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Composting Leaves – How To Make Great Compost From Leaves!

Composting leaves can be a great way to clean up your property before winter hits. It’s also a great (and free!) way to improve your plants’ soil, too!  

It’s no secret that compost is the perfect, all-natural way to boost your soil’s nutrient value. It also helps to up the soil’s organic matter content. It can be used in your garden, raised beds, hanging pots, and even when planting new trees. 

The best part about composting is that you can use materials that you have around your home and property. Kitchen scraps, shredded paper, chicken dropping, plant material, straw, and many other natural products can be used in home compost bins. 

a bag of leaves
Instead of bagging up leaves to head to the community dump, put them to good use by turning them into amazing compost!

And, as soon as the temps drop, a great natural resource is available in abundance for creating compost piles – tree leaves! The best part of all is that they are completely free and super easy to obtain. 

Composting leaves is a great way to create “black gold” for gardeners and growers. It can help recharge and power your plants, flower, and vegetables the following year when started in the fall. Read on to find out just how to create and use this free resource this fall. 

Composting Leaves – The Why & How

While it might seem like you can just rake up your leaves and turn them into a compost pile, there are actually a few key tips to remember. While you certainly can do just that, you might run into some issues further down the line.

By following the below tips, your compost will be healthy, nutrient-dense, and ready to re-energize your plants when late spring rolls around.  

Choosing The Right Type Of Leaves – Composting Leaves

Just like not all plants and flowers have the same make-up, the same goes for trees as well. And in the case of compost, not all tree varieties’ leaves are the best for use.

The best varieties to use would be ash, birch, elm, cottonwood, maple, poplar, cherry, and other fruit trees. These trees produce leaves with a structure that is easy to break down – a huge plus for compost piles. In addition, these varieties are also higher in nutrients than other varieties. 

Oak leaves aren't the best for using for compost piles because they take forever to break down.
Oak leaves should be limited to only about 20% of your total pile.

Oak tree leaves can be used, but they should only be used in a limited capacity. Aim for having only about 20% of your leaf compost pile be oak leaves.  

Why? Because oak leaves are a bit more acidic than others. This can really mess up the pH balance in home compost piles. In addition, oak leaves have low levels of nitrogen and other useful nutrients that really help to boost compost piles.  

In addition, trees that produce needles or waxy leaves should also be limited or avoided. Those types of leaves or needles take a lot longer to break down.

Tree Varieties To Avoid

Just like there are beneficial tree varieties, there are also ones that you want to avoid adding to your compost pile altogether. 

Black walnut, eucalyptus, horse chestnut, and buckeye trees are the three main varieties to avoid using. Both walnut and eucalyptus varieties produce certain toxins that are harmful to many different plants. The plant materials from these trees cause plants to have stunted growth. In addition, they can actually stop seeds from germinating altogether. 

Black walnut leaves and a nut.
All parts of a black walnut tree are toxic to many plants and flowers. Avoid using any of their foliage or nuts in compost piles.

Horse chestnut and buckeye trees also produce a toxin. However, this toxin can be harmful to humans when consumed in high enough doses. The toxin is mainly found in the nuts of these trees, but it is best to forgo adding their leaves to compost piles just to be on the safe side. What’s that old saying, “Better safe than sorry!”

Giving The Leaves A Head Start – Composting Leaves

When it comes to composting leaves, the smaller the pieces, the quicker they can heat up and start to break down. Faster decomposition equals that amazing black gold at a quicker rate. 

You might consider tree leaves as being pretty small to begin with. But you can actually make it possible for them to break down even quicker by shredding. In addition, whole leaves can create moldy and wet compost piles.

Believe it or not, whole leaves actually take a long time to decompose. When you shred them into smaller pieces, they can break down almost 10 to 20 times faster! 

You can use a purchased leaf and debris shredder to help shred all of your leaves. However, you can also just use that riding or push lawn mower that you already own instead. 

A bagged mower going over leaves - composting leaves
A push mower with a bagger makes quick work of shredding leaves.

If your mower has a bag attachment, even better! You can simply mow over the leaves and let the mower do all of the work for you. You can still use your mower without a bag attachment. It will just take a bit of raking and manual labor to get them into a pile.  

Creating A Well-Balanced Leaf Compost Pile – Composting Leaves 

While a leaf pile will eventually decompose on its own, it’s best if you use a mixture of different materials to really get the most out of those organic elements and nutrients. 

In contrast, you can just dump whatever materials you have into your compost pile and hope for the best. However, there is a little bit of technique when it comes to creating the best type of compost pile using leaves for your garden or flowerbeds. 

How Traditional Composting Works

Compostable items are categorized as either “green” or “brown” materials. Green materials are items like vegetable peels, green plant materials, coffee grounds, grass clippings, egg shells, and animal manure (cow, horse, chicken, and rabbits). They tend to be high in nitrogen and really help to heat up compost piles.

Brown materials are items like shredded paper, cardboard, straw, dryer lint, and napkins. These items have high amounts of carbon and help to add oxygen to break down items within compost piles. Dead tree leaves are considered to be brown materials.  

building better soil is a key to growing better plants
Adding fresh compost is a great way to give the leaf pile a head start at breaking down.

In order to have a traditional home compost pile that really heats quickly and decomposes fast, you need to aim for around 1 part green materials for 4 parts brown materials. So, for every 5-gallon bucket of kitchen scraps and chicken manure you add, you need to add around 4 buckets of shredded leaves. 

To read more in-depth information about what materials to use (and not use), the best kind of containers, and how to help speed up the process, check out the article, “Learn How To Compost Like A Pro.”

Creating Compost Piles From Leaves

As with traditional composting, the key to starting leaf compost piles is to get the pile hot and allow the materials to break down quickly. This is especially important for piles that you start in the fall and hope to use in late spring.

A way to help speed up the process is to add fresh completed compost to your leaf pile. When you add in fresh compost from an existing pile, you are helping to introduce all of those beneficial and active organisms and microbes.

These items are vital to helping quickly break down materials. If you do not have fresh compost, you can use a compost starter to help get the pile cooking fast. Product Link : Compost Starter

For compost piles made primarily from leaves, you basically just need the addition of fresh compost and then a few “green” materials. (Remember, leaves are “brown” materials.) One of the best and easiest green materials to add is grass clippings. 

Fill up your compost container with your shredded leaves (the ideal container size is 3’ by 3’ by 3’). To the leaves, add in a couple 5-gallon buckets of fresh compost and then a couple of buckets of green grass clippings (or any other combination of green material).

Grass clippings and leaves in a pile to create compost.
A combination of grass clippings and dry leaves is a great start to creating amazing compost!

If you have access to animal manure, add in a few of those buckets as well. No need to separate the straw or bedding from the manure – it all helps to create amazing compost. 

Don’t Forget To Turn & Water

Another key to creating compost that breaks down quickly is turning the pile. Essentially, compost heats from the middle of the pile. If the materials on the outside of the pile never get a chance to mix in and move to the center of the pile, they will take forever to break down. 

The act of turning also helps to distribute moisture as well as adds oxygen into the pile as well – All ingredients to help quickly decompose your materials. Just use a pitchfork or a shove to turn the pile a few times each week until the pile freezes in the winter. It’s that easy!

In addition, compost piles also need moisture to thrive and create heat. If needed, consider watering your compost pile occasionally. The pile should feel moist but never saturated.

Before you know it, spring will arrive and you will have created amazing, nutrient-packed compost all from fallen leaves! Who knew that leaves could be used for more than just jumping into? 

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