Put those leaves to good use: consider composting

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Tue., Oct. 15, 2013
- Contributed Photo

If you have ever given any thought to composting, now is a great time to try your hand at it. Most of us have an abundance of leaves to dispose of at this time of year. Add to this kitchen wastes, garden debris, hedge trimmings, occasional lawn clippings and weeds, and you have yourself the makings of an incredibly beneficial soil amendment for your garden. From a sustainability standpoint, it makes more sense to recycle them on site than to ship them off to the local landfill. A few towns have leaf composting operations in place, and if this is the case with your town, by all means take advantage of their efforts.

The addition of homemade or home town-made leaf-based composts will do wonders for most gardens. It supplies a low-level source of nutrients to your plants as well as food and energy to soil microorganisms. The decomposed organic matter promotes a granular soil structure, which makes for easier digging and better root growth. Both the water- and nutrient-holding capacity of the soil will be increased and the soil temperature will not fluctuate as greatly. There has also been evidence that compost suppresses a number of plant disease organisms. I have noticed that the self-seeded tomatoes arising from my compost pile show a lot less early blight symptoms compared to those growing in unamended garden soil.

So how does one go about making compost? This can be as easy or as complicated as you want to make it. Organic debris just left in a heap will eventually rot and can be added to the garden.

With a little more prodding, the decomposition process can be speeded up. For aesthetic purposes, you may want to contain your composting efforts, especially if you have close-by neighbors. Fancy compost bins can be built or you can use materials like cinder blocks, wire fencing or pallets to contain your compost. Plastic compost bins can be purchased from many online catalogs. One side of the bin ideally should be removable for easy turning. With the plastic bins, usually the easiest way to turn your pile would be to lift off the bin and set it next to your compost and turn the pile once again into the bin.

Many folks like to have two or three bins. As one reaches capacity, the other can be started. The third would be a holding bin for organic materials such as leaves.

The secret to successful composting is to balance the “green stuff” like grass clippings, manure (if available), kitchen wastes and fresh garden debris which are high in nitrogen with the “brown stuff” such as leaves, small woody stems or sawdust, all high in carbon. The nitrogen-rich materials are a source of food for the decomposer organisms, while the carbon compounds provide energy. Think of our need for both proteins and carbohydrates!

Start your compost pile with about a 6-inch layer of a coarse, loosely-packed organic material like small brush or cornstalks. Follow this with a 6- to 10-inch layer of organic debris rich in carbon – your leaves, for instance. Then add a 2-inch layer of “green stuff” or if lacking organic matter with a high-nitrogen content, a cup of bloodmeal, cottonseed meal or high nitrogen lawn fertilizer will do. Throw in a shovelful of good garden soil and repeat this process until your pile measures at least 3 feet high.

While commercially-prepared compost activators are sold at garden supply shops and online, in most circumstances they are not necessary. Just by adding a shovelful of garden soil, you are supplying all the microbes necessary for breaking down your organic materials. Even without the addition of a few shovelfuls of soil, decomposing microbes would colonize the pile – its nature’s way of ensuring plants can get the nutrients they need to grow.

No limestone or wood ashes should be added to the pile as the pH of finished compost is usually near neutral. You can add greensand or kelp meal to the pile if you suspect the potassium levels will be low. This is often the case with a primarily leaf-based compost.

Keep your compost pile moist to aid decomposition and turn at least once a month. If it begins to smell, turn the pile and add some more brown material to it. This usually means that it is too moist and not aerated enough.

Depending on the moisture levels and temperatures, the compost will be finished in three months to a year. You can tell it is done when the organic materials are no longer recognizable. Dig an inch or so of compost into your garden beds or use it as a topdressing or mulch. Once you’ve seen what compost can do for your garden when properly applied, raking up all those leaves won’t seem like such a chore.

For information on composting or on other indoor or outdoor gardening topics, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center toll-free at 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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