Composting Leaves: How to Achieve Fast Leaf Decay

Ed Wike
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Why Should You Compost Leaves?

Leaves are a readily-available, moist mulch that will add high organic matter levels to soils.

Leaves are an excellent compost ingredient because they are soft and break down quickly, which makes them a fast addition to the composting bin.

In fact, just about any organic material added to composting will speed up the composting process. But leaves may be a particularly fast addition because they are soft, have a high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, and are available when decomposition is needed, due to winter's low temperatures.

Leaves from deciduous trees contain a high nitrogen-to-carbon ratio. But they are still an excellent source of carbon, which is added through carbon-to-nitrogen ratio decomposition. The optimum C:N ratio for compostable materials is between 20:1 to 30:1.

Common Problems of Leaf Composting

Leaf composting is very simple and suitable for the most novice composters. It also allows you to rapidly compost large volumes of leaves at once.

For many of us, autumn brings a time of year that just screams to be full of fall fun ” and that means leaves falling!

When it comes to leaf composting, there are some common problems that people encounter, the most common being the odor.

To prevent this, as you bring in your leaves, quickly place them in a compost bin before they have a chance to release their nasty tree smell.

Next, aerobic microbial activity is the key to fast leaf decomposition, so make sure you have a good supply of oxygen in your compost bin.

If your leaves are really wet, pile them up and let them dry out a bit.

Too-wet leaves will already have started to decompose, and you are just speeding up that process, causing the pile to smell even worse, and resulting in the leaves decomposing more slowly.

Another problem that many people have with leaf composting is that they tend to buy the wrong types of leaves.

You should strive to collect as much organic material as possible, but fall leaves are often high in salt content.

If you have ever tasted a fall leaf, you would understand why this is important.

4 Ways to Deal With Leaves In Your Garden

A heaping pile of leaves can become something more than just a mess. If you want, you can let nature take its course and watch the leaves decay on their own. But, you can take a step further and get them to compost into a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your garden. This can provide you with spoiled soil that promotes healthy plant growth and a nutrient-dense fertilizer to add to the soil.

Composting leaves is a great project for a novice gardener. Because your goal is to reduce the leaves into a nutrient-rich soil, your work is done by nature, and you only ask that the leaves stack up and decay. This can result in a very fast rate of decay if the conditions in your yard are conducive.

If you want to speed up the composting process, there are even more methods you can employ.

Make Compost

Composting is a basic definition of biological decomposition. In nature, compost happens when dead things break down into new life. It couldn’t be simpler, but why bother? Compost can improve the health of plants, save water and money on fertilizer and make your yard an attractive place to be — for humans and nature alike.

To compost, you need the right environment for the right kind of microorganisms to break down your leaves. Do a little research to know which organisms to attract and you'll turn all that dead plant material into black gold in no time (if it's been decomposing a little already).

Add Directly To Your Garden

One method of disposing of leaf piles is to dump it directly onto your garden or yard. This is suitable for small piles of leaf litter.

You can also put the leaves into bags and then sprinkle them directly in the yard or garden. This prevents you from spreading the leaves too thin and it also prevents you from spending a lot of time transferring the leaves to the yard.

To get the maximum benefits from this technique, you need to slowly let the leaves decompose on the lawn so they can be used to fertilize the soil and enhance the grass. You could also choose to clear away the leaves and put them in a different location close to the garden or yard.

Choose this method to prevent your neighbors from staring into your garden or yard to see where you’ve thrown the leaves.

Use to Protect Containers

At this time of year, too much focus is often placed on raking leaves. But home gardeners know that leaves provide a lot more purposes than just mulching around the base of plants.

One thing you may not be aware of is that leaves are excellent at protecting pots of plants that are moved into storage for the winter.

This process is known as “leaf boxing”.

The leaves can act as insulation, sealing the container (and the plant inside) from the cold. As the leaves decompose, they create a mini-toxic soup that will deter animals such as mice and shrews from digging up your plant.

It’s significant though, that the leaves be allowed to decompose properly before your plant is put into storage.

Infusing the pot with leaves and water does the trick. The leaves will decompose slowly into the water and create a “toxic soup” that will prevent animals from eating the plant.

As the plant is slowly covered over by the leaves, you don’t add more leaves or soil and you let the leaves get on with decomposing.

This is the safe way of preventing hungry animals from eating your plants as the leaves continue to break down, releasing corrosive chemicals that are harmful to animal life.

Make Leaf Mold

Because leaves are rapidly decayed by anaerobic bacteria, it is crucial that more air get into the leaves in order to promote aerobic process. The three steps are to shred the leaves, cover the shredded leaves with soil, and keep the container somewhat moist. By doing this, the leaves have no choice but to aerobically compost, and start decomposing as they should.

When you first start composting leaves, you will find that they make leaves biodegrade faster. The anaerobic bacteria will still be present during the initial stages, but as the number of aerobic bacteria grows exponentially (under the right conditions), they begin to take over, as they should.

That is why composting leaves that have been shredded into small pieces and covered by soil is a good idea. You can just put your shredded leaves into a compost bin and cover with soil, if you want, but it’s not the only way to make leaf decay work for your plants.