Composting Leaves 101

Leaves have already started to fall, and others are well on their way. Even if you have a small yard, there are many ways to reuse leaves, and they should never end up in trash bags. Here are some tips and ideas to keep leaves out of landfills and quality in your garden.

After you have collected your leaves you have several basic choices of how to use them; undecomposed as mulch or as an addative to soil,  and decomposed/composted for the same uses.
After you have collected your leaves you have several basic choices of how to use them; shredded as mulch or as an additive to soil, and decomposed/composted for the same uses.

Your Leaf Mold and Compost Pile:

Leaf Mold

Composting leaves alone is simple, requiring little attention and effort, just time and patience. In fact, it can be as simple as just having a pile of leaves in the corner of your yard, or you can make a complex layered recipe for your garden requiring care and interaction.

Using leaves alone (known as “leaf mold”) produces a highly-prized garden additive that is fungus-rich and will hold 3-5 times its weight in water and is definitely worth the wait. A good leaf compost takes almost two years to establish on its own. Depending on the leaf content of your yard there are a few different ways to start approaching a compost pile. Shredding leaves is the recommended first step.  Soft-bodied leaves such as Maple leaves break down faster than other leaves such as Oaks, keep this in mind when determining how much to shred. Shredding leaves will also allow a more consistent mixture and save space.

Two year old leaf mold will be crumbly and dark.
Two year old leaf mold will be crumbly and dark.

Piles should be in an area of adequate drainage, and where they can be warmed by the sun. They should also be at least 4ft in diameter, and 3ft in height. If they are smaller than this it will be impossible to control inside temperatures. They should be no larger than 5x10ft. If they are larger than this, they will become oxygen deficient. Watering the piles when the top foot becomes dry (during he summer) will help keep the process moving along. It is also necessary to make sure leaves are wet when added to the pile. Misting with a garden hose as you make your pile will help ensure even moisture.

A freestanding leaf mold bin.
A freestanding leaf mold bin.

Leaf Compost

To speed-up the process you can add nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds and plant clippings to your leaf pile (never add meat or grease!). If you add these materials your compost pile will be ready to use sooner. Try to layer the nitrogen rich materials in between your leaves (carbon-rich material).  You can also add other carbon-rich materials such as straw, sawdust (non-treated and unpainted wood only), and non-glossy shredded paper that will add bulk to your pile and extend its coverage.  If you have pine needles it may not be necessary to shred them, as they will also add bulk to your pile.

Never add meats or grease to your compost pile. It may also be best to wash out egg shells before adding.
Never add meats or grease to your compost pile. It may also be best to wash out egg shells before adding.

Turn your leaf compost/mold every 3-4 weeks in warmer temperatures. Turning your pile in cold temperatures is not advised because you can loose core temperatures and not get them back. The center of the pile can be as high as 150 degrees. Establishing your compost pile in a partly-sunny location will also help the process along. Your pile should be wet throughout, but not soggy. If this is the case, turn your pile more frequently for better aeration, and make sure your leaves are properly shredded.

Types of compost bins:

  • Make a simple leaf pile. Take mulch from edges as it becomes ready.
  • Use wire fencing. Choose a wide wire and leave a foot off the ground for easy access.
  • Tumbling and Box Compost bins are extremely neat and user-friendly.
  • Use pallets, scrap wood and wood planks; assemble in a box formation, again leaving access at the ground, or the front open.

    Flowerland offers several different syles of compost bins.
    Flowerland offers several different styles of compost bins, for easy and neat composting.

Your leaf compost will be ready to use in about 16-24 months for larger piles and as soon as 6-9 months for smaller nitrogen-rich piles. Always take compost from the bottom of the pile. It should be just above air temperature and slightly dry and crumbly. Pull large chunks of matter out and put back into compost pile for further decay.

Using your Compost

Adding Compost/Leaves to Soil:

When using leaf mold, spread a 3/4″  layer in your garden, and turn into the top 6-8 inches of soil. If you have a raised bed, used only for annuals, put a thick layer on top. You can partially mix now, and then when it starts to get warm in the spring mix in the remaining.

It is a good idea to add Nitrogen back into the soil after adding leaf compost, because leaves use it as they break down. Adding 1-1.5 lbs of 10% Nitrogen fertilizer to every 100 lbs (or three bushels) of leaf compost used will correct this problem. This meets the needs of leaf compost, but further fertilization of plants may be necessary.

Why add Leaf Compost to your Soil?

Drought damage will be reduced as you increase water-holding capacity.

Soil tilth is improved.

It acts like a buffer in the soil and reduces effects of over-fertilization, acidity and alkalinity.

Organic acids are produced that combine with iron and aluminum ions that could potentially be toxic to plants, thus reducing the chance for damage.

Great nutrient provider for micro-organisms.

Adding Leaf Compost as Mulch:

You can add leaves directly to your garden. It is best to shred with a chipper or lawnmower before adding directly around plants, as a thick layer of un-shredded leaves can suffocate and rot plants over the winter. Some people feel it is waste of precious leaf mold to use it on top of soil as a mulch. If you are just getting started simply use shredded leaves as the mulch. They will break down on its own over time and can be worked into the soil.

Leaf mulch can be used on the surface of soil instead of straw, wood chips and peat moss. Recommended thickness of mulch are: 2-3 inches for deciduous shrubs and trees, vegetables and rose beds; 3 inches for flower beds; and 3-4 inches for acid-loving plants. Avoid piling too much mulch on top of perennial root crowns, as this may cause rotting in the fall and early spring.

Why use leaf compost in your garden as mulch?

Reduces rainfall run-off that making it more available for plants.

Keeps soil cooler in summer, and warmer in winter.

Reduces freezing and thawing that can damage roots, crowns and trunks.

Increases bio-activity such as earthworms and other natural decomposers.

Reduces soil compaction, and helps prevent weeds.

Share with your neighbors:

If you have a small yard with an excess of leaves think about sharing with your neighbors. Every fall we take several tarps of leaves over to our neighbors large yard. Her yard simply dosn’t provide enough leaves to cover the square footage of her gardens. Your local community garden, school garden or non-profit may also be in need of leaf mulch.  Always ask before delivering a pile of leaves, this could easily be mistaken for littering and carelessness.

Garden Paths:

Composting leaves make excellent garden paths. The extra wear from foot traffic also helps break down the material. As your pile breaks down, simply scoop into your garden. Adding about 1-2 ft of shredded leaves to your paths now, will be ideal come spring. Simply rake and shovel any large clumps left in late spring into your thankful garden.

A leaf path will require lots of leaves, but will reward you with a soft, spongy and natural looking path.
A leaf path will require lots of leaves, but will reward you with a soft, spongy and natural looking path.

Potting Soil:

Simply add compost to your potting soil in a large bin, and mix. No more than 25% of your potting soil should be composted leaves. If there is a higher concentration than this, there will be a significant amount of soil loss due to further decomposition and may over time compact and stifle roots.

Composting leaves is mother natures recycling center. This article is just the slightest beginning to the wonderful world of leaf composting, I hope it has inspired you to use your leaves and dive in further!

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