How to compost leaves?

Compost Shredded, Dry Leaves to Get These Leaf Compost Benefits

Tidying up your yard in fall can easily turn into a day-long job. After all that hard work, put your leaves to good use.

Compost is the best way to do that. Its many benefits make your lengthy leaf cleanup well worth it.

Best of all, compost is simple to make! Though, it does take time. Learn how to compost leaves below.

Benefits of Leaf Compost and Leaf Mulch–And How to Compost Leaves Quickly

There are two ways to compost leaves. Leaf compost is a mix of leaves and organic materials, like grass clippings or food waste. Leaf mulch (also called leaf mold) is just leaves and water.

If you want mulch to help retain soil moisture, make leaf mold. If you want more plant nutrients and pest and disease control, compost is the way to go.

How to Compost Dry Leaves in a Bin or Pile

To start, shred the leaves with a mower, catch ‘em in your mower bag, then:

  1. Add leaves to a compost bin, or pile them up in a corner of your yard.
  2. Top the leaves with a nitrogen-rich item, like cottonseed meal, grass clippings, food waste, or manure.
  3. Build the pile up until it’s three feet tall and wide. Alternate between leaves and a nitrogen product. A good rule of thumb is to use four parts leaves per one-part nitrogen.
  4. Turn the compost once a month. But, in winter, the compost process often stops because of the cold temperatures. So, only turn your compost in winter if it’s insulated.
  5. When you turn, check for moisture. If you spot dry patches, add water. If your compost smells rotten or looks soggy, dry it out by adding ingredients like leaves, straw or sawdust.
  6. Continue turning and moisture-monitoring your compost until it’s ready. Finished compost is dark in color, dry and crumbly in texture, and smells earthy. If you continually turn the pile, you can have compost in a couple of months. But if you don’t turn it in winter, it can take up to a year.

Making Leaf Mold in Garbage Bags

Remember, leaf mold is different from compost because it doesn’t add as many nutrients to the soil or fight pests and disease as well. But, it’s great for mulching and controlling weeds.

Here’s how to make it:

  1. Shred leaves with a lawn mower, and place in a large garbage bag.
  2. Water the leaves until they’re damp but not soaked.
  3. Tightly seal the bag, and cut a few slits for air flow.
  4. Shake the bag every few weeks to turn the pile.
  5. Add water to the bag as the leaves dry, which is usually every four-to-eight weeks.
  6. The leaf mold is ready when the leaves have become a brown or black crumbly material, which usually takes about six months. So, this leaf mulch will be ready to use in spring!

How to long does it take to compost leaves?

It can take leaves anywhere from a couple months to a year to become compost. So, patience is a must.

Or get rid of them faster by simply running your lawn mower over the leaves. The grass will soak up all the leaves’ nutrients!

How to Compost Leaves Quickly

If you want to create a traditional compost, use these tips to speed up the process:

  1. Turn the pile every week or two instead of monthly.
  2. Be sure to use the watering tips above. A pile too dry or too damp will take more time.
  3. Keep the leaf mold bag sealed tightly, or cover the compost bin or pile with plastic to help retain moisture.

Let’s get real for a second…

Leaf composting is one of the smartest things you can do for your garden.

If you haven’t gotten into it yet, or don’t know where to start, this is for you. Get ready to know everything you’ll ever want to know about how to compost leaves so that your leaves decay quickly and turn into beautiful, rich compost!

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Why Should You Compost Leaves?


Leaves are great sources of nutrients and minerals. Up to 80% of a tree’s nutrients and minerals end up in its leaves. Leaves are often referred to as nature’s nutrient recyclers. By composting leaves, you have a perfect way of getting these valuable nutrients and minerals back into your soil.

They’re free! If you have trees in your garden, you will know that come fall you are almost buried in leaves. Learn to take advantage of this free source of goodness for your garden.

If you don’t have trees in your garden, why not ask a neighbor or friend with trees? Many people would happily pass on a few bags of leaves, especially if you help out with some of the leaf collection! You can also ask a local landscaper. They are often happy to donate bags of leaves as it saves them time and money in tipping fees.

Leaves provide a high carbon source or ‘browns’ for your compost. The carbon/nitrogen (or C/N) ratio of leaves is usually over 30, often around 50. That is, they are low in nitrogen which is often hard to find in other sources of composting material.

