Composting Fall Leaves for a Healthier Lawn and Garden
This fall, instead of bagging leaves and putting them out on the curb or hauling them away, why not try composting in your own backyard? Composting is a natural process of decomposition of organic material into a rich soil amendment. Starting to compost is a great way to take advantage of a valuable resource falling right in your yard while creating a healthier lawn and garden.
One of the greatest benefits of composting is the finished compost! Professional landscapers and gardeners suggest adding organic material to your soil by mulching your plantings and top dressing your lawns with compost. Compost will reduce the need for fertilizers and water by supplying nutrients and helping the soil retain moisture. For established lawns and gardens, spread about 2" of compost over your entire garden annually and work into the soil. For the beginning lawn or garden, there is no better substitute than 3" of compost tilled 9" deep. You should see the difference the very first year-with less watering and greener grass.
Composting in your backyard is easy. Your compost pile can be as simple as a heap of materials in a corner of your yard, or a bin to localize the pile and help maximize the composting process. Composting systems or bins can be constructed at home or purchased commercially at local hardware and garden supply stores, or through community-based compost bin sales. A bin or pile of compost material four feet wide by four feet high by at least four feet long works well for getting started. Homemade bins can be made from chicken wire, snow fencing, cinder blocks, old wooden pallets, or other material with holes in the sides to allow air for the composting organisms to breath.
Composting can take anywhere from a few months to more than a year depending upon the organic materials that you add and the conditions present. It can take place with little time or effort. But the composting process can also be hastened by: chopping or shredding organic materials; mixing about one-third high-nitrogen materials (grass clippings, green plant material, manures or food wastes) with about two-thirds high-carbon materials (leaves, wood chips, shavings, straw or hay); and maintaining proper moisture (keep your pile as damp as a wrung-out sponge). You can turn the pile to provide aeration by moving the outside materials to the inside once a month to speed things up or once or twice a year if you are in no rush for the finished compost.
When composting in your yard, be sure not to add diseased leaves or plants, or garden plants heavily laden with insects. Unlike a large commercial composting operation, backyard composting may not reach high enough temperatures to kill weed seeds or other undesirables. If adding food wastes to the mix, take care to cover the food thoroughly with a thick layer of leaves and do not add meats, grease or dairy. Animal-proof composters for food waste are also available at garden supply stores.
Composting fall leaves helps to curtail pollution from over fertilization, conserves water by improving your lawn and garden soils, and reduces the amount of waste going to landfills and incinerators. It’s a great way to contribute towards a cleaner environment and save money. For more information on lawn care and composting or to request composting publications, contact the UNH Cooperative Extension’s Family, Home and Garden Education Center info-line toll-free at 1-877-398-4769, or visit the NH Department of Environmental Services Web site or call (603) 271-2928.