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Where we live you have to bag your leaves. We have about ¼ acre and lots of trees, so it's really impractical to bag all of those leaves. I was thinking of simply making a big pile and trying to compost them, but I'm looking for some tips.

I don't really have a way to chop them up, so if I leave them whole, what is the best way to compost? Should I cover the pile? If so what's the best type of cover? Is it worth adding something to the pile to get it started?

  • I think they've got it pretty much covered as far as rotting down straight leaves. If you want it done more quickly and have a more useful final product, though, I'd suggest looking into vermicomposting. You can add greens to the pile and add composting worms and end up with a great way to grow your own flowers and vegetables. – Dalton Nov 21 '16 at 18:16
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I know this isn't what you want to hear, but the fastest (in terms of their rotting down) and tidiest way to compost leaves is actually to bag them up - if they're wet already, all the better, if not, wet the contents, tie the tops shut, poke two or three holes in the bottom of the bags and stand them out of the way somewhere to rot down over time. You can stack them up, but don't stand them on a hard surfaced area - sometimes there's run off from the bags and it may stain the surface. In one to two years, they will have rotted down to a quantity of black, rich, soil like stuff in the bottom of the bags. If you have hot summers,they'll rot down quicker - it's also quicker if you chop the leaves first, but it's not essential, they'll still rot down anyway. The black leafmould you've then got is a good, rich source of humus to apply as a mulch, or dig in to all your flower beds and borders.

I suppose you could just make a big heap, make sure they're good and wet, and cover with a tarpaulin and wait for 1-2 years instead of bagging them, remembering to uncover and add water as necessary from time to time, but it won't be the most attractive sight to look at for that length of time, unless you can create it somewhere out of sight.

Dead leaves in quantity break down differently from other materials on an ordinary compost heap, and don't require nitrogen to be added - mostly the decomposition takes place through fungal activity.

  • Bags of leaf mold that have been composted like Bamboo describes go for $7/bag here. It really is great stuff if you have a place to store the bags! – michelle Nov 21 '16 at 17:43
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If you have a lawnmower (that isn't a reel mower), you have a way to chop them up. Rake them into a row and mow over the row - presumably you don't have a bagging mower or you'd also have them bagged at that point, but you will have a row of shredded leaves a bit to one side of the original row of unshredded leaves.

My approach to leaf mold is a bit different than @Bamboo's - I have a low tolerance for plastic bags or tarps - Just make a circle (or square if that suits you better, but it's less efficient use of material) of wire mesh fencing (or wood if that suits you better, but it may decay faster than the mesh will rust), load them in, stomping on them to compress as much as possible, and wait. It's not traditional composting. If you want to be "tidier" about it, make 3 circles/squares - either each one big enough for a years leaves, and use in rotation, or one big one for the current year, a smaller one that you move what's left in the big one to before you start filling it, and a smallest one that you put what's left in the second one into before you fill that. What comes out of the smallest one goes wherever it will do your garden best.

In a more rural environment, no fence is needed, you can just have 3 spots for the leaf pile.

If possible, make your bins a bit bigger and take in your neighbors' leaves as well.

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Bamboo is correct but there is a spectrum here and the other end is to blow them all into big piles, dampen and throw Nitrogen on for each layer of 12" thick. I had Puget Power dump all their chips, leaves, branches in huge 6' high by 6' wide. I put them on my blackberry patches. That next spring the piles were gone or at least only 4" high and no more blackberries. Makes great soil. Just don't pile them anywhere near the base of live trees and shrubs. Decomposing piles of leaves steam all winter long. Cool effects. Warm habitat for critters snuggling up in those piles and who would probably chew on the cambium of woody plants.

Make natural looking sweeps similar to a dune? A paisley tear drop form with points at both ends and curves once or twice, fatter in the middle.

We had huge winds and maybe these piles were damp at the time or already into serious decomposition but had no problem with pile dispersal(?) via wind. You could get 'deer fencing' cheap light webbing to secure your piles a bit. Far cheaper than tarps.

This place, my perfect garden and soil, was maritime influence, zone 5 and a moist area. Colder winters and thinner piles will take longer. But oh well...doesn't smell either.

