
- Grind or shred your leaves. A compost pile made of shredded material is really fun to work with because it is so easily controlled and easy to handle. Leaves can be used much more conveniently in the garden if they are shredded. Leaves in their natural state tend to blow away or mat down into a tight mass. If shredded, they turn into compost or leaf mold much faster and make a much better mulch.
How to Compost Leaves: Managing Your Compost Pile
A compost pile can be made in almost any size, but most people like to make rectangular shaped piles because they are easier to handle. It is a good idea to put the material in the heap in layers. Start with a six-inch layer of leaves, shredded. Then add a two-inch layer of other organic material that is higher in nitrogen than leaves. try to pick something from this list: manure, vegetable scraps, green weeds, or grass clippings. You can add low-nitrogen things like sawdust or straw if you put in a nitrogen supplement. It is important to mix leaves with other material both to supply nitrogen and to prevent the leaves from packing down in a dry mat.
Keep the compost heap moist, but not soggy. Turn the heap every three weeks, or sooner if you feel up to it. If you can turn it three or four times before late spring comes, you will have fine compost ready for spring planting use. Make sure to keep your compost heap covered with a plastic sheet – it will keep the warmth in, and prevent the heap from getting too wet or dry.
If you’re in a hurry to learn how to compost leaves, you can make compost out of leaves in as short a time as 15 days by following these easy steps:
- Shred the leaves
- Mix four parts ground leaves with one part manure or other material liberally supplemented with nitrogen, and one pound limestone.
- Turn the heap every three days. Turning a heap made of shredded leaves is not difficult because the compost is light and fluffy.
How to Compost Leaves: Making Leaf Mold
If you have so many leaves on your land that you can’t compost all of them, or if you just don’t have the time to make compost, you can make leaf mold. Leaf mold is not as rich a fertilizer as composted leaves, but it”s easier to make and is especially useful as mulch. Leaf mold is ordinarily found in the forest in a layer just above the mineral soil. It has the merit of decomposing slowly. furnishing plant nutrients gradually and improving the structure of the soil as it does so.
Freshly fallen leaves pass through several stages from surface litter to well-decomposed humus partially mixed with mineral soil. Leaf mold from deciduous trees is somewhat richer in such mineral foods as potash and phosphorus than that from conifers. The nitrogen content varies from .2 to 5%.
- Make a circular bin. A length of snow fencing makes the best kind of enclosure for making leaf mold.
- Gather your leaves in the fine fall days and tamp them down in the enclosure, after wetting them thoroughly. Leaves have a slight acid reaction. If your plant doesn’t need an acid mulch, add some limestone to the leaves before tamping them down.
Over the winter, these leaves will not break down into the black powder that is the leaf mold you find on the forest floor, but they will be in a safe place, secure from the winter winds. You can pull them out next spring and summer for use as mulch. By then they will be matted down and broken up enough to serve as a fine mulch.
If you keep poultry or livestock, use your supply of leaves for litter or bedding along with straw or hay. Leaf mold thus enriched with extra nitrogen may later be mixed directly with soil or added to the compost pile.
Originally published in the May/June, July/August 1986 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.