Nesting: Leaf Bonanza

Autumn foliage is a thing of beauty … unless all that beauty is strewn knee-deep in your yard. You can’t put yard waste out with your regular trash pickup, and if the fallen leaves stay on the lawn it could lead to rotting grass. So why not try the natural way to recycle? Compost.

“For a gardener, composting is the ideal soil amendment, regardless of the type of soil,” explains Carl Matyac, agriculture extension agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. “It improves the ability of the soil to absorb more moisture and hold it there for the plants to become hydrated, then allows excess moisture to drain once the plants have used what they need.”

New to composting? Here’s how to get started:
– Shred the leaves, either with a shredder or lawn mower. If you use a mower, catch the leaves in a bag or blow them into a pile.
– Spread the shredded leaves directly on your garden. Don’t pile them on perennials, but you can lay them thickly over winter root vegetables.
– If you have more than your garden can handle, start a full compost pile.

Creating a Compost Pile
“Put the leaves in a pile and add grass clippings and water,” Matyac explains. “You need four basic ABCs in a compost pile: carbon, nitrogen, water and oxygen.” Occasionally turn the pile to provide oxygen, keep it moist and add fertilizer (nitrogen) to encourage the pile to decompose (the leaves are the carbon component).

Compost is ready to be used when you can no longer see the original ingredients and the material is dark and crumbly. It will smell rich and earthy. Use it as you’d use mulch from the store — spread it in a thick layer over exposed soil.

If you have a very large, tree-covered area, don’t stress about picking up every last leaf. According to Matyac, leaves naturally degrade, break down and form soil in a forest area, “so there’s really no need to be totally meticulous about removing all the leaves from that type of environment.” If your leaves blow onto other plants or grassy turf, then rake them and compost.

Tips for Success
– Compost won’t smell bad if it’s maintained properly. Occasionally turning the pile helps prevent odors and promotes decomposition. To turn, either fork the whole pile into another location, such as a second bin, or rotate the contents.
– Be sure to keep the pile moist but not fully saturated.
– It may be helpful to have two bins: one that you fill regularly and another that is farther along in decomposition.
– The compost pile will feel slightly warm in the center from the decomposition. That’s the goal, so if it’s too cool, turn the pile to introduce more oxygen.

Composting isn’t a quick process. It can take up to a year or more to produce a really good product. But here’s the good news: Those fall leaves float down year after year, providing ample material to feed your compost pile.

Kathleen Reilly is a Triangle-based writer who enjoys the outdoors with her family.