I took Master Composters and they had a spectrum as well. From OCD to au natural. Different effects with different treatments. I look at this as anytime we can make the work outside in the landscape not so terribly tough, it will be easier to continue to venture outside to 'play'. This is one of the areas to make yard work enjoyable. Visible results quickly. Well, 3/4 of a year to a year or so goes by before you know it. Those leaves are gold.

Just blowing and raking leaves right into the ornamental plant beds was easy and smart. Few weeds in spring, more food for the life in the soil, those micro and macro organisms eat the stuff that IS decomposed as it decomposes and take it back down into the soil profile pooping it out and mixing it into your soil for you. That also includes aerating your soil. Neighbors weren't so happy with my methods, because they didn't know any better.

Leaves are too great to get rid of. Most people dump all their great organics at a dump who then sorta kinda compost the stuff and sell it back to you. A few years ago I lived in this massive development, larger than the city and I got the 'best landscape' award. Tiny yards. I didn't get popularity awards however, grins!

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If it's just leaves they'll rot slowly without the need for added nitrogen, but they need air and moisture. The classic way is non-airtight bags, but you'd need a lot of bags.

When we were replacing a patio with island beds I dug a hole in the middle of each bed (probably 2 feet deep and 2 feet wide, because of the size of the beds) filled the holes with leaves, well stamped down, piled more leaves on top and covered with the clay subsoil and grit sand from the hole (we had no topsoil because of the patio). The leaves were pretty much rotted down in 6--8 months over a mild winter. And these were oak which I normally leave for 2½ years in sacks (the half being because I tend to use them in spring).

To adapt this to your case: dig up enough soil to weight down the heap; move the heap onto the spot where you dug up the soil, and cover with the soil. Mixing a little soil into the pile might help. It will probably take longer than in my case.

This is essentially how the soil making up a forest floor is formed.

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If you have or want to have a garden, I'd suggest Lasagna Gardening, which is a low-maintenance (after building the beds, that is) method where the raised beds are all essentially layered slow-composting piles. I've had great success with this in my yard, which was new construction so it came with almost no topsoil to plant in.

GreenThumbs Lasagna Gardening Factsheet

If you don't want to go that route, then I'd still suggest a layering or mixing of nutrient sources, both for a more complete finished product, but also for a faster composting period. Bottom layer should be a bit rougher, more of the twigs and branches that you have, which will allow air to get into the pile a circulate a bit better. Leaves, soil (innoculates the pile with the composting bacteria), a nitrogen source (fresh green grass cuttings, manure, ground soybean feed, etc.... even pee/urine) and even some wood ash (not a lot) all help. Wet it down, maybe cover it with a tarp. Periodically turn the pile over and mix it up.

  • Leaves do poorly in any "traditional compost" method. They turn into leaf mold quite nicely by alternate processes that don't depend on air, aerobic bacteria, nitrogen sources, etc... – Ecnerwal Nov 28 '16 at 21:48
  • My garden begs to differ. – PoloHoleSet Nov 28 '16 at 21:51
  • Leaves are an excellent source of carbon for any sort of "traditional" composting method. I make a ton of leaf mold, but I also make a ton of other types of compost, all of which include lots of leaves. – Tyler K. Nov 29 '16 at 15:47
  • I definitely try to find piles of leaves to steal that have less oak leaves in the mix. Those buggers are tough and slower to break down. – PoloHoleSet Nov 29 '16 at 15:55
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Everyone has good suggestions and ideas here, but it seems that they are forgetting that you want this to be easy. We could talk all day about different ways you could compost those leaves, but really, you just want an easy and effortless way to compost them. Literally, all you have to do is put the whole leaves in a pile and forget about it and they will break down. Plain leaves will be broken down by fungi in a cold composting process which can take up to two years depending on the type of leaves. Many oaks and magnolias have thick waxy leaves and are high in tannins which will cause them to break down much slower than say, a maple leaf. Most piles, if large enough, will have some leaf mould produced by the spring in the center of the pile if you really need some quick.

Now, depending on what you have available, there are ways for you to break those leaves down quicker if you'd like. The key is to add nitrogen to the pile to encourage bacterial decomposition. You can do this by adding lots of green material (ex: grass clippings), used coffee grounds or blood meal. I've had great success adding lots of blood meal in with wet leaves to speed decomposition. What will really get stuff moving is if you also add some finished compost in each layer of leaves you add to the pile with some blood meal.