Common Problems of Leaf Composting

There are two main issues you might run into when trying leaf composting:

Leaves have a tendency to mat, particularly un-shredded leaves. Matted leaves create an impenetrable barrier to air and water and thus significantly slow decomposition. Be sure to shred your leaves if you’re going to compost them.

Leaves take a long time to break down. Leaves contain varying amounts of lignin. Lignin is resistant to decomposing, meaning that leaves can often take a year or two to fully decompose.

4 Ways to Deal With Leaves In Your Garden

Here are four great ways to get the most out of your leaves in your garden. The approach that works best for you and your garden will depend on the volume of leaves you get, the space you have to handle them and how long you want to decompose them. We’ll start off with composting, and then suggest a few other ways to deal with them if you want a few more ideas.

1. Make Compost

Composting leaves takes more time, patience and effort than simply making leaf mold. But if you have the space and time, then leaves can be a great way to make extra compost for your garden.

Note that not all leaves are created equally. Some leaves compost more effectively than others.

Good leaves for composting: The best leaves for composting are those lower in lignin and higher is calcium and nitrogen. These leaves include ash, maple, fruit tree leaves, poplar, and willow. These ‘good’ leaves will typically break down in about a year.

Bad leaves for composting: Bad leaves are those higher in lignin and lower in nitrogen and calcium. These include beech, oak, holly, and sweet chestnut. Also, make sure to avoid using leaves of black walnut and eucalyptus as these plants contain natural herbicides that will prevent seeds from germinating.

Firstly, shred or grind the leaves. This will significantly speed up the composting process. If you don’t have a shredder, you can simply mow the leaves to collect them. Alternatively, a garbage can and a string trimmer will work (be sure to wear eye and ear protection). Fill your garbage can approximately three quarters full with leaves. Put your string trimmer in, turn it on and move it through the layers of leaves.

Leaves are considered ‘browns’ in your compost pile. Therefore you need to add liberal amounts of ‘green’ materials, high in nitrogen, such as grass clippings or kitchen waste. To prevent attracting pests to your compost pile and to speed up the composting process, bokashi composting is a great way to pre-compost your food waste. Mix 4-5 parts leaves to one part green waste.

Adding compost accelerator to your pile will add a boost of microbes to help the composting process.

Turn your pile 1-2 times a week. Add more green waste (grass clippings, kitchen waste etc) as you turn. Turning the pile and mixing in oxygen will get it to heat up and compost more quickly. Remember to keep the pile moist. It wants to be the consistency of a sponge. Covering the pile with a plastic sheet will help to keep the pile warm and prevent it from drying out.

If you keep up the regime of regularly turning and aerating your pile you should have high quality leaf compost by the following spring.

Extra leaves can be stored in sacks next to your compost pile. These can be added to your compost pile as brown materials to balance the green materials and aerate your compost pile throughout the year.

2. Add Directly To Your Garden

The first, and easiest, option is to add them directly to your soil as a top dressing. This will help to keep your soil (and plant roots) insulated over the winter. Covering bare soil with leaves over the winter (such as unused vegetable gardens) will protect the soil from heavy rains and winds that may erode the soil and leach out important nutrients.

Tip: Chop in a layer of bokashi pre-compost (or other green waste such as grass clippings)

3. Use to Protect Containers

Leaves can also be used to protect containers from harsh winter temperatures. Cluster your containers together and cover with leaves, including the top and sides of the containers.

Tip: If your containers are in a windy location, use chicken wire to hold the leaves in place.

4. Make Leaf Mold

High quality leaf mold. source

Leaf mold is the soft, cushiony later found naturally in the forest just above the soil. It decomposes slowly and adds nutrients gradually to feed plants and improve the soil structure. Leaf mold is not as rich in nutrient value as completely composted leaves but it is easier and quicker to make.

Leaf mold makes a useful mulch around the garden and has a fantastic ability to retain water. A good quality topsoil can hold around 60 percent of its weight in water, but leaf mold can hold between 300 and 500 percent of its weight in water!

Making Leaf Mold

Make a large container for your leaves. A circular bin made with chicken wire or snow fencing is cheap and simple to make. Add your leaves and dampen. Done! It’s that simple.

The leaf mold should be ready to use the following spring or summer, although some people choose to store their leaf mold for several years.

Tip: Leaf mold is slightly acidic so add ground limestone if you plants are sensitive to acidity.

The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:
Nicki Casley
Kevin Espiritu
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Don’t they just get moldy?

