Wondering what to do with all those leaves scattered across our yards and waiting to be collected? They are the perfect ingredient to start a compost pile. Composting hastens the natural decomposition of organic matter, like leaves and food scraps, by providing conditions conducive to decay.
There is no magical formula. The decomposition of organic matter is an integral part of the natural world and will happen with or without your help. Garden and yard waste piled in a corner will eventually break down and provide you with an excellent soil amendment.
If you decide to compost, start by choosing a site. Let’s face it, a pile situated out in the back forty is more likely to be ignored than the one placed closer to the garden or the house. Contain it with wood, fencing, cinder blocks or other materials for a more attractive look. Partially shaded locations will keep the pile from drying out as quickly but a nearby source of water is handy during prolonged dry spells.
Almost any organic material can be added to the pile: leaves, grass clippings, kitchen wastes, shredded newspapers, eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags, hedge trimmings, plain cardboard. Take into account the proportion of “brown stuff’ that is high in carbon, like fallen leaves or wood shavings, to “green stuff” that is high in nitrogen — grass clippings or kitchen wastes.
Ideally, you might want to create a pile that has about 30 times more brown than green. Too much material high in carbon will slow down decay. You can wait to let nature take its course or give your pile some green material or add 2 to 3 cups of a high nitrogen organic or synthetic source of nitrogen to speed things up.
Faster composting also requires oxygen, introduced into the pile each time you turn it. Water added to dry materials as they are incorporated or during dry spells is also essential.
For “hot” composting to occur, your pile needs to be a minimum of 4 by 4 by 4 feet. One recipe is 6 inches of leaves, 2 inches of kitchen wastes, grass clippings or manure, and a shovelful of soil. Repeat until the pile is 4 feet high. Once made, give the pile a thorough mixing. The pile, so arranged, can heat up to 140 degrees in three to five days. You can monitor the temperature with a long-stemmed thermometer, and turn the pile when the temperature drops below 100 degrees.
Compost is ready to use when it is dark and crumbly and the organic materials that were decomposed are no longer recognizable. This may take eight weeks to one year. Composts made with animal manures tend to be higher in nutrients than those with only plant wastes. Regular applications of an inch or so of compost to garden beds may eliminate the need to add other sources of nutrients.
The UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Lab (www.soiltest.uconn.edu) recommends waiting at least a month before having compost-treated soil tested.
Finished compost can be mixed into the soil before planting, used as a mulch in some instances such as in the vegetable garden, or to make compost tea, which may have some nutritional or disease suppressant qualities.
Composting is much easier and cleaner than many homeowners suspect. There are a number of good books on composting that you might want to read when deciding what type of compost system would suit your needs. Once you see the benefits of adding compost to your garden beds, you’ll realize what a valuable resource both leaves and garden wastes can be.
If you have questions about composting or on any home & garden questions, contact the UConn Home & Garden Education at 877-486-6271 or www.ladybug,uconn.edu or your local Cooperative Extension Center.