Did you know that the leaves from just one big tree may be worth up to $50 in plant food? Pound for pound, leaves have twice as many nutrients as manure, which means you’re wasting a valuable resource if you don’t compost your leaves. Leaves contain important plant nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.
The roots of most trees go deep into the earth to find minerals that are deep down in the soil. Many of these nutrients end up in the leaves, which can then be broken down with composting to be put into the garden or around the yard to replenish the soil.
One of the benefits of using leaves is that they are a fibrous organic material, which means they can help improve the structure of every soil type. In heavier clay soils, leaves help lighten and aerate them. In sandy soils, they help hold onto moisture to prevent them from drying out quickly by holding onto water.
Collecting Leaves for Compost
The fastest and easiest method is to use a lawn sweeper. It is not only faster than raking, but it also is more thorough. Plus, it’s easy to offer to sweep your neighbors’ leaves which will mean more leaves for compost for you, and improved neighbor relations. Then, you will need to shred your leaves to make sure that they break down properly and much more quickly.
Shredding leaves can be done in a number of ways. You can use a leaf shredder, but you can also use a rotary mower or even a regular lawn mower. Many rotary mowers will have a leaf-mulching option which provides you with even more finely-shredded compost materials. Then, pile up your leaves in an area that is easily-accessible, but not too close to any open windows.
Although leaving your leaves in a pile will cause them to eventually break down, there are several things that you can do to speed up the process and reap the benefits much sooner. This will also help to make the finished compost much more beneficial to your plants. The main thing to remember is that composting requires two things: working, healthy bacteria, and heat.
Nitrogen will help get your compost pile heating up, and will provide food for the bacteria as they work. If you have access to manure, it is a great source of nitrogen and can be added as one part manure for every 5 parts of leaves. Other nitrogen supplements that can be added to your compost pile include dried blood, bone meal, and cottonseed meal.
Keeping your pile at the right moisture will help to keep the bacteria alive and active. If you have a dry spell, be sure to check the moisture of your heap, and add water when necessary. Keep the pile moist
without letting it get soggy. One way to keep the proper amount of moisture is to cover the heap in a plastic sheet or tarp, which will prevent drying-out and excessive moisture.
Adding layers to your compost pile will help it break down more quickly and can add different nutrients to the compost. Begin with a six-inch layer made up of shredded leaves. Next add a two-inch layer of nitrogen-rich organic material such as manure. You could also add materials such as straw, sawdust, or dry weeds that are low in nitrogen if you are adding a nitrogen supplement instead of manure.
Turning the heap at least once every three weeks is another way to ensure that everything is breaking down properly and evenly. One way to do this is to flip your compost over one layer at a time to form a new pile in reverse order so the newer stuff ends up on the bottom. Then, you would do the same the next time to put them back in order.
How to Know When Compost is Ready
To determine whether or not your compost is ready to go on the garden, you have to look at it, smell it, and touch it. It should look more like dirt, and there should be few if any recognizable materials left in it. It should smell like dirt, not an active compost pile. And, it should feel like dirt or mulch, and break apart easily in your hand.
The exact time that it takes leaves to break down completely into usable compost will vary greatly depending on the materials used, the amount of nitrogen in the mixture, how often it is turned, how wet it is, and the temperature. This is why it is important to go by sight, smell, and feel rather than an amount of time.
How to Make Leafmold
If you have so many leaves on your place that you can’t compost all of them—or if you just don’t have the time to make compost—you can make leaf mold. Leaf mold is not as rich a fertilizer as composted leaves, but it’s easier to make and is especially useful as mulch.
A length of snow fencing makes the best kind of enclosure for making leaf mold. Make a circular bin, as shown in the photograph. A bin made of wood or stones can be used if you don’t have a fence.
Gather your leaves in the fine fall days and tamp them down in the enclosure—after wetting them thoroughly. Leaves have a slight acid reaction. If you plants don’t need an acid mulch, add some ground limestone to the leaves before tamping them down.
Over the winter, these leaves will not break down in the black powder that is the leaf mold you find on the forest floor. But they will be in a safe place, secure from the winter winds, where you can pull them out next spring and summer for use as mulch. By then they will be matted down and broken up enough to serve as a fine mulch. Some people keep leaves “in cold storage” like that for several years. Nurserymen who require fine potting soil sometimes do that. Then, when they come for their leaves, they find really black, crumbly humus.
You can shred your leaves with a compost shredder or a rotary mower before putting them in you bin. Then they will break down a lot more over the winter.
Leaf mold is ordinarily found in the forest in a layer just above the mineral soil. It’s usually soft, like a mattress. It has the merit of decomposing slowly, furnishing plant nutrients gradually and improving the structure of the soil as it does so.
The ability of leaf mold to retain moisture is almost miraculous. Subsoil can hold a mere 20 percent of its weight; good, rich topsoil will hold 60 percent, but leaf mold can retain 300 to 500 percent of its weight in water.
Freshly fallen leaves pass through several stages from surface litter to well-decomposed humus partly mixed with mineral soil. Leaf mold from deciduous trees is somewhat richer in such mineral foods as potash and phosphorus than that from conifers. The nitrogen content varies from .2 to 5 percent.
If you keep poultry or livestock, use your supply of leaves for litter or bedding along with straw or hay. Leaf mold thus enriched with extra nitrogen may later be mixed directly with soil or added to the compost pile.