Yes, the leaves do become part of the soil. And, yes, “mold” can be involved in the process, but most of the time, that’s a very good mold to have around your yard. Let’s take a look at how this works.

Each fall, nature gives your yard a “windfall” of leaves and plant litter. It truly is nature’s bountiful gift, but you may not realize it. You might even think it’s a nuisance!

Leaf litter during fall in Madison WI. If added to garden beds – as is, or mulched – it provides insulation and nutrients for the soil. Credit: S. Fisk

Most plant litter (there are always exceptions in science and nature!) has the potential to become nutrients and rich soil for your garden or lawn. Unhealthy plants – say leaves with powdery mildew or other diseases – of course should be removed. But don’t lose this windfall of nutrients and potential soil by “withdrawing it from the bank” too early!

How does this work?

In fall, the leaves of deciduous trees turn vibrant hues of red, yellow, and orange. They swirl to the ground, covering your grass. Many annual plants die and wither. This honors nature’s Law of Return: plants use up nutrients during the growing season, and give them back when the season is over. Even evergreens drop some needles, and their cones.

Oftentimes, homeowners or uninformed lawn care professionals think this cover of leaves and dying plants is unsightly. Or, they fear the plant litter may ruin their lush green grass or garden area. They go into “fall mode”: rake up the leaves, pull out dying annuals, bag and ship them off. But this process takes a piece of our land’s natural fertility along with it. Year after year, we deplete this natural source of nutrients and soil, until we need fertilizers or compost to get our lawns green and our garden growing robustly.
How does nature use up this plant litter and turn it into soil? Let’s look at the “decomposer food web.”

  1. Invertebrates, such as earthworms, beetle larvae, millipedes, mites, slugs and snails, that live in the soil shred plant materials into smaller and smaller pieces, increasing the surface area on which soil bacteria and fungi can prey. Mulching the litter with your mower helps speed this process along – but in natural areas like forests, nature does all the work!
  2. Next up is something you might call mold. Scientists call it fungi. Fungi can “send out” filamentous threads, called hyphae, that operate much like plant roots. These hyphae release acids and enzymes necessary to break down dead plant material. This makes nutrients available to plants to sustain their own growth. You may have seen this whitish “mold” under leaves and thought poorly of it. It’s quite hard-working, and adds a lot to your soil.
  3. As the litterfall is consumed by the decomposer food web, water and inorganic nutrients (i.e. nitrogen and phosphorus) are released into the soil, where they can be taken up again by plants to foster new growth.

Mushrooms and other fungi help break down lawn clippings and other items in a compost pile. Morguefile

So, do yourself a favor this spring (and next fall) and leave the leaves. Don’t leave them in big piles that will suffocate your grass, but mow them over to form a mulch. Not only will this replenish your soil’s fertility, but will help suppress weeds and retain moisture to boot.

In your garden area, of course, move the plant litter aside for some of the newer plants, but keep most of the soil covered. That “mold” you see on the leaves is fine. You may want to cover the dead plants with a new layer of mulch.

One thing you don’t want to do is to use decomposing leaf litter in a newly dug hole to replace compost. The difference between finished compost and decaying leaf litter is huge in the world of soil biology and plant life. The decaying leaves actually take up a lot of energy, whereas compost is ready to give back fully. Also, the biology of decomposition means that it needs some oxygen to work best – and by burying, you’re disrupting nature’s cycle.

If the aesthetics of leaves and plant litter are too much to bear, start a compost pile with your leaves and grass clippings, so you can use it later in your garden! It’s a win-win-win: save time raking, improve your soil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with leaf blowers, green waste removal, and methane release from landfills.

