Home Gardeners
Turn Autumn Leaves into Compost
Sarah Browning, Nebraska Extension Educator
Turn Autumn Leaves into Compost
Tree leaves are abundant in fall and a great high carbon component of a compost pile. Images from Pixabay.com.

Soon leaves will begin to turn red, yellow or brown and fall from our trees. Plant waste from flower beds, vegetable gardens and container plants will also accumulate. Why not take advantage of these great organic materials, instead of sweeping them into bags and hauling them off to the landfill? You can easily turn them into nutrient-rich compost.

Composting is a great way to recycle garden waste, plus reduce money spent on trash disposal and store-bought fertilizer. As a soil amendment, compost improves the water holding capacity of sandy soils, improves the aeration of clay soils and provides plant nutrients. Decomposition can take anywhere from one month to two years, depending on how actively the pile is managed.

Backyard composting is not difficult, there’s just a few essential points to keep in mind. First, you need a mixture of “green” high nitrogen and “brown” high carbon materials – ideally a 30:1 ratio between “green” and “brown” materials. Then add the oxygen and moisture decomposing microbes need to live and do their work. Follow these simple rules and your compost project will be a success.

Composting Tips
What kinds of materials can be composted? Yard and garden residues and other organic materials are suitable for composting. This includes leaves, grass clippings, straw and hay, sawdust, and finely chopped or shredded tree and shrub prunings. Branches and twigs larger than one-quarter inch in diameter should be put through a shredder or chipper before composting. If you have access to manure, it can be used, too.

Dry leaves are a “brown” high-carbon organic material. Grass clippings are a “green” high nitrogen material.

Do not use weeds that have gone to seed or diseased plants. Home composting is unlikely to attain a heat level high enough to kill all seeds or disease organisms.

Image of kitchen scraps for use in compost pile?Can kitchen scraps be added to a compost pile? Certain kitchen scraps can be added to the compost pile, such as fruit and vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds and eggshells. Do not add meat scraps, bones, grease, whole eggs or dairy products. These products will attract unwanted attention from wildlife and disrupt the decomposing microbes in your pile.

What is the optimum size for a compost pile? The best size of an enclosed compost pile is a 4'x4'x4' pile. Any smaller, it will dry out too fast; any larger and there will be poor air movement and it will be difficult to turn the pile.

Why doesn't a pile of leaves decompose by themselves? Eventually, they will decompose, but it will take a lot more time than many gardeners are willing to invest.

It’s better to use a mixture of “green” and “brown” organic materials together in the compost pile; the recommended 30:1 ratio speeds decomposition in an actively managed pile since decomposing soil microbes need both nitrogen and carbon to live and do their work. Without a good source of both, decomposition will be slow.

Image of finished compost.How can I avoid problems with unpleasant odors from the compost pile? Excess water in the pile triggers anaerobic decomposing microbes to flourish. Anaerobic microbes generate methane, which smells like rotten eggs or sulfur. Avoid adding excessive amounts of wet plant materials and over watering. Turn the pile regularly, allowing excess moisture to evaporate and oxygen to enter the pile.

A properly prepared and adequately turned compost pile will generate little if any odor.

How long does it take to get finished compost? Generally, a compost pile containing a good ratio of finely chopped materials, turned regularly and kept moist, will be ready in 4 to 6 months.

A pile or bin left unattended, or un-shredded materials, may take a year or longer to decompose.

When the compost is finished, the pile will be about one third its original size and have a pleasant, earthy odor.

Compost is used as an organic amendment to improve the physical, chemical and biological properties of soils. Over time, yearly additions of compost will improve your garden soil in many ways.

For more information: Garden Compost, Nebraska Extension. 

Images from Pixabay.com.

  1. Kitchen scraps, such as fruit and vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds and eggshells, can be added to a compost pile.
  2. Compost is finished when it is completely broken down into a brown or black soil-like substance and the original materials are not recognizable. It will also have a pleasant, earthy odor.

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Associated Video

Homemade Compost

Nebraska Extension Assistant Educator Mary Jane Frogge give some tips for making your own compost.

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