Really, it just depends on what you have available, your dedication to making it happen, and how fast you need compost from the leaves. If this all sounds overwhelming and unnecessary, just put them in a pile, don't even cover them. Let nature take its course. Easy peasy

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Composting is as simple as 1-2-3. These steps are exclusively for your purpose.

Location: Just select a place which is partly shady which won't dry up the composting materials quickly.

Materials needed: Garden Shovel/Fork, some dirt, water, the composting materials (leaves).

Process: Just pile up the leaves like a heap and add dirt and water in the process. The dirt is for inoculating the pile with the necessary bacteria, and water for providing the micro climate for the composting process. If the heap is more than 3 feet high, it can heat up and speed up the whole process.

Precaution: The leaves should not be wet. It should be only be moist like a wrung out sponge. And its necessary to keep this moisture throughout the process.

PS: For quick composting you can add Green leaves(nitrogen rich) to your pile, presuming that the leaves you have got are dry(carbon rich).

Happy Composting !!

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Before answering the exact question you asked, I would be remiss if I did not mention several issues that really need to be addressed in order to provide a thorough and balanced approach to the “problem” of what to do with leaves.

The first question that all of us should ask— and I don’t mean to get preachy right here at the outset— is, “Do I absolutely need to gather the leaves that have fallen?” Or to put it another way, “Should I be depriving the trees from which the leaves came of their main source of food?”

Now I don’t want you to think that you’re saddled with a purblind “treehugger” here. There are, of course, many situations in which the answer is “Yes!” Gathering them is certainly preferable to allowing them to end up in stormwater drains, eventually adding an undesirable nutrient load to our waterways. And a residential area that has a great many mature trees may experience such a heavy fall of leaves that something simply has to be done with them or they’ll end up clogging gutters, smothering the grass, and making an unsightly mess of walkways.

If at all possible, however, you should first consider shredding them finely with multiple mower passes, and allowing them to remain on any available turf where they will decompose during the winter, contributing important nutrients to both grass and trees alike. And also think about allowing them to remain on any perennial beds and around existing shrubs where they will decompose into valuable leaf meal mulch.

Now, let's return to your question, the answer to which has to take into account a number of issues that are particular to leaves themselves (and here I’m thinking of leaves from deciduous trees): first, they are too high in carbon to make compost all by themselves; (C:N ratio of 60:1) so they need to be mixed with a high-nitrogen material to form true compost; second, they tend to mat and therefore resist decomposition if not first shredded; and third, they’re often too dry by the time they’re gathered to provide a moist enough environment for the necessary fungal and bacterial decomposers to thrive. And while we’re at it, we might as well include a fourth: the fact that gathering them can involve considerable time and labor. So with the understanding that any effective solution should deal with all of those issues, below is the approach I’ve employed.

I have a two-acre property so I use a riding mower to cut the grass. And although that mower has a bagging attachment, I only use it for the final cut of the season — sometime in late November or early December. I usually stop mowing during the entire month of November, starting before the leaves begin to fall and throughout the entire time that they’re falling. This allows the grass, which I’ve been cutting at a height of four inches all season, to grow a bit taller and snag all those leaves, keeping them from blowing away or into my neighbors' yards. Then, for the final mow, which you probably know should be at a height of roughly two inches going into the winter, I pick up and simultaneously shred both the grass and leaves to get a perfect mix of ingredients for a “leaf-meal mulch.” The grass provides the moist, nitrogenous matter and the leaves contribute the brown, carbonaceous matter.

Coincidentally, I use the same wagon that holds my mobile cold frame in the spring to collect the mix which I then dump in a designated spot at the bottom of my property. There’s no need to cover the pile because much of the decomposition is fungal in nature and that makes it easy to turn the pile with my Troy-Built rototiller about three or four times during the following summer. And at the end of one year’s time, it will be ready to use -- which is very convenient because I will need to use the same area again next fall.

If you'd like to see photos of the various things I alluded to in this answer, you can check here: https://goo.gl/photos/g9zHhvrjxm5unLLV7

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