By Jessica Chiartas, UC Davis

Can You – SHOULD You – Compost Diseased Tree Leaves

Can You—SHOULD You—Compost Diseased Tree Leaves? Special treat: Last year around this time, Mike celebrated the 17th Anniversary of “You Bet Your Garden” on Public Radio. For the occasion, he was joined for the entire hour by master fruit grower and pruning expert Dr. Lee Reich and Texas organic advocate Howard Garrett, “The Dirt Doctor”. At the end of the show, instead of answering the weekly ‘Question’ himself, Mike read it to his two guests and asked what THEY would say. Their answers were a real shocker!
It was an episode that can’t be beat, so to celebrate the show’s 18th year on the air (October 3rd!), Mike is repeating that fabulous broadcast. (And taking the week off to start collecting THIS year’s falling leaves for his own mulch and compost makings!)
And so, back by popular demand (and because Mike needed a week off), here ’tis:
Mike: Simon in Windsor, Ontario, Canada (“on the border with Detroit”) writes: “A large maple tree in my backyard developed black spots on all of the leaves this year. A maple belonging to my neighbors across the street has the same issue. I believe these may be ‘tar spots’. The trees otherwise seem to be doing fine. I suspect this happened last year as well but I wasn’t paying much attention then.
My concerns:
1) I save my fall leaves to add to my compost throughout the year. My compost never gets very hot and I’m concerned that if I use these leaves I will just be re-inoculating the tree next year. My compost is made in a wooden 4-bin system filled with kitchen vegetable scraps, yard debris (mostly old vegetable plants), previous years’ leaves and straw (bought for Hallowe’en decoration). I always have lots of worms and bugs crawling around in it.
2) I was planning on also stealing my neighbors’ leaves (as I know you have also been known to do). Now their leaves may be off limits too!
My tree is not fed; it is not near a treated lawn (we don’t do that much in Canada). There is wood mulch near the tree; but it’s a natural non-dyed cedar mulch pulled away from the plants.
My questions are:
1) Can I just use the leaves in my compost?
2) Can I use them if I get my compost hot enough? And if so, how do I get it hot enough?”
Mike: I’ll begin by saying that tar spot is caused by a disease organism, that it’s mostly a ‘cosmetic’ problem that doesn’t actually harm the tree and that leaving infected leaves under the tree continues the cycle of disease the following year. That said, is it wise for him to want to try and put infected leaves into his compost?
Lee: I put everything in my compost, even my old jeans. They take a couple of years to finish, and the same may be true of these spotty leaves. Composting is a factor of time and/or temperature—so if your compost doesn’t get hot, you give the materials more time. But once the material is composted I don’t think you’ll have any risk of that compost re-inoculating the tree with a disease like tar spot. So I would not hesitate to include these leaves and I would use the neighbors’ leaves as well.
Howard: I agree with Dr. Reich. I think the best way to get rid of disease pathogens IS to compost them. Let the beneficial microbes in a good healthy compost pile neutralize the pathogens.
Lee: Again, I put everything in the compost. I’ve composted for decades and there’s nothing I wouldn’t put in the compost. People say not to compost anything that’s diseased or pest-ridden; but I contend that if you look at any part of any plant closely enough, you’ll find something wrong with it—and that would mean that you wouldn’t compost anything!
Mike: But Lee—you grow a lot of disease-prone fruits like apples and peaches. You wouldn’t throw something like a peach with brown rot into the compost pile, would you?
Lee: I would, I repeat, throw ANYTHING into my compost pile.
Howard: I would too. All disease pathogens are is organisms that are out of balance; and the way to bring things back into balance is to compost them with lots of other organisms. You can control pathogens that are fungal, bacterial—you can even control viral pathogens; it’s just a little harder.
Mike: But don’t these kinds of diseases have to go through hot composting? Or can Nature handle a slow curve ball?
Lee: If you can’t make the compost hot, let it compost longer. It’s just like Howard says—these things are out of balance and the way to bring them back into balance is through composting, not by throwing them away.
Mike: And would you then spread this compost back under the affected tree?
Howard: Absolutely. This disease is not damaging to the tree; it’s just a cosmetic problem. And trees are tough; they can handle these kinds of problems as long as they have the proper growing conditions. And first on that list is that they’re planted high enough in the ground so you can see the root flare. If you can’t see the root flare, the soil or mulch or whatever that’s got it buried has to be pulled back or blown away until all of the trunk is exposed to the air.
Mike: Wow. When I read that this disease was carried over from year to year by infected leaves overwintering under the tree, I was ready to tell this guy to throw them away or burn them…
Lee: Oh no.
Howard: Never!
Mike: Well, there you have it; I am outvoted two to one! Not only do my distinguished guests say that you CAN compost diseased leaves, they’re going a step further and saying that you should.

Vince Mannino, Horticulturist, Jefferson County
Robert Richter, Horticulturist, Montgomery County
Doug Welsh and Sam Cotner, Extension Horticulturists, The Texas A&M University System

During the year, at least 20 percent of the solid waste generated by Texans comes from grass clippings, tree leaves and other landscape wastes. Bagging these materials and placing them into the curbside garbage collection system uses valuable landfill space, removes nutrients from the environment, and costs cities and the people of Texas more in increased taxes and service fees.

