by Karen Weiland, Advanced Master Gardener
By this time of year you are probably tired of raking and disposing of all those leaves. Well, leaves do not have to be a burden as they can be turned into a valuable soil enhancing material through composting. Believe it or not, there’s treasure to be had in your yard waste.
Composting is a naturally occurring process that breaks down organic matter into a material that resembles soil. Finished compost is an excellent use for a soil amendment that improves the structure and adds some essential nutrients. It is an efficient and frugal way to use yard waste such as leaves, grass, thatch, plant trimmings and the remains of garden plants. Kitchen scraps such as fruit and vegetable peelings, egg shells and coffee grounds that would normally be thrown in to the garbage can also be used.
Decaying matter, which includes fallen leaves, one type of organic mulch, is what nature uses to replenish the soil. Instead of raking and bagging those leaves to be sent away, consider using them in your garden. Layers of whole leaves can smother the growth underneath them and it will take longer for them to break down, but by chopping them up with your lawn mower you can speed up the disintegration process. If you don’t have a bagger for your lawn mower, consider placing the leaves in a large garbage can and chop them up with a weed whacker. Do not use diseased leaves. Those should be bagged and sent away.
Your compost pile can be placed in some type of structure such as a woven wire bin, a concrete block bin or a bin made from wooden pallets. It can also be left in an open pile. It’s best to place your composting site in a semi-shady spot with protection from the wind so it will not get excessively hot and dry. A good sized compost pile is about 4-5 feet in diameter and about 4-5 feet deep.
It is important to have a good balance of materials in your compost pile. This is done by using layers, alternating yard wastes, a nitrogen source, if needed, and soil. Nitrogen is needed by the microbes in a compost pile in order to break down and make use of the carbon that is found in organic matter. The carbon to nitrogen ratio affects the rate of decomposition. The right amount of water and oxygen are also very important in this mix.
The bottom layer should consist of 6-10 inches of organic matter, with the coarser material on the very bottom. This will allow air circulation around the base of the pile. If needed, use 1-2 inches of a nitrogen source such as animal manure for the next layer. Then apply about 1 inch of soil or finished compost. Check the pile occasionally for watering needs. The center should reach a temperature of 130 to 160 degrees when it is working properly. Use a pitchfork or shovel to turn the pile once or twice a month to keep the materials supplied with oxygen and to bring the outer contents to the center for heating.
Compost has so many uses. Adding it to your garden increases the water-holding capacity, aeration and nutrient exchange sites in the soil. It can be added as an organic media in potting soil or for starting seeds of garden plants. It’s also useful as a garden mulch to conserve soil moisture, keep the soil cool and helps to keep the weeds from growing.
Don’t have a need for a compost pile? Use those shredded leaves as a winter mulch to protect perennials during the winter. Shredding the leaves, as opposed to leaving them whole, will prevent them from packing down as they get wet and smother the plants they are supposed to be protecting. Apply a three to six inch layer around or on top of perennials after several hard freezes. Winter mulch is applied to keep plants dormant through the winter, so it needs to be applied after the ground is cold and the plants are dormant. Of course it depends on the weather, but this is usually done between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Recycling is very important to me as it is to many other people. This is one way of reducing the waste that goes to our landfills.
As always, Happy Gardening!
The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange Co., 636-2111 in Noble Co., 925-2562 in DeKalb Co. and 668-1000 in Steuben Co.
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