1. Compost leaves:
They are a free and readily available source of “brown” material for your compost. They add valuable carbon to the pile. Love—and keep—your leaves.
2. To shred or not to shred:
Leaves will break down faster in your compost if they are shredded first. One simple technique is to run over them with a lawn mower. If you don’t feel like doing that, just dump them into the composter as they are.
3. Avoid compaction:
Don’t put too many leaves into your composter all at once. Thick layers (eight inches or more) may pack down and block vital oxygen from circulating in through the pile. Keep leaves nearby and toss some into your composter whenever you add fresh “green” material. They will help maintain the carbon-nitrogen balance that makes for efficient composting.
4. Storing leaves:
Keep your leaves dry to use later. You will need them next spring and summer to balance ‘green’ material in your compost bin. Big plastic bags work fine for storage, and may be reused the next year. If you store the bags outside, close them up to keep out moisture. If the leaves are wet when collected and stored, they will start to compost, which is fine. You can also put the bags in a garage or shed, or under a covered deck. You will be able to get more into each bag if leaves are shredded first, but again this is not necessary.
5. Leaf composting:
Leaves will compost completely just on their own, but this can take up to two years. A leaf composter can be as simple as a length of chicken wire or snow fencing drawn into a circle—something about four feet across and three feet high. Fill this with leaves, adding thin layers of soil every six inches or so. Moisten the materials as you build the pile. Throw a piece of wire mesh on top to keep the leaves from blowing around, and ignore the whole thing for a few months. For faster results, add some nitrogen. For example, you can mix three parts leaves with one part green grass clippings (by weight). Alternatively, try adding dried blood-meal, bone-meal or alfalfa-meal, mixing two cups with a wheelbarrow of leaves.
6. Leaf Mould:
You can make leaf mould compost by placing leaves in a garbage can with a tight-fitting lid or in a garbage bag. Fill the bag or can with leaves, moisten well, and close. Place in a sunny location and by spring the breakdown process will be well under way. You can then either add the contents of the container to your regular compost, or let the materials continue composting until the process is complete next fall.
Leaf compost is a wonderful amendment for your soil. It adds fibrous organic matter, boosts moisture retention, and improves soil structure. Because trees have deep roots, they draw valuable minerals from the subsoil, making leaf compost a good source of minerals for growing plants.
8. Mulching with leaves:
Use leaves around plants as a mulch in the spring to help retain soil moisture, discourage weeds, and prevent erosion. Leaf mulch will start to break down during the growing season, and that’s okay. Simply dig the partially decomposed leaves into the soil in the fall. By planting time next spring, it should be fine to use the area once again.
9. Dig them in:
Fallen leaves can be buried in the ground. This is called soil incorporation. You can till the leaves directly into the soil. Or dig a trench, fill it with leaves, and cover it over. Leaves will remove nitrogen from the soil as they break down, but this will be made available to growing plants once again when decomposition is complete. For this reason, it’s not recommended to plant anything where leaves are not fully decomposed.
10. Types of leaves:
Leaves from any deciduous tree ordinarily found in Manitoba can be composted. Other than shredding (if you wish), they don’t require any special handling or treatment. Oak leaves are tough and take longer to break down, so we advise not using too many of them all at once in your compost. The same holds for pine or other coniferous needles.
If you have large amounts of oak leaves or pine needles, you may want to make a separate pile for them. Add soil, water and a nitrogen supplement as suggested in Leaf Composting (5 above). Be patient, since these materials may take a couple of years to fully decompose. The resulting compost can be used around acid-loving plants such as strawberries and tomatoes.
Why Save Leaves?
Throwing away leaves is a waste of a great organic resource and creates a serious disposal problem. Every year, leaves make up as much as 25% of total residential garbage disposal. This is a substantial burden for landfills—which are already filling far to quickly. Just think of all those bags! Hauling bags of leaves to the landfill costs taxpayers money, creates air pollution, and speeds up climate change. By hauling our leaves to the landfill, fossil fuels are burned and create carbon dioxide, while leaves in the landfill produce methane gas as they break down. Both carbon dioxide and methane gas are leading contributors to climate change.
By keeping our leaves in our backyards we are all doing our gardens, pocketbooks, community and the planet a big favour.