Of the landscape waste, approximately half is composed of tree leaves. The “Don’t Bag It” Leaf Management Plan is an ecologically sound program designed to significantly reduce the volume of leaves entering community landfills, thereby extending their life and saving tax dollars.

Managing Leaves

The tree leaves that accumulate in and around your landscape represent a valuable natural resource that can be used to provide a good source of organic matter and nutrients for use in your landscape. It is an established fact that the trees in one acre of forest shed as much as two tons of leaves each fall. You may complain, as you lean wearily on a leaf rake, that your neighborhood outdoes any forest, but be thankful. Hang on to your leaves. And if your neighbors don’t want them, hang on to theirs. It makes no sense to send valuable treasure to the dump.

In forests, pastures and other natural settings, tree leaves and other organic wastes form a natural carpet over the soil surface which conserves moisture, modifies temperatures and prevents soil erosion and crusting. In time bacteria, fungi and other natural occurring organisms decompose or compost the leaves and other organic material, supplying the existing plants with a natural, slow release form of nutrients. You can, and should, take advantage of this same concept.

Options for Managing and Using Leaves

Leaves are truly a valuable natural resource! They contain 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients a plant extracts from the soil and air during the season. Therefore, leaves should be managed and used rather than bagged and placed at curbside to be picked up and hauled to landfills. There are four basic ways in which leaves can be managed and used in the landscape.

Leaf Management – Mowing
A light covering of leaves can be mowed, simply leaving the shredded leaves in place on the lawn. This technique is most effective when a mulching mower is used. In fact, during times of light leaf drop or if there are only a few small trees in your landscape, this technique is probably the most efficient and easiest way to manage leaf accumulation.

Leaf Management – Mulching
Mulching is a simple and effective way to recycle leaves and improve your landscape. Mulches reduce evaporation from the soil surface, inhibit weed growth, moderates soil temperatures, keep soils from eroding and crusting, and prevent soil compaction. As organic mulches decompose, they release valuable nutrients for use by your landscape plants.
Leaves can be used as a mulch in vegetable gardens, flower beds and around shrubs and trees. As an option to raking, a lawn mower with a bagging attachment provides a fast and easy way to shred and collect the leaves. Leaves that have been mowed or run through some other type of shredder will decompose faster and are much more likely to remain in place than unshredded leaves.

Apply a 3 to 6 inch layer of shredded leaves around the base of trees and shrubs. In annual and perennial flower beds, a 2 to 3 inch mulch of shredded leaves is ideal. For vegetable gardens, a thick layer of leaves placed between the rows function as a mulch and an all-weather walkway that will allow you to work in your garden during wet periods. Mulches are especially beneficial when used around newly established landscape plants, greatly increasing the likelihood of their survival.

Leaf Management – Soil Improvement
Leaves may be collected and worked directly into garden and flower bed soils. A 6 to 8 inch layer of leaves tilled into a heavy, clay soil will improve aeration and drainage. The same amount tilled into a light, sandy soil, will improve water and nutrient holding capacity.
A recommended strategy for using leaves to improve soil in vegetable gardens and annual planting beds is to collect and work them into the soil during the fall. This allows sufficient time for the leaves to decompose prior to spring planting. Adding a little fertilizer to the soil after working in the leaves will hasten their decomposition.

Leaf Management – Composting
Knowledge of composting dates back to the early Greeks and Romans. The Arabs kept the science of composting alive during the Dark Ages, and it continued throughout the Renaissance. From Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes the line “spread the compost on the weeds, to make them ranker!” In America, the value of composting was recognized by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington Carver. Today, knowledge and interest in the science of composting is increasing dramatically. Whether an ancient art or a modern science, composting is a useful and environmentally sound gardening practice for you.

What is compost?

Compost is a dark, crumbly and earth-smelling form of organic matter that has gone through a natural decomposition process.

Compost can be used to:

  • enrich the soil by adding a natural source of nutrients.
  • loosen tight, heavy soils.
  • help sandy soils retain moisture and nutrients.
  • add to potting soils for container grown plants.
  • mulch around landscape plants.

If you have a garden, lawn, trees, shrubs, or even planter boxes or house plants, you have a use for compost.

What can be composted?

