Many New Jersey
homeowners have an excessive quantity of leaves in the fall. One
alternative for dealing with leaves is backyard composting. This
process involves primarily the microbial decomposition of organic
matter. Compost - the end result - is a dark, friable, partially
decomposed substance similar to natural organic matter found in
natural decomposition under semi-controlled conditions. Raw organic
materials can be converted into compost by microorganisms. As microorganisms
decompose organic matter, temperatures within the pile increase,
sometimes approaching l50 degrees F. at the center. These inside-pile
temperatures speed the process, and kill many weed and disease organisms.
Leaves may be
composted by piling them in a heap. Locate the pile where drainage
is adequate and there is no standing water. The composting pile
should be damp enough that when a sample taken from the interior
is squeezed by hand a few drops of water will appear. A shaded area
will reduce moisture evaporation from the surface, but tree roots
may grow into the pile. If the surface of the pile becomes excessively
dry, it will not compost, and those leaves may blow away.
The leaf pile
should be at least 4 feet in diameter and 3 feet in height. If it
is too small, it is difficult to maintain adequate temperatures
for rapid decomposition. The maximum size should be about 5 feet
in height and l0 feet in diameter. If the pile is too large, the
interior will not obtain the oxygen needed for adequate, odor-free
decomposition. If more material is available, lengthen the pile
into a rectangular shape while keeping it l0 feet wide and 5 feet
high. If there is sufficient space and material, two or three piles
will provide greater flexibility. One pile can contain compost for
immediate use; the second is actively composting; and the third
receives newly fallen leaves. If there is space for only one pile,
new material may be added gradually to the top while removing the
decomposed product from the bottom.
be done in a loose pile. However, for the most efficient use of
space, it can be contained in a bin or other enclosure. The sides
of this bin should be loose enough to permit air movement. One side
should be open, or easily opened, for turning the pile and for removing
the finished compost.
Woven wire or
wooden slat fencing, or cement blocks on their sides have been used
successfully. Wood gradually decomposes, and wire fencing may rust,
so these materials will need periodic replacement. Wooden stakes
driven into the ground may attract termites, so lumber treated with
wood preservative or metal snow-fence posts may be better.
sheets advocate constructing the pile in layers that may include
grass clippings, fertilizer, limestone, manure, soil, and leaves.
However, we have found this practice to be unnecessary. The pile
can be constructed of leaves only. A small amount of grass clippings
may be added to the leaves as the pile is being constructed. However,
because of its high demand for oxygen, too much grass tends to cause
an anaerobic (without oxygen) condition. This greatly reduces the
composting rate, and can produce unpleasant odors. Fresh vegetable
peelings may be included, but do not add meat or grease because
they may cause odors or attract pests.
are collected in a very wet condition, add water while placing them
in the pile. Without moisture, the microorganisms will not function.
Moisten to the point where it is possible to squeeze droplets of
water from a hand-held mass of leaves. Dead leaves lack adequate
nitrogen for rapid decomposition. Therefore, a high-nitrogen fertilizer
added to the pile may speed up decomposition. However, since leaves
fall only for about 2 months a year, there are l0 months for decomposition
before space is needed for the next batch. So, while it is generally
unnecessary to add fertilizer, for more rapid decomposition and
a product with a higher nutritive content, 5 ounces (about 1/2 cup)
of 10% nitrogen fertilizer per 20-gallon can of hand-compacted leaves
could be added. Fresh manure could be substituted, but it may cause
is unnecessary to add ground limestone because the pile seldom becomes
too acidic. If fertilizer has been added, an equivalent quantity
of limestone will counteract any acidity. Little or no limestone
should be added if the compost is to be used on acid-loving plants.
on leaf composting recommend adding layers of soil periodically
to the piles to supply the microorganisms needed for decomposition.
We have not found this practice to be necessary, because leaves,
themselves, contain a multitude of microorganisms. Available commercial
activators or starters definitely are not needed.
the materials too tightly. Too much compaction will limit movement
of air through the pile. Shredding the leaves generally speeds up
To reduce weed
germination, weeds in flower or with seeds should not be composted.
Also, it is best to avoid composting diseased plants, or herbicide-treated
lawn clippings until after at least three mowings.
CARE OF THE
pile must be kept moist, but not soggy, for proper decomposition.
Inadequate moisture reduces microbial activity, while excessive
water may cause anaerobic conditions. A thin outer layer of dry
leaves is unavoidable.
The pile should
be periodically turned or mixed. The main objectives of turning
are to shift materials from the outer parts of the pile closer to
the center for better decomposition, and to incorporate oxygen.
During warm weather, turn the pile once a month. In cool weather
frequent turning is not recommended because it allows too much heat
to escape. Piles should be turned immediately if ammonia or other
offensive odors are detected. If space is available, turning may
be accomplished by shifting the entire pile to an adjacent area
Within a few
weeks after starting, the pile should be hot in the center. Heating
generally indicates that the pile is decomposing properly. Failure
to heat may be caused by too little or too much water, improper
aeration, packing too tightly, or a pile that is too small. As leaves
decompose, they should shrink to less than one-half of their original
volume. During dry weather it may be necessary to add more water.
The moisture content of the interior of the pile should be observed
should be dark and crumbly with much of the original appearance
no longer visible. It should have an earthy odor. Normally, compost
will be ready in 4-9 months.
The major horticultural
use for leaf compost is to improve the organic content of soil.
Most New Jersey soils need an increase of 1/2 to 1% in organic content,
particularly to improve moisture-holding capacity and tilth. Leaf
compost is not normally a fertilizer, because it is too low in nutrients.
Compost serves primarily as an organic amendment and as a soil conditioner.
Soil mulch is another valuable use for leaf compost.
information contained on this web page is derived from industry
sources which are considered reliable. Information is subject to
change and withdrawal without notice; therefore, it is the responsibility
of the consumer to verify reliability on an individual basis based
on specific consumer needs. We assume no responsibility, and extend
no guarantees for information provided. Trademarked names are used
in an editorial context with no intent of trademark infringement.
- 1999 Barrington Multi Media., all rights reserved.