Home & Garden

Over the garden fence: Use those leaves that are falling now to make a compost pile

Although the autumn foliage in the mountains and valleys is a bright hue of reds, oranges and other beautiful fall colors, we can already observe that they are falling to the ground and will have to be raked up in the yard and disposed of.

The leaves at our homestead fall harmlessly in the woods and breakdown and create more wonderful humus on the forest floor. When we lived in Park Forest, leaves — especially oak — were readily abundant. We use to rake them out to the curb and put them in a large wire enclosure and then the Ferguson Township trucks would come by and suck them up to be made into mulch.

I like to view the disposal problem positively and see the leaves as a resource to be used to improve the soil in the garden. If there are places in your yard or garden where the soil isn’t as good as it might be, perhaps you could solve both problems — disposal of leaves and improving the soil — at one time by making a compost pile.

Almost every yard can provide leaves and grass clippings for a compost pile. If you have a garden, you’ll also have plenty of vines and stalks and other plant parts to add to the pile. It is a lot easier to use them at home than to haul them away or bundle them up for the township leaf collectors to pick up.

To start a compost pile, use an open-ended bin or box about three feet high, three feet wide and any length. It is best to place this bin in a shaded place. Start by putting 6 to 12 inches of plant material in the box. Add water if the material is dry and add about a cup and a half of a 10-10-10 garden fertilizer for each bushel of organic matter. Cover all this with a one-inch layer of soil.

Continue to alternate layers of organic matter, fertilizer and soil, ending with a soil layer on top of the completed pile. I would not add meat scrapes or bones as they may bring in unwanted rodents to the compost pile and bones also take a long time to break down. My longtime friend, Mark from Ocean City, New Jersey, has been burying all his fish skeletons that he has caught over the years in his garden and once in a while he will unearth the jawbone of a large bluefish, with its sharp teeth still intact. Ouch!

The pile should be kept moist but not wet. The decomposition process will take about a year. Do not use the compost until it has decomposed completely. The unrotted material will take nutrients from the soil rather than adding to them.

You can use your compost as a low-grade fertilizer by mixing it into the soil. It not only adds nutrients to the soil but also improves the water-holding capacity and texture of the soil.

Before actual construction of your compost pile, check with local authorities as to possible zoning regulations against such a unit. There are also many compost bins on the market that you can purchase. If properly maintained, you will be the only one to know your compost pile exists. In nature everything is composted and recycled, so composting leaves, grass clipping and plant material from your garden and flowerbeds makes sense.

Bill Lamont is a professor emeritus in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by email at wlamont@psu.edu.