Now is the perfect time to start your compost pile. By starting a compost pile in the fall, you’re ensuring you’ll have compost available for spring planting. It also gives you an opportunity to make good use of discarded organic materials as you clean up your yard and garden this fall.
In our region of the country, a good source of minerals blankets the ground every fall. That’s right, pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as manure, according to Penn State Extension. Plus, composting your leaves is pretty simple and inexpensive.
Benefits of composting
Composting improves your soil by giving bacteria, fungi, other microorganisms and worms nutrients, energy and a habitat where they can break down organic residue and help control certain plant diseases.
Composting helps soil retain nutrients and improves soil structure. It loosens compacted clay soils to improve aeration, which helps plant roots penetrate soil and allows excess water to drain. It also improves the water holding capacity of sandy soils to help roots absorb more water.
With the right mixture of brown and green material, you can optimize the productivity of your compost pile. Brown materials contain more carbon and therefore have higher carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, while green material contains less carbon with lower ratios. A good ratio to follow is 25 to 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen.
Although a compost pile will decompose quicker with more green material, a lot of the nitrogen used by decomposers as energy will be lost and need to be replenished. On the other hand, too much brown material will cause the pile to decompose slowly. Using the right ratio in your compost pile will ensure success.
Green. Green materials to put in a compost pile include fresh leaves, plant cuttings, weeds, grass clippings, fruit and vegetable waste, manure, coffee grounds and tea bags.
Brown. Brown materials to compost include dead weeds, dry leaves, clipped brush, wood ash, egg shells, sawdust, wood chips and straw.
Materials not to include. Things you shouldn’t put in your compost pile include meat, bones, cheese, oils and fats, plant material with signs of disease or insect infestation, weeds that grow easily from root or stem cuttings and human and pet waste.
Composting with leaves
The first step is deciding where you want to locate your compost pile. After you pick a spot make sure it is protected from excessive wind and sun, so it doesn’t dry out. It should be a big enough area to accommodate a pile between three and five cubic feet, so it can reach temperatures between 140 and 160 F.
Additionally, your compost pile should be moist, but not too wet as it needs to have enough oxygen for the decomposers and fermentation. Monitor your pile during periods of rain, and allow wet leaves and grass dry out before adding them.
When using leaves to compost, layer your pile in this order:
- 6 inches of leaves.
- 2 inches of a green material.
- 2 inches of native soil, which contains decomposers and helps prevent odors from developing.
Once your compost pile is assembled, you want to continue to monitor it to make sure it’s not too moist or too dry. For the first month, you want to turn your pile twice. After that, you only need to turn your pile one or two more times during the composting period, which typically lasts three to four months.
Your pile will go dormant during the winter until air temperatures climb above 50 F again. Planned correctly, you’ll be able to use your compost in your garden or landscape by spring.
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