How to Compost Fall Leaves?

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How to Compost Leaves

By Richard Godke

“What do I do with all those leaves?”  Look at the beautiful fall leaves that pile up as future plant food.  People have been asking how to compost fall leaves.  Composting is a great way for beginner home gardeners to prepare for next year’s garden, save money, and help the environment.  Garden soil is the most important factor in the success of a garden.  Compost loosens the soil, provides slow release of nutrients, aids in soil drainage and aeration, and allows great water retention – saving on the water that you use.  Composting fall leaves is easy if you understand the science behind the process.  Rather than sending your leaves to the landfill consider composting them using these easy steps.
The composting process takes organic materials (previously alive things) and breaks them down into basic nutrient components that are easily absorbed by plants.  How to Compost Autumn Leaves is a great video to help you understand the basis.  Composting requires needs these components in the correct proportions to quickly complete the process: moisture, heat, composting organisms, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.  Nature does it all the time without the help of humans.  Proper management of the compost can greatly speed the process. You can produce leaf compost more quickly by looking for these four basic indicators in your compost pile: 1. temperature, 2. moisture, 3. odor, and 4. fluffiness (available air pockets).  Take the temperature with a thermometer.  Within days of building your compost pile the temp should rise until it reaches between 104-150°F (40-65°C).  Measure the moisture level, by squeezing a handful of compost, if water drips out it is too wet.  Too much water takes up the space needed by oxygen that feeds the aerobic bacteria.  A highly efficient compost pile should first smell like the materials the being composted – grass, leaves, or straw for example.  Later in the composting process it will smell like garden dirt or a fresh rain.  If the compost pile smells sour or rotten the materials are too wet or lacking more carbon-based material.  Knowing how to Compost fall leaves can quickly turn litter into black gold or compost.  Here are my 6 ways for a speedy leaf composting adventure.

How to compost using full sun

The quicker the sun heats up the compost pile the quicker the bacteria start growing and begin the composting process.  Autumn can have very cold temperatures.  Additional heat from the sun can jumpstart the process in the fall.  Once the bacteria begin growing, it will generate its own needed temperature.  A warm compost pile can be covered with snow and still produce plumes of steam.  Giving your compost pile a warm start can continue the process throughout the winter.  Knowing how to compost involves getting the temperature up to start the process.

How to compost using a mower and grinder

Flat leaves fall to the ground and stack up in layers cutting needed air pockets for the bacteria.  Mow over the leaves, rake, and then pile.  Or you can use a grass catcher bag on your mower and then pile.  The addition of the grass clippings in the mix will speed up the composting process.  Grass clipping have higher nitrogen content than leaves only.  The pulverized leaves should be dumped in layers onto the compost pile.  You can also use a machine made to grind up leaves and twigs.  Another way to chop up leaves is to place the leaves in a garbage can and plunge a string trimmer down into the can.  When using power tools always read and follow the safety instructions.  Breaking leaves down into smaller pieces will help stop leaf packing and speed up the composting process.  Leaf crushing may not be practical if you have lots of leaves.  Knowing how to compost involves air pockets in the pile.

How to compost using an additional nitrogen source

Nitrogen is needed to feed the aerobic bacteria that break down the leaves.  Low cost organic nitrogen sources include: fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps, lawn clippings and cattle, horse, poultry, and rabbit manures.  Avoid – meats, dairy products, fats, oils and cat and dog manures.  A non-organic nitrogen source could be commercial 10-10-10 fertilizer.  Most leaf compost piles will benefit from about ½ cup (118.29 Milliliters) per 1 ft. deep X 4 ft. X 4 ft. or (0.30480 M X 1.2192 M X 1.2192 M).  Adding extra nitrogen will greatly increase the decomposition rate of your leaves.  Any extra nutrients added will be available to your garden when the compost is applied.  Additional nitrogen sources will give your leaf compost a jump on the winter temperatures.  Knowing how to compost involves using the correct nitrogen ratio.

How to compost using layers of different materials?

Leaves tend to compact easily when they get wet.  It is important to layer the leaves with dampened garden soil, and a nitrogen source.  Do not use soil that has recently been treated with weed killer.  It could slow the compost process and kill the garden plants.  Damp soil has the useful bacteria that are needed to begin the composting process.  You can purchase commercial compost starter.  I have found that garden soil works just as well.  It is easier to first apply the dry soil, nitrogen source, and then dampen with a garden hose.  The ideal moisture content for compost is 40-60%.  In comparison, freshly mown grass has about 50% moisture. When compost is squeezed it should stick together.  It must be dry enough that a squeeze does not produce a drop of liquid.  Spraying the water on each layer will work the soil, bacteria, and nitrogen source down into the pile, speeding the process.

How to compost using the flat top method

A mound of dried leaves can seal the top of the compost pile causing the water to run off like shingles on a roof.  Some compost piles then stay completely dry in the middle.  The mound of leaves on the top caused the rain to run off.  When building a leaf compost pile it is important to make the top flat or slightly concave (dipped).  This causes the water to run into the middle of the pile carrying the soil, bacteria, and nitrogen down through the pile.  This will encourage an explosion of bacteria growth.  Knowing how to compost fall leaves involves getting moisture to the center of the pile.

How to compost by introducing oxygen

Hard and shiny leaves tend to easily compress together.  It is vital to turn the compost pile to introduce oxygen to the bacteria.  Several days after building a leaf compost pile the temperature increases.  The temp will then slowly decrease.  When the temperature significantly drops it is time to turn the pile.  Simply move the pile from one spot to another to introduce new air pockets.  This will also mix up the elements so each piece comes in contact with the moisture, bacteria and nitrogen.  Turning the compost pile is kind of like kneading bread dough.  It causes the pile temperature to increase again.  Repeat these turning process until the materials are broken down and the temp does not increase.  At this stage, the shape of the original material is not recognizable.  A great way to speed the process is to use a rotating compost barrel that allows you to easily turn the compost, usually several times a week.  It is surprising how much the additional aeration will speed the process.

Your fallen leaves can be made into a valuable environmentally friendly garden accelerator.  If you want a successful garden it starts with organically rich soil.  The best way to get high quality, low cost, and environmentally friendly soil additive is to compost your own leaves.  By following my 6 steps To Speedy Leaf Composting you can possibly produce a batch of completed fall leaf compost in three months.  How to compost and why are covered on a great web page Composting at Home Introduction to Composting.  If the compost is not properly managed it could take from 6 to 12 months.  To maximize the composting process it is important to understand the 4 basic compost pile signals: 1. temperature, 2. moisture, 3. odor, and 4. fluffiness (available air pockets).  By understanding the composting process and how the elements work together your process time will greatly be reduced.  As you manage your compost pile I encourage you to experiment with different combinations of: moisture, heat, organisms, carbon based organic material, nitrogen and oxygen.  Composting is another way beginner gardeners can enjoy the beautiful leaves in the fall..

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rgodke

Rick Godke is a lifelong gardener since age 8. He studied agriculture and taught high school horticulture. He spent almost 20 years working as a County Extension Agent in three states where he educated farmers, home owners, and youth in the areas of production agriculture and home horticulture. Godke has trained adult Master Gardeners and school-age 4-H members in every aspect of gardening, as well as establishing community gardens. He has introduced two daylily varieties with the American Hermerocallis Society and has served as a national certified national daylily exhibition judge. https://plus.google.com/104974890596183747499?rel=author

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