If you end up with huge piles of leaves in your garden each year, don’t let them go to waste! They’re packed with nutrients that are fantastic for your plants, and are so easy to compost.
Here’s how to compost leaves quickly so that you can put them to good use in your garden as soon as possible.
Benefits of Composting Leaves
- Leaves are packed with trace minerals and other important nutrients that are hugely beneficial for your garden. In fact, experts estimate that each mature tree is worth about $50 in humus and fertilizer.
- Compost heaps need to be made up of both “greens” (nitrogen-rich materials) and “browns (carbon-rich materials) in order to break down. Most gardeners have plenty of greens and not enough browns, but due to their high carbon content, leaves are a fantastic brown addition.
- Around 20% of landfill waste is made up of leaves and other organic materials. By composting your leaves, you’ll be saving even more from going to a landfill.
Best Leaves for Compost
While most leaves can be safely composted, some break down much faster than others. Those that are higher in calcium and nitrogen will break down in about a year, while others take a couple of years.
Some of the best leaves for composting are:
- Fruit tree leaves
On the other hand, the leaves that are lower in nitrogen and calcium that take longer to break down are:
- Sweet chestnut
How to Compost Leaves
Gathering Your Leaves Together
The first thing you need before composting your leaves are the leaves themselves. Chances are, these are scattered around your yard and garden, waiting to be raked up.
There are a couple of ways in which you can save yourself this back-breaking work:
- Use a lawn mower – use your garden lawn mower to collect up the leaves. Your lawn mower will also shred them for you, which is hugely beneficial when it comes to the decomposition process.
- Use a leaf blower – a leaf blower will blow all of your leaves into a pile, making it easy for you to collect them up. Some also have a vacuum function that will collect the leaves up for you.
- Use a lawn sweeper – this looks similar to a lawn mower, but is designed to collect up leaves.
Purchasing a machine specifically to collect up your leaves may seem like more of an investment than you wanted to make, but you’ll then be able to easily collect up your neighbors’ leaves too.
Not only will this put you in their good books, but it will also give you more leaves to compost!
Adding Leaves to a Cold Compost Heap
Most gardeners have a cold compost heap or bin. This is a low-maintenance way to compost, only needing to be turned every few weeks.
However, if you just add a big pile of leaves to your cold compost heap, they won’t break down properly. Instead, they’ll form a thick mat that prevents water from entering into your compost heap while also inhibiting how your compost breathes.
The first way to get around this is by supplementing nitrogen.
As mentioned earlier, leaves are high in carbon but low in nitrogen. In order for organic materials to break down, you need a mixture of both.
This means that you’ll need to add nitrogen-rich materials to your compost heap along with your leaves.
Well-rotted animal manure is the best source. Add one part manure to five parts leaves and you’ll have a combination that breaks down in no time.
Alternatively, use 2 cups of dried blood or bone meal for every wheelbarrow-load of leaves.
You’ll also need to make sure that your leaves have been shredded or mulched before you add them to your compost heap.
Add the leaves and your nitrogen supplement to your compost heap in layers. Make sure that you mix everything thoroughly to prevent the leaves from clumping together.
Keep your compost heap well-watered but don’t let it get too soggy. You want it to be a similar consistency to that of a damp sponge.
It will need to be turned every few weeks, Ideally, turn it about four times over the course of the winter for compost that’s ready by the spring.
You can also cover your compost heap with a plastic sheet. This will help to keep your heap warm, which will speed up the decomposition process. The sheet will also reduce water evaporation and keep your heap moist, but it would still be worth giving your compost some water each time you lift the sheet to turn it.
How to Hot Compost Leaves
If you need your finished compost sooner and don’t want to wait until the spring, then hot composting is the way to go.
This will give you compost in a matter of weeks. It’s all down to raising the temperatures in your compost heap, which accelerates the decomposition process.
Here’s how to do that:
- Finely shred your leaves
- Mix 1 part manure with 5 parts leaves. Feel free to add other organic materials too, so long as you keep nitrogen and carbon well-balanced.
- Your heap needs to be at least 3 feet x 3 feet in size.
- Once you’ve built your heap, wait for 4 days and then turn it.
- Then, give it a turn every other day for the next 14 days.
- After this, your compost will be almost ready. Leave it to mature for a few weeks before using it.
If you don’t have enough organic materials to make a large enough hot compost heap, you can save them up until you do.
Store your leaves in bags until you’ve got enough materials for a 3’x3’ heap. The leaves may start to break down in the bag, but this isn’t a problem – it will speed up the decomposition process once you do get around to using them.
How to Make Leaf Mold
Got too many leaves to add to your compost heap? Or maybe you just don’t have the time to be regularly turning a compost heap throughout the winter.
Either way, leaf mold is the answer.
This is a special type of compost made solely from leaves, without the addition of any other organic materials. It’s dark in color and looks just like regular compost.
Since leaf mold is so high in carbon and low in nitrogen, it can’t be used as a fertilizer, but makes a fantastic soil conditioner. Mix it into your soil to improve its structure and aeration, as well as its water retention. It can also be used as a mulch.
Here’s how to make leaf mold:
- Gather all of your leaves up and shred them if possible.
- Place them into a bin liner and lightly water them.
- Poke a few holes around the bin liner and then loosely tie the top.
- Keep the bag in a well-ventilated location for one to two years.
Alternatively, you can make a bin for your leaf mold out of chicken wire or a similar material. Keep this in a location that isn’t too windy, to prevent the leaves from blowing out of the gaps.
Remember, the more leaves you have, the faster they’ll break down.
Turning leaves into garden gold? Let’s see how this woman did:
Problems of Leaves Composting
Most gardeners usually rake up all of the leaves in their yard to compost, but this can be a problem if you end up with diseased leaves in your heap.
While it’s possible to compost diseased leaves, this needs to be done using a hot composting technique. Those high temperatures are what’s needed to destroy pathogens.
However, for the average gardener, leaf composting takes place in a cold heap over the winter months. If diseased leaves end up composting with healthy leaves, those pathogens will spread through the compost, and then into your garden the following year.
Ideally, try to separate any diseased leaves when gathering them together. You can either collect these up for a hot compost heap, or dispose of them.
If you have lots of conifers in your garden, then you’ll need to try to avoid including too many pine needles in your leaf compost.
Not only do these take much longer to break down than leaves, but they’re also highly acidic. This will affect the pH of your finished compost.
Instead, save your pine needles to use as a mulch on acidic-loving plants, such as blueberries.
Black Walnut Leaves
Got a black walnut tree in your garden?
These leaves should never be added to your compost.
All parts of the tree contain a compound called juglone. This is found in other nut trees too, but black walnuts have an especially high concentration.
Juglone is extremely toxic, not just to humans but also to other plants. If this compound ends up in your compost, it will have severely damaging effects on your garden once you use the compost.
To prevent this from happening, separate out any black walnut leaves and dispose of them.
Here are some simple tips to get your compost back on track:
If you’ve been wondering how to compost leaves quickly, it really doesn’t take much effort at all.
Hot composting is the most labor-intensive method, but a cold compost heap or a few bags of leaf mold are very low-maintenance and will still give you a beneficial finished product that your garden will absolutely love.