Fall is officially here therefore the leaves will begin to fall very soon. One way to put those leaves to a good use is by composting.
Composting is an environmentally beneficial process to dispose of leaves and other yard wastes this fall.
When you compost leaves, and other yard debris, a microbial process converts these items into a more usable organic amendment. You can use finished compost to improve soil structure in gardens and landscape beds. Compost also helps the soil hold nutrients and reduces erosion and water runoff.
You also can use finished compost as a mulch to help reduce weed problems, moderate soil temperatures and conserve soil moisture.
Weeds free of seed heads and residues like vines and pruned limbs make a good addition to a compost pile. It is not necessary to remove grass clippings if you follow proper lawn management practices. If you decide to compost grass clippings, mix them with other materials like leaves or brush.
Put your compost pile on a well-drained site that will benefit from nutrients running off the pile. If you are just starting to compost, prepare the pile in layers of materials. This will ensure the proper mixing of materials to aid decomposition. It is best to alternate layers of green leafy material with brush or other woody material. If your compost material contains no soil, sprinkle a little soil or a compost starter in each layer to inoculate the pile with microorganisms.
Ideally, the pile should be one cubic yard (three by three by three feet).
If you are only going to compost tree leaves, layering might not be necessary; simply add leaves as you collect them. When leaves are dry, add moisture.
Since dead leaves do not have adequate nitrogen for rapid decomposition, mix them with grass clippings or add high-nitrogen fertilizer to speed up breakdown. For example, add five ounces (one-half cup) of fertilizer containing 10 percent nitrogen analysis for each 20 gallons of compressed leaves.
To ensure good aeration and drainage, occasionally put down a three-inch layer of coarse plant material like small twigs or chopped corn stalks, or use a wooden pallet.
Your compost needs to be managed properly to decompose.
The composting process can be completed in one to two months if materials are shredded, turned to provide good aeration, kept moist, and supplied with nitrogen and other materials that cater to compost-promoting microorganisms. Otherwise, it may require 12 months.
Periodically turn the compost pile, say once a month or when the center of the pile is noticeably hot. This will help microbes more efficiently break down wastes. The more often you aerate, the more quickly you will have usable compost. Compost is usable when it fails to heat up after turning.
Adequate moisture is essential for microbial activity. Water the pile so it is damp but does not remain soggy. Your compost pile should have the moisture content of a well-squeezed sponge, so you can squeeze a few drops of water from a handful of material. It is especially important to supply water during dry periods and when you add leaves and other dry materials to the compost pile.
If the pile emits an ammonia smell, it is too wet or packed too tightly for oxygen circulation. Turn the heap and add some coarse material such as small twigs to increase air space.
Compost needs a balanced diet of carbon and nitrogen to break down effectively. Microbes that break down waste need a certain amount of nitrogen for metabolism and growth. Although tree leaves are relatively high in nitrogen, adding nitrogen fertilizer or high-nitrogen components will accent decomposition. Grass clippings generally are high in nitrogen and will enhance decomposition when mixed properly with leaves.
For more information on composting and other environmental topics, contact the Harlan County Cooperative Extension Service at 573-4464.
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