Welcome to the College of Composting Knowledge!
This Week's short course: Intermediate rotting! How to get started with leaves alone; what to include, and NOT include, in a mixed pile; and how to hide it all from the neighbors.
First, a reminder about WHY making compost is so important:
If your landscape looks a little blah, maybe it's because your trees and shrubs are hungry. Or maybe they're 'hung over' from the concentrated salts in chemical fertilizers like Miracle-Gro. Maybe your lawn feels equally fat or famished, or maybe its soil has become compacted from years of heavy foot traffic. Perhaps under or over feeding has weakened the rest of your garden plants, and made them easy targets for pests and disease. Luckily, it really doesn't matter exactly what the problem is, because compost is the answer to virtually every garden question. An inch a year of high-quality compost provides the perfect amount of food for every plant, including nutrients not found in commercial fertilizers. Raking that inch into your turf in the Spring or Fall will improve the structure of the soil under your lawn. And it increases your plants' ability to fend off foes without any help from you! Whew, I'm exhausted just thinking about it!
Compost Queasy? Make Some 'Leaf-only' Garden Gold
Now, a lot of you tell me you'd like to make your own compost, but you're not quite sure what should go into it. Well, let's start with Fall leaves, and let's end with them too! That's right, if you're worried that you'll include the wrong things or attract strange creatures of the night, just compost your leaves alone! Fall leaves are one of the two things (barnyard manures are the 'other') that can be successfully composted all by themselves. All you need to do is shred them up first with a lawnmower, a leaf blower set on reverse or a string trimmer in a trashcan (be careful if you take this route; heavy gloves and safety glasses are an absolute MUST). Then, if you simply pile those shredded leaves up somewhere, they will slowly decompose, in about a year if you shredded them well. But if you enclose them in a big wire cage or wooden slatted bin, they'll quickly transform into rich, black super-soil, filled with trace minerals and nutrients the tree's roots have extracted from deep in the earth; THAT compost will be ready to use next Spring! And use it you should, the French have been relying on this mineral-rich 'leaf mold' or 'horticultural mold' to feed their plants for centuries!
Recycle Your Kitchen Scraps Into Next Year's Fertilizer
So, yes, you can just pile up lots of shredded leaves and they'll turn into excellent compost for you to use next year. But a mixed pile allows you to recycle your kitchen waste into garden gold as well. All you need is some kind of enclosure and lots of shredded leaves. The best enclosures are one that permit a lot of airflow. I like heavy gauge animal fencing, because you can make your bin any size or shape you want, just make sure that it's at least four by four feet wide and long and four feet high; that's pretty much the minimum size to get things cooking nicely. But I have to admit that my wooden bins, made of alternating slats of cedar, are the prettiest (and they're easy to make; all you need are four foot long lengths of cedar and four, four-foot long metal rods to hold the corners together).
Either way, start by placing about a foot deep layer of shredded leaves in the bottom. Then add a layer of 'wet greens', like kitchen waste and spent garden plants. Then more leaves on top of that. Continue layering until the bin is filled and then leave it be; it's turning into compost for you! Want to move things along faster? After a week or two, pull apart and remake the pile, moving the stuff that was on the inside to the outside, where it will now get the benefit of that airflow! Do that two or three times and you'll make the best quality compost the fastest. Now, be sure to avoid the rookie mistake of continuing to add raw ingredients to the pile; the best way to make compost is 'batch' style, that is, make a big mixed batch all at once and then leave it be. That's why experienced composters always have at least one other bin or tumbler nearby, so that when one is all full and cooking down, they can pile their fresh raw ingredients, always mixed with shredded leaves, in the other. When that container is all filled, give it a good turn to get it composting; and if you mix in some high nitrogen material like a five pound bag of coffee grounds from Starbucks or barnyard manure, you'll really steam things up.
Here's Exactly what To Include, and Exclude
All right, what exactly SHOULD you mix with shredded leaves to make the best 'black gold?' All your 'green waste', like apple cores, lettuce leaves, and banana peels; big fibrous materials like broccoli stalks and whole fruits that have gone bad should be cut up first, unless you want to say hello to that ugly orange again three months from now! Include all your coffee grounds as well, they're very nutrient rich, a great source of high-quality nitrogen for your pile; and yes, the paper filters can stay as well, they'll break down very quickly. Tea bags too. Egg shells are also a HUGE yes; in fact, they're one of the most premium ingredients, your garden yearns for their calcium; just crush them up before they go into the pile to hasten their decomposition. But no egg insides or other animal products, like meat, bones and fat. And no dog or cat poop either. But the poop of herbivore pets, like rabbits, gerbils and guinea pigs is great, as is their bedding. Sane with horse or poultry manure, these 'hot manures' are especially rich in nitrogen (especially the poultry poop!) and will heat your pile up nicely.
'Out of Sight' Composting: Hide It in a Tumbler!
And if you're one of those people who tell me they're afraid the neighbors might object to the sight of a pile, get thyself a tumbler, spinner or other sealed compost container. There are attractive units that just sit there, made of recycled plastic with a locking lid for adding ingredients and a door down low for easy compost collection (the stuff on the bottom is ALWAYS ready first). There are also tumblers: Big round drums, sometimes in pairs, up on a frame with a lever that makes them easy to turn. And 'Spinners', which look like big oversized bongo drums that you really do spin around. The advantage to these types is that they make it easy to keep the contents turning, and mixing makes your compost appear much quicker. Just remember to fill them with about four times as much shredded leaves as wet green waste, by volume, and you'll make great gold!