When it comes to making compost from autumn’s leaves, a few simple tips will go a long way to help create a fast working pile – and more importantly, one that can generate incredible compost for next year’s garden and flowerbeds.
Let’s face it, when it comes to building great soil and powering plants, compost is at the head of the class. In fact, that is exactly why many gardeners refer to it as Black Gold.
But creating enough of it to have for all of your plants can certainly be an issue. And that is exactly where leaves, and leaf compost can be of such incredible benefit.
Check Out Our Podcast : The Secrets To Making Great Compost
For those lucky enough to live around an abundance of trees, fall is the perfect opportunity to create a large compost pile from leaves. A pile that by late next spring can help provide you with all of the amazing black gold you could ever need!
How To Make Incredible Compost From Leaves
Select The Best Leaves For Composting
When it comes to making great compost from leaves, it all starts with selecting the best varieties for composting.
At the top of the list are the leaves of maple, birch, ash, cherry, cottonwood and fruit trees. All of these are excellent choices to create a pile from. Not only are they higher in nutrients, the leaf structure of these varieties break down fast.
What about oak trees? Well, they can be used in moderation, but since they lean toward the acidic side, they can throw a pile’s PH levels off. In addition, oak leaves are among the lowest in nitrogen and other nutrients.
It doesn’t mean you can’t use oak leaves in your pile, but keep it to less than 20% of the make-up to avoid issues.
There are a few trees to avoid all together. Most notably walnut, eucalyptus and horse chestnut trees. The leaves from walnut and eucalyptus contain toxins that can harm plants, and prevent some seed crops from germinating.
As for the horse chestnut and it’s close relative the Buckeye tree, they can produce a toxin that can be harmful to humans if in high enough doses. Although the toxin is concentrated in the nuts of these trees, it can be hard to separate out when collecting. It’s simply best to leave them out of the pile to be safe.
Shredding The Leaves
So now that you know what leaves to use, it’s all about building a leaf-filled compost pile that will decompose fast.
And to do that, it all starts with shredding! Simply put, whole leaves will take forever to break down. By shredding them before creating your pile, you will speed up decomposition 10 to 20 times faster.
There are an incredible amount of lower-cost electric leaf and debris shredders on the market these days. And many of them really do a pretty good job at shredding. See : Electric Leaf Shredders
However, a push mower or riding mower can accomplish the task with ease as well. We use our push mower and bag attachment to shred huge piles of leaves quickly every fall. It’s easy to do, and makes quick work of the task.
Building The Pile
Now comes the building of a fast working leaf compost pile. Unlike a typical compost pile that you create and continue adding to as materials become available, a leaf pile can be made up all at once.
That way, it can get working and stay working, and not have to break down additional “new materials” later.
But a pile made from leaves only will still take a long time to decompose. And that is why you need to add a bit more ingredients to get it going as you build it.
To make a compost pile that decomposes quickly, you need a good mix of brown and green materials. In this case, the leaves are a lot of brown. So adding in some green will get it going right away. (See: The Greens & Browns Of Composting)
Getting The Right Mix
It just so happens that green grass clippings are great green materials. As is manure (chickens, rabbit, horse, cow), coffee grounds and food scraps too. All of these heat up a pile, and also break down quickly – making them perfect additions.
But there is one more key ingredient to add as well that can really speed things up – and that is fresh compost. By adding compost from an existing pile, you instantly introduce all of the beneficial microbes and organisms that are key to breaking down materials.
It’s important to remember that with a leaf pile, it will eventually decompose no matter what you have available to add. But the more greens you can add in to balance the browns, the faster it will work.
What Should Go Into Your Leaf Pile
As an example, here is what we use in our fall leaf compost piles to get the working fast:
We start our leaf compost piles with about a 3′ x 3′ x 3′ pile of shredded leaves. Next, we add in a few 5 gallon buckets of fresh compost, and a two or three more buckets of fresh green grass clippings.
Since it is the end of the growing season, we also sometimes throw in the soil/plant mix from a few of our hanging basket and container plants.
We finish by adding in a few 5 gallon buckets of our chicken manure / straw mix from our coop, and any vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, etc. we might have on hand.
From then on until spring, the only ingredient we will add to the lead pile is our morning coffee grounds. They continue to add a source of green to the pile, and since they are already soil-like – we don’t need to wait for them to break down.
Turning The Pile
Just like a traditional compost pile, a leaf pile benefits greatly from occasional turning. Not only will turning your pile a few times each week introduce oxygen, but it also helps to distribute the moisture levels in the pile.
And when it comes to creating a fast working pile, oxygen and water are absolutely vital!
Turn your pile a minimum of two times per week up until the pile freezes in cold temperatures. If it gets too dry, add a bit of water to the mix to help it along. As soon as spring temps warm, continue turning on a bi-weekly basis.
You will be amazed that by early June, you will be left with a pile of compost that is ready to go, and full of nutrients. All from a pile of leaves!
Here is to making incredible compost from your leaves this year, and having mountains of black gold next spring! Happy Gardening – Jim and Mary
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