The Usefulness of Fall Leaves
Lots of wind and cooler temperatures last weekend brought lots of leaves down. I haven’t mowed the lawn for about a month now, so it’s the perfect time for making quick and lazy leaf compost. Quick because I will use the mower, lazy because it’s a rider with a bagger. Basically I will ride around the yard and dump the contents of the bagger in a couple of key locations to decompose. The mix of high-carbon leaves with high-nitrogen grass results in a good quality compost that is useful as a soil conditioner or mulch. This compost is particularly beneficial to vegetables and flowers.
The thrifty side of me wants to proclaim that I have just developed a system that will nullify fertilizer useage in my landscape…unfortunately that’s not entirely true. The real benefit that comes from the liberal use of compost is the activation of biological activity in the soil. This activity includes worms, insects, bacteria, fungi and other critters as well, as their interactions with the roots of plants, that all form the soil ecosystem. The more active this community is, the healthier my plants tend to be. The nutrient story is way more complex than just the ingredients in the compost.
Easy leaf mulch/compost 101
First off, the process begins with whatever gets sucked into the bagger as I mow: leaves and grass, but also traces of bugs, dirt, sticks, deer and rabbit “fertilizer” etc. These are ready to start decomposing as soon as they enter the bagger. Then I dump them in one of two strategic locations: either my compost bed in the vegetable garden, or my compost pile in the back corner of the yard.
The pile in the vegetable garden rotates through the various beds. I pile a bunch of stuff on one of the beds, turn it a few times during the season, and just before the next planting time move what’s left to the bed next to it which will host the pile for a couple of months. Composting directly on the garden this way allows the whole composting process, and not just the end result, to benefit the plot. The benefits include: weed control (nothing grows under 3-4 feet of decomposing vegetation), well aerated soil with compost already incorporated (all of the decomposition organisms move freely from the soil to the compost and back), greater number of beneficial microbes retained within the garden (because they were there the whole time) and decreased labor for the gardener.
For greatest efficiency the crop that grows on the bed that just had the compost removed from it can be either a “hungry” crop (like broccoli) or one that demands a weedless environment (like onions). There is also some benefit to planning the compost rotation to follow a crop that tends to stress ensuing crops (like spinach) thereby giving both a rest and a “spa” treatment to that particular bed before growing in it again.
Stock pile the rest of the leaves
The leaves/grass that get dumped on the other compost pile have a more “traditional” process. They get turned in to the pile and mixed with rough stuff like egg shells, rootballs of old potted plants, sawdust, wood ashes, last summer’s sweet potato vines (that started growing again once they were put on the pile), and whatever else made it to the pile. I rarely turn this pile, however, opting instead to simply move-aside whatever has not broken down after a year and harvest the compost off of the bottom of the pile each spring.
In either of these piles, the ingredients of the compost are just the beginning. They are broken down by innumerable creatures that spend their lives, and generations within the pile. Some of the creatures work directly on the compost ingredients, others follow the decomposers to take care of whatever they might leave behind, if you know what I mean. When they expire, the creatures themselves become part of the compost and it continues to process until everything in the pile has reached a point of stability called humus (which would in reality take a very long time). The act of composting releases nutrients so that “rough” or “early” compost has a higher nutrient value than “finished” compost. Finished compost, on the other hand, does a better job of improving soil texture over the long term, than rough compost.
If you are just getting in to this gardening thing, now is perhaps the best time of year to begin composting. Start with leaves and grass, and welcome the hoardes of microscopic workers to your new compost pile. Happy gardening!