Leaves Everywhere! How To Compost Leaves

Beautiful fall colors soon become piles of leaves all over your lawn. I hear a groan as you head to the shed to get out the rake. But there may be an easier way. Composting leaves comes in many shapes and forms. There’s got to be a way right for you!

There’s Lots of Ways to Compost Leaves

Don’t Rake at All

One way to compost leaves doesn’t involve raking at all. Put your mulching lawn mower on a high grass height setting and shred the leaves. You never even have to touch them. It may take numerous passes under your trees but every time you’ll shred the leaves a little smaller.  The smaller the leaf pieces the more surface area for microbial activity. The leaf shreds fall between the grass blades, taking nutrients and microbes with them into the soil. You’re creating a natural fertilizer and dethatcher for your lawn.

Rake Into a Pile

Then you have lots of options. Right here I’m going to remind you of some things you probably already know.

  • Never, ever burn your leaves. It’s not neighborly to have smoke drift into your neighbor’s home. It contributes to global warming. It’s a waste of natural resources.
  • Don’t compost walnut or eucalyptus tree species leaves. All parts of walnut trees have the chemical Juglone, which will adversely affect seed germination in your garden. Eucalyptus releases allelopathic chemicals that affect plant growth. You can mulch mow the leaves where they are. Then you’ll add nutrients and microbes back to the soil. Whatever is growing there has already made peace with the allelopathic chemicals released by these trees.
  • Compost pine needles separately from leaves. They’ll give your compost excess acidity. They’re perfect as mulch under acid soil loving plants such as blueberries or azaleas.
  • If you leave the pile of leaves in the middle of your yard, they’ll kill the grass. Shredded up leaves are a wonderful mulch to keep down weeds. But leaves don’t know the difference between your lawn and garden weeds.
  • If you’re looking at that pile and thinking it’s too much to deal with and decide to send it to the landfill instead, remember this
    • Leaves and yard waste make up to 20% of landfill waste
    • Landfills are anaerobic so the decomposition of those leaves produces methane
    • Methane as a greenhouse gas is 25 times greater than CO2 at trapping radiation

Making a commitment to making our planet a better place to live means taking care of that pile of leaves. And you have allies in any 6-year-olds who happen to live in the neighborhood. A big pile of dry leaves is a great place to play when you’re a kid. Invite the neighborhood kids and their parents for a “leaf pile jumping party” and neighbors may even bring you over some of their leaves to add. Letting the kids play in the leaves also begins to shred them so you’ll have less work to do in the long run.

The Upsides of Composting Your Leaves

Composting leaves has so many benefits. You’re…

  • Saving money by not having to buy compost
  • Making the earth a better place to live
  • Retaining microbes and plant material that have acclimated to your environment
  • Saving money by using shredded leaves as garden mulch

The composting process works better when the leaves are shredded into smaller pieces. If you’re going to be combining leaves (or browns) with kitchen scraps (or greens) the leaves must be shredded. Leaving them whole, the leaves will mat up and keep water and oxygen from getting into all parts of the compost pile. The rule of thumb is when you dump in any kitchen scraps you should cover them with shredded leaves. I’ve found at least two 55 gallon trash bins are needed to get through my winter.

Shred Your Leaves for Better Leaf Compost

Again, run your mulching mower over your pile. As you get an area of shredded leaves, rake those shreds into a container you can put beside your compost pile. There are as many different types of containers as you can imagine.  These are a few of my favorites.

Trash Bin: the upright plastic kind with a cover and wheels. Easy to roll over to the composting area when full of leaves (which are very light). An alternative way to shred your leaves is to fill your 30- or 55-gallon trash bin half full of dry leaves and then use your string trimmer to shred in the bin. It takes no time for those leaves to become tiny pieces. Add more leaves and repeat. To make the trash bin full use a second container to shred in and dump into the one you’re filling. Otherwise, you’ll be covered with leaf shreds.

Metal Trash Can: with a cover. These don’t usually have rollers but if you have a dolly this container can easily be moved from tree area to compost area. You can’t shred in a metal container, but you can use a plastic one and dump into the metal trash can. In the spring you can use the same container to move the completed compost to your garden area.