In addition to leaves, other yard wastes such as grass clippings, pine needles, weeds, small or chipped prunings and spent garden plants can be composted. Avoid composting diseased or insect infested plant materials, noxious weeds, meat, dairy products, cooking oil, or grease.

Essentials of Composting

To prepare compost, organic material, microorganisms, air, water and a small amount of nitrogenare needed. Microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria break down the organic material. A small amount of garden soil or compost can provide sufficient microorganisms. The nitrogen, air and water provide a favorable environment for the microorganisms to decompose the organic materials and make compost. Air is the only ingredient which cannot be added in excess. A lack of nitrogen to “feed” the microorganisms will greatly slow the process, while an excessive amount is wasteful and can kill the microorganisms. Too much water limits the amount of air (oxygen) available to the microorganisms, greatly inhibiting their activity. As composting occurs, heat is generated, often causing temperatures to rise to 140 degrees F.

Methods of Composting

The process of composting can be carried out in traditional compost piles or bins, trenches, bags or barrels.

Piles or Bins – You can compost in almost any type of bin or suitable container. Or you can stack the leaves in a loose pile for composting, although available space is used more efficiently if you use some type of bin or enclosure.

Locate the compost pile or bin in a convenient but out of the way location. Since the compost needs to be kept moist, a convenient source of water is desirable.

If you choose to use a bin for composting, it can be constructed from any number of different materials, including wire fencing, concrete reinforcing wire, wood slates, cement blocks, bricks or scrap lumber. Regardless of what you use, the sides should be open enough to provide for good air movement through the bin. One side should be able to be opened to allow for easy turning and removal of the finished compost.

The truth is that compost bins help people, not the composition process. You can make excellent compost in any type of bin or no bin at all. So as you design your composting facility, let the human factors, neatness, ease of turning, economy, performance and good looks, take high priorities.

The most common method of building a compost pile or bin is in layers. For each 6 to 8 inch layer of leaves (and other suitable organic materials), add 1 inch of compost or rich garden soil. Next, add about 1 inch of manure or 1 cup of nitrogen rich fertilizer for each 20 to 25 square feet of surface area and then repeat the layers. Moisten each layer as it is constructed. Mix the pile weekly during the summer and monthly during the winter, providing moisture as needed. Remember, avoid keeping the compost pile too wet! Ideally, your compost pile or bin should be 3 to 5 feet in diameter and several layers deep to encourage rapid, effective decomposition.

Types of Structures

Trenching Composting – Trench composting involves decomposing the leaves “in place” where the organic matter is needed. Although this form of composting can be done in other suitable areas, it is extremely well adapted for use in small vegetable gardens, especially if you do not have room for a compost pile or bin.

Trench composting involves digging trenches at least 8 to 10 inches wide and one foot or more deep. In a vegetable garden, the pathways between the rows are ideal locations for trenches. Backfill the trenches with shredded leaves and other forms of organic matter, along with about five shovel-fulls of manure or a cup of fertilizer for each 25 feet of trench. Soil from the trenches can be used to form raised planting beds or utilized in other areas of your landscape.

For your next garden, locate your raised planting beds or rows over the trenched areas. The compost will provide greatly improved soil conditions for your vegetables and supply them with some of their needed nutrients. By continuing the trench composting process each gardening season, all of your garden soil will eventually be improved – as well as your results at harvest time.
Bag Composting – Bag composting is one of the easiest composting methods. However, the quality of the compost produced may not be as high as that made by more traditional methods.

To produce compost in a bag, simply collect the leaves and place them in heavy-duty, plastic trash bags. As with other methods or composting, shredded leaves work best. Into each bag full of leaves, put one to two shovel fulls of garden soil and either two shovel-fulls of manure or about one-half cup of a high nitrogen fertilizer. Apply enough water to thoroughly moisten the leaves. Punch 10 to 15 holes in the plastic bag to allow for air circulation through the leaves. Turn the bag once or twice and add water, if needed, to keep the leaves moist. Store your bags of composting leaves in an out-of-sight place. After about 2 weeks open the bags to check on the composting process. Under most circumstances, the compost will be ready for use in about 6 to 8 weeks.

Commercial Composting Devices – Garden catalogs and retail outlets offer numerous different types of commercial composting devices, such as boxes, bins and barrels. The devices are usually constructed of plastic, wood and/or metal. They provide a quick way to start composting for the gardener who isn’t a “build-it-yourselfer”. Prices vary and range from reasonable to expensive. Commercial composting devices will do a fine job, as long as you follow the basic essentials of composting.

