Heirloom Expert: Using Leaves in Compost

What is the best way to incorporate leaves into garden compost?

Leaves

Old leaves are great additions to garden compost, with the right mix of other materials.

Photo by Fotolia/Jennifer Elizabeth

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Can I use leaves from the yard to make compost? It seems they take forever to break down. — Laurie from Ohio

Laurie, leaves are a great addition to the compost pile, but they will compost more quickly when mixed with other ingredients like kitchen scraps and garden refuse. Leaves should also be shredded before being added. The smaller fresh material is, the quicker it will compost.

I have three compost piles made out of shipping pallets adjacent to the garden. It takes about a year to fill up number one; when it’s full, I start adding stuff to number two. When it’s full, number three gets the new material. At some point, number one is ready. The resulting compost is sweet smelling and nutrient rich.

Since I live in an oak forest, I have plenty of leaves to compost. I leave a shredded pile next to the bins. Every time I add the “green” stuff from the kitchen, I’ll add a handful of leaves which count as brown.

There is all sorts of information about what the ratio of browns to green should be, but I don’t pay much attention to that; I’m too busy and lazy. My goal really isn’t perfect compost; it’s just getting compost.

When deciding what is to be added to the pile, know that everything which once was living will become compost eventually. The only thing from the kitchen to worry about are meats, dairy and oils which can attract rodents. I do know gardeners who throw those things into their pile and don’t have problems.

As I’ve gotten older, I keep adding places to sit in the garden, and there’s a nice bench right next to the compost pile. Above it, on a garden fence post, is a wren house. Once the birds nest and start raising their brood, both parents find the compost pile easy pickings for hunting. As I take one of my many breaks, it’s wonderful to hear the babies chirp in anticipation as mom and dad bring fat bugs for their children to feast on.

My house was built in 1939 and every year since, the homeowners have been raking leaves over an embankment on the property. When I run out of my homemade compost, I can always dig into that pile for leaf mold, a type of compost made purely from the leaves. They’ve never been shredded, but have been there so long they have rotted down. If you were willing to wait and had more leaves than you could ever use (like me), a pile of leaves would produce compost for you in a few years.

Another reason composting is such a great idea is that it’s the ultimate way to recycle. Everything used never leaves the property, and we get the direct benefit of the recycling in the form of the compost.

Nothing puts a bigger smile on a gardener’s face than planting in rich compost; it makes the plants happy, too. When that happens, what else can a hard working gardener ask for?