Paper Yard Waste Bags: found in hardware stores in the fall. I prefer not to use plastic bags because that’s adding to environmental problems. Besides, the paper from the bag is another layer of “brown” when the leaves are gone. Obviously, it would be a bad idea to try to shred leaves in a paper bag.

I do have to cover the paper bags that I’ve got beside my compost area with a tarp. Otherwise, the bags and some of the leaves will start to decompose, leaving me with a pile of what’s left of the leaves. That’s not bad because the point of this is to get composted leaves. It’s just messy and inconvenient in the middle of winter. Trust me, I know how messy this can be.

Tarp: OK, not my favorite. But I can get the shredded leaves from the tree area to the compost area when I rake them onto the tarp. It’s usually a two-person job getting the shredded leaves into the container I have waiting.

And what kind of containers might I have waiting by the compost area for the shredded leaves? Again, imagination and whatever is available (and sometimes what looks nice) will suit the purpose. I have used all kinds of ways to contain my precious leaves.  My “brown gold” is my neighbor’s nuisance, so I must be sure the leaves stay where I put them.

Composted Leaves and Garden Planning

Some years I’ve actually planned better than others. Those years my labor has been less and my harvests better. Imagine!! 

Vining Plant Rings: I made some rings of 12-inch-high chicken wire that are between 3-4 feet in diameter. I decide where I want cucumbers and other vining plants to go in the garden and I put my rings there. Then I fill them up with shredded leaves, put some soil on the top so the leaves won’t blow away, and let them be until spring. The leaves decompose and settle during the winter (even under snow!). In the spring, I add some compost from my green/brown pile to the top of the shredded leaves. Then I plant vining crop seeds and water. The vines spill out over the top of the chicken wire but don’t take up quite as much space in my garden. In the fall after the crop is harvested, I cut the above ground biomass off and pull the ring off. Like magic, the beautiful “black gold” spills all over my garden. Root biomass, fungal hyphae, and the leaves that have become soil.

Garden Mulch: Shredded leaves don’t have to be composted; they can be spread on the surface of your garden beds as mulch. Leave the leaves on the surface, don’t work into your soil, or the decomposition process of the leaves will compete with your plants for available nutrients. Leaves used as mulch keep down the weeds, maintain soil moisture, protect some crops you may want to leave in the soil, and decrease erosion.

Secondary Bin: You may even need two of these. This should be next to your compost pile and will hold all the shredded leaves you’re going to need to keep your compost greens and browns in the correct proportions until you have access to leaves again (next fall, or your auxiliary pile).

You aren’t going to quit eating because it’s winter, you’ll still have kitchen scraps. Composting them means you need a source of browns.

The leaf holding container can be the plastic trash bin, a metal bin, chicken wire made into a big circle, or snow fencing circled. If your container doesn’t have a top it’ll need something like chicken wire to keep the shredded leaves from blowing away.

Auxiliary Pile: OK, you’ve run out of containers, time, and energy. It happens to all of us. This is when you rake, blow, or somehow get the leaves off your yard and put them in a pile in the back where they’re the least noticeable and won’t blow into the neighbor’s yard. You don’t shred them; you don’t cover them up; you don’t worry about them at all. Those leaves will compost in a year or two just as is. Even though the surface may still look like it did when you stuck it in the corner a year ago, the interior will be leaf mold.

Leaf mold is wonderful mulch. It is also a compost all by itself. It smells like rich moist soil – which it is. Many people use leaves exclusively as their soil amendment. But, in my opinion, you don’t get as rich a diversity of microbial activity as you do when it’s combined with greens. Both add macro and micronutrients to your soil, as well as diverse microbes.

The auxiliary pile is also your second source for browns if you run out before next fall (which you undoubtedly will). Treat that pile as if it’s new fallen leaves. Rake and shred them for whatever area and purpose they’re needed. Try to make it through the winter with your bins of shredded leaves. It’s difficult to get to your auxiliary pile when it’s covered with snow.

Do You See All Those Leaves in a Different Way?

Composting leaves or using shredded leaves for mulch is a great use of natural resources. Living in a part of the country with seasons gives beautiful color and cool, crisp working weather. The leaves are everywhere and with so many different ways to compost leaves you are only limited by your imagination and energy. 

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