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We have a lot of oak trees on our property. Is there anything we can do with the oak leaves? They never really seem to break down, and because of that, I am afraid to try and add them to a compost. Are they useful in composting at all, or should I keep them out of any mix I make?

When I rake them, I have been chopping them with a leaf blower that breaks them up so I can fit more into a bag. I am not sure if that makes them more useful. I'd like to use them if I can, but if it's not wise, then I'll not try.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Everything is compostable, even you! You're right, you ought to chop them up before trying to compost them, you also need to add some dirt and maybe grass clippings to your compost in order to convert the leaves into compost.

I'm pretty sure dried oak leaves do not offer a lot of nutrients to your compost, but another thing you could do after chopping them up is till them into your soil or use them for mulch, if they never break down, that's actually a good thing!

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Yes they sound like they should make excellent compost. If there are a lot, mix them with some other stuff like veg waste/peel or grass clippings. To me oak is classic forest leaf litter - both in Yorkshire and Texas! –  winwaed Jun 16 '11 at 13:46
    
Good to know, thanks! I still rake up leaves from last year, they always seem like plastic in that they never break down in the yard so I was not sure about compost. –  MichaelF Jun 16 '11 at 13:56
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I have five big oak trees in my front yard. I've been very successful at composting the leaves (along with other materials). I save the leaves in the fall by raking them into a big pile and letting the kids jump on it to break them up some, then gradually add them to my compost throughout the rest of the year when I need some carbon. –  Shane Jun 16 '11 at 13:57
    
Fatty stuff is not compostable, at least with redworms. They don't like fat stuff. –  Stefano Borini Nov 22 '11 at 20:57
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In Southern Oregon, we have a lot of scrubland where Oaks are the primary large tree interspersed among the Manzanita. My father converted decomposed granite, which is some of the nastiest, most barren material on the planet into reasonably fertile garden soil. Once you get the right mix, the decomposed granite has a lot of mineral to give up. It was done by composting all the Oak and Madrone leaves collected on the property with cow and pig manure and churning it into the soil. You have to do this with decomposed granite, otherwise it sets up like cement without any of clay's redeeming quals –  Fiasco Labs Dec 21 '13 at 5:48

I've made a special pile for leaves. It's helpful to contain it, at least at first, to prevent them from blowing away and making a mess. I just took a length of wire fence and turned it on itself to make a circular "pen" for the leaves.

It takes them much longer to break down than regular compost (at least a year, probably two), but the end result is leaf mold, which is a low-fertility soil improver. You can mix this into your garden beds to improve the soil structure and add organic matter without adding a lot of nutrients. Earthworms love leaf piles; when I turned a big pile (1/2 sq yd or so) into my garden this spring I imported tons of worms along with it. The chopping that you're doing will help the process along.

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Six months if you shred them and mix in greens, much faster with higher nitrogen content. Works best if you can get a fungal environment going as this is what eats leaves, needles and woody materials. If you have a multi-pile system for aging out the near completed compost, look for the pile with the most worms and innoculate your shredded leaf compost. The red ringed angle worms go for vegetable matter, the earthworms start out eating the broken down leaves and continue till they're pretty much gone. –  Fiasco Labs Dec 21 '13 at 5:52
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Everything you said is true, but sometimes I don't want the higher nitrogen content (i.e. "add organic matter without adding a lot of nutrients"), and often I just have a lot of autumn leaves and not a lot of greens to mix in. –  bstpierre Dec 21 '13 at 14:55

One good use for oak leaves is as an overwintering blanket for tender plants. Unlike maple leaves which tend to lie flat and create an impermeable sheet, oak leaves curl. With enough of them and a tomato cage, you can make a nice blanket which will protect your plant from the desiccation of winter winds

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I've been mowing them really small for about three years now and turning half into the garden and putting the other half into a compost pile along with grass clippings, kitchen scraps and of I'm lucky enough to be given some manure I mix some of it in there too.

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I know the answer has already been accepted, but feel the need to add this - piles of leaves are best composted separately from everything else, because they break down in a different way from most other stuff. If you've got room, and plenty of black bags, it's easy - just collect them up, stuff them in the bags, as many as you can in each bag and still be able to tie the top. If they are dry, water them, poke a few holes in the bottom of the bag, tie it shut and leave it somewhere out of sight and preferably not on a surface that stains, for up to 2 years. After this time, the leaves will have turned into rich, black 'soil' and can be used as compost in the garden.

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Just a note, for all you who happen to have acidic soil: Oak leaves are very acidic so I would avoid using them if that is a concern.

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Almost all leaves and most organic matter is acidic. Indeed, as indicated in a study of the pH of Freshly Fallen Leaves, sugar maple leaves are often more acidic than most pine or oak foliage. If your soil is clayey, loamy, or limestone based, your soil soil is well buffered and adding organic matter will have no effect on your soil pH. Very sandy soils and potting soils are often poorly buffered, so adding acid organic matter may have some effect on pH. –  Eric Nitardy Jun 11 '12 at 21:57
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Plus tannic acid is a weak organic acid consisting of polyphenol. It breaks down and doesn't leave lingering acidity like elemental inorganic acids will. Kind of like the chestnut "Pine Needles make soil acidic". Often you find the soil is already acidic, that's why Pine Trees grow there. It's a case where the measured property isn't a result of the observed environment. Pine Straw doesn't confer much soil acidity after removed from the environment that produced it. –  Fiasco Labs Dec 21 '13 at 5:40

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