Composting, in broadest terms, is the biological reduction of organic waste to humus. Humus is defined as an earth-like substance that forms a beneficial growing environment for plant roots.
Composting, therefore, is a marvelous way to transform organic yard and garden wastes into a soil-building substance that can be added to the garden with great benefit. The leaves that fall from our deciduous trees are a potential gold mine for gardens.
In the past, it was not so easy to collect the leaves and shred them for efficient composting. Many compost piles included layer upon layer of whole leaves, which took much longer to decompose than shredded leaves.
Today’s blower/vacuums save time and energy as they blow leaves into piles and then collect the leaves with an easy sweep. Many blower/vacuums, such as the Toro Rake-O-Vac, have mulching fans that shred leaves, reducing six bushels of leaves to one bushel of shredded organic material ready for the compost pile. I bet these handy machines can be rented, as well.
A compost pile is just that – a pile of decaying organic material, such as shredded leaves, that is up to about 4 feet high. Many people choose to build 4-by-4 foot enclosures of fencing so that the compost pile stays where it belongs and is tidier. Choose a shady site with good drainage and see that the pile is kept moist. If the top of the compost pile is slightly convex, it will hold water rather than letting it run off.
Some gardeners prefer to build their compost piles in layers, making as many as six or seven layers per 4 feet of height. Thin layers of coarser materials, such as hay, twigs, wood chips or corn stalks could be at the base of each layer, with that followed by soil and manure. If you don’t have access to manure, you’ll need nitrogen in another form to aid the bacterial action of decomposition. Two cups of cottonseed meal or dried blood will work well. Then spread the shredded leaves on top.
Once the compost pile is layered and watered, it will heat up, eventually reaching a temperature of 140 to 160 degrees F. The heat will kill most disease organisms and weed seeds.
Many people don’t bother layering but just mix blood or cottonseed meal with the shredded leaves as they build the pile. This will work but will take longer. To make sure the compost has enough air for speedy decomposition, turn the pile every week or so. Or you can stick the pile with a pitchfork or digging fork to make air channels.
An even easier method than the usual fenced compost pen for those whose composting ambitions are not too large is to buy a commercial tumbler-type composter. While one batch of leaves is composting, you can store the rest in out-of-the-way places.
It’s easy to tell when compost is ready to use. It is dark and has a rich earthy smell. Use it to improve garden soils by digging in a 3-inch layer to a depth of 6-8 inches. You will soon reap rewards in the form of improved plant performance.