Yes, Johnny Mathis, “The autumn leaves of red and gold” are falling at last. With the warm October it seemed that fall would never get here, but November has been wet and cool and the leaves are coming down. You can put your leaves out to be hauled away and somewhere they will be made into compost which you can buy back in a plastic bag at your local nursery center. Or, you can compost them at home and get some great soil enhancing material for a little work at no cost. After all, hauling leaves here and there and back again requires energy and burning energy is heating up our little planet. Composting is not hard to do. You just need the right mix of ingredients to help nature do its thing to decompose organic matter into compost and ultimately into soil humus.
Years ago, I used to load my pickup with bags of leaves from the streets after dropping my stepdaughter off at high school. Added to my large stock of leaves from my shaded home and with some nitrogen rich materials such as green grass, kitchen scraps, coffee ground or chicken manure mixed in, I created some large compost piles.
There are two methods of composting. You can batch compost or use the ‘let-it-rot’ mode. The batch method entails putting all the ingredients together and moistening them well to start a batch that will heat up. The heat destroys most weed seeds and pathogens that might be in you compost pile. To do a batch that will heat up and compost properly you will need a minimum of a cubic yard of material or a pile that is about 3ft x 3ft x 3ft. For the ‘let-it-rot’ mode of composting you can just keep piling material on and it will compost over time, but will not heat up to destroy weed seeds or pathogens.
I use both methods. The batch compost I use for seed starting and container potting soil to avoid weeds, whereas the let-it-rot method is easier and I just remove compost from the bottom of the pile for use in the garden. The let it rot method does still require moisture and a lot more time, but if you don’t want the exercise of turning the pile to aerate and keep it heating this is a good method.
It is amazing how fast a well-constructed batch compost pile will heat up and start decomposing. I have seen compost piles go from ambient temperature to 160 ºF in 24 hours. This heat is generated by the microorganisms as they break down the organic matter. I advise buying a good compost thermometer to monitor the temperature in the pile. It can also be used as a soil thermometer which is helpful at spring planting time. Batch composting with weekly turnings of the pile can produce finished compost in a few weeks.
It is important to have the right mix of ingredients, but this is something that experimentation can help determine. Ideally you want a mix of carbon to nitrogen (C:N) in a ratio that is about 30:1. Leaves, straw and high carbon materials are usually dry and often referred to as “browns.” The ratio of C:N in these materials may vary from 60:1 for leaves up to 500:1 for sawdust. A good approximation is to add about equal amounts of leaves to ‘green materials’ such as chicken manure which has a C:N of 10:1 or grass clippings or coffee ground with a C:N equal to 20:1. A good reference for batch composting is http://vric.ucdavis.edu/pdf/compost_rapidcompost.pdf . For the ‘let-it-rot’ method, a good resource is Stu Campbell’s book, ‘Let-it-Rot, the Gardener’s Guide to Composting’ Third Edition. Another classic composting book of renown is J.I. Rodale’s ‘Complete Book of Composting.’ It is a comprehensive treatise on the history of composting as well a practical guidance on how to do it.
Compost can be used in so many ways. It makes a good container medium and also works well in flats or containers for seed starting in the green house. It can be used as mulch for vegetables, landscape perennials, fruit trees or shrubs. It is a great soil amendment for growing vegetables of all kinds. It feeds microorganisms in the soil which feed your plants and enhances drainage as well as keeping soil friable and loose. This is especially valuable for leafy and shoot forming vegetables like lettuces, broccoli, kale, cabbages and cauliflower. Each spring I mix in two shovels of compost in the planting spot for my tomatoes and this gives them the nutrients needed for the entire summer. For healthier soil—happy composting!