The compost has a bad odor. Not enough air, pile too wet. Turn it; add coarse dry materials such as straw, corn stalks, etc.
The center of the pile is dry. Not enough water, too much woody, coarse material. Turn and moisten materials; add fresh green wastes, chop or shred coarse wastes.
The compost is damp and warm in the middle, but nowhere else. Too small. Collect more materials and mix the old ingredients into a new pile.
The heap is damp and sweet smelling but still will not heat up. Lack of nitrogen. Mix in a nitrogen source like fresh grass clippings, fresh manure, or ammonium sulfate.

The information herein is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Cooperative Extension Service is implied.

Educational programs conducted by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service serve people of all ages regardless of socioeconomic level, race, color, sex, religion, handicap or national origin.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics, Acts of Congress of May 8, 1914, as amended, and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture. Zerle L. Carpenter, Director, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, the Texas A&M University System.

Composting for a Vegetable Garden

The backyard compost pile is the ideal way to reuse most of your garden and kitchen waste and get benefits galore. Composting is essentially a way of speeding up the natural process of decomposition by which organic materials are broken down and their components returned to the soil. The decaying process happens naturally but slowly. The proximity, moisture, and air circulation of a compost pile encourages this process. Composting converts plant and other organic wastes into a loose, peatlike humus that provides nutrients to growing plants and increases the soil’s ability to control water.

Composting can save money you would otherwise spend on soil conditioners and fertilizer. It can save time, too, since it gives you a place to dispose of grass clippings, weeds, and other garden debris.


Garden waste can be turned into good compost in less than a year if the pile is properly managed. When the compost is ready — coarse, dark brown, peat-like material — it can be used for many purposes. Compost can be added to potting soil for starting garden seeds indoors. It can also be used as a mulch to protect a plant’s roots from the hot, dry summer sun. Compost is also an excellent material to incorporate into garden soil to help control moisture: either increasing the water-holding capacity in sandy soils or improving drainage in heavy clay soils. The more organic matter you add, the more you improve the texture of the soil. Blend the compost into the soil to a depth of 12 inches, making sure it is evenly dispersed through the entire planting area. When compost is added to the soil, it will absorb some of the soil’s nitrogen. To compensate for this, organic or inorganic fertilizer and work it into the soil with the compost.

Except for diseased and pest-laden materials or materials that have been treated with herbicides, almost any type of garden waste can be composted. You can also use such kitchen leftovers as vegetable and fruit peels, vegetable tops, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and eggshells. Don’t use meat products or greasy foods, which tend to smell bad and attract animals. Composting material should be kept moist but not soggy, and it should be supplied with a nitrogen fertilizer (manure, dried blood, bone meal, or commercial fertilizer) to keep the microorganisms active for faster decay.

Compost forms as organic wastes are broken down by microorganisms in the soil. These microorganisms don’t create nutrients; they just break down complex materials into simple ones that the plant can use. Soil microorganisms are most active when soil temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and most of them work best in a moist, slightly alkaline environment. Microorganisms work fastest on small pieces of organic material.

There are two basic types of microorganisms: those that need air to work (aerobic) and those that don’t need air (anaerobic). It’s possible to compost in an airtight container, thanks to the microorganisms that don’t need air. A tightly covered plastic trash can will convert an enormous amount of organic kitchen waste into compost in the course of a winter. The classic outdoor compost pile should be turned regularly (about once every two weeks) with a pitchfork to provide air for the microorganisms that need it.

There are several handy composting devices on the market. Each has its own advantages, but a compost pile need not be fancy to work well. A simple bin made with old cinder blocks, lumber, or fencing material can be used. Tucked aside, but not too far from the garden, the bin can be square, rectangular, or round. It should be four to five feet across and about three feet high.

There are almost as many different methods of composting as there are gardeners. Follow the basic steps of composting on the next page, and your final product is sure to be a success.

  • Starting a Vegetable Garden: Learn how to get your vegetable garden started, from planning your plot to planting seeds and sprouts.
  • Vegetable Gardens: Find out everything you wanted to know about vegetable gardening.
  • Vegetables: Pick out your favorite vegetables to plant in next year’s garden.
  • Gardening: We answer all of your general gardening questions in this section.

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