The days are growing short, and the piles of leaves in your yard may be growing larger. And while one might think it’s time to bag them up and haul them away, it’s actually better for your yard—and the environment—if you compost them.
Fallen leaves contain 50-80% of the nutrients that a tree extracts from the earth. By composting them, we’re helping the earth replenish itself. When yard waste goes to landfills, methane gas is released, a greenhouse gas that contributes to air pollution and global warming. Methane and other toxins can also condense into liquid and leak into groundwater. Plus, some municipalities charge to haul away garbage and waste, so it’s more economical to learn the simple steps to compost your leaves.
You can make a bin with some lumber and chicken wire and a few tools, or you can purchase one. A good guideline is to think about a 4 foot square area for it. Determine where the compost bin will be placed (ideally, it will be on soil, in full or partial sun, and near the garden). The farther away the bin is from where the bulk of the leaves fall, the more hauling to the bin you’ll do.
You can jumpstart the decaying process by collecting leaves using a lawnmower with a bag attachment; the lawnmower will start to break down the leaves. You want to be sure to shred the leaves before you put them in the compost bin; full sized leaves will pack in a thick layer and take years to decompose. If the leaves are dry when you put them into the bin, dampen them with water. You can accelerate the process by adding about a cup of lime and a cup of blood meal to the compost bin.
Start with a six inch layer of leaves, then add two inches of other organic material like manure, garbage, green weeds or grass clippings. Every now and then, use a pitck fork to “stir” the leaves. And when you notice the compost pile getting dry, you can spray it down with water, and then turn the leaves again.
To use composted leaves as mulch, you can apply them directly under trees shrubs and plantings to protect the soil and insulate the plants from the cold. Be generous with them—the higher the pile of mulch the more effective the insulation, since there will be more air trapped inside the pile. Aim for 6–7 inches to start, since the leaves will compress down as winter progresses. If you’re in a very cold climate, you could even apply as much as a foot of mulch.
Composted leaves contain leaf mold, which has healthy levels of calcium and magnesium, and retains moisture, up to 500% of its weight in water. When you add composted leaves to your soil, not only are you encouraging healthy plant growth, but you help young plants stay hydrated and improve soil quality.
Remember that leaves generally increase the acidity of soil, so be sure to test soils in the spring and add lime or other alkaline substances if your pH is not too hospitable to the plants you are planting. If the mulch you’ve used over the winter is comprised of whole leaves, or are not finely shredded, rake them back so the soil will warm.
Finely shredded leaves work their way into the soil and will help the soil absorb more moisture, however, whole and non-shredded leaves can create a layer over soil, and may prevent run-off and moisture from getting absorbed.
If you have an abundance of leaves, you can store some in separate heaps to use later in the growing season as mulch, and will help your soil contain moisture.
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