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Don't toss out those raked leaves! You can turn that fallen foliage into 'black gold' with a compost bin.

  • 3 min to read
Compost in a wire cage bin

A 3-foot-diameter wire cage makes a simple and inexpensive bin for composting this fall's fallen leaves.

As I was sitting at my desk trying to decide what to write about, I glanced out the window hoping that there would be a beam of inspiration. Well, there were no beams; it was cloudy, just like my brain. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew by, and with it came a deluge of leaves freshly detached from the tree outside the window. My first thought was “Hmmm, more work to do.” However, I have to admit, raking is another of those mindless tasks at which I excel. But then my brain awoke. Why am I complaining when I actually treasure those leaves, for there is no better source for creating organic matter to enrich our garden soil?

So often, as I drive around at this time of year I see plastic bags filled with leaves, sitting street side waiting for pick up. And I think “What a waste of such a valuable resource.” Fortunately, those bags of leaves often wind up in compost heaps at town facilities, a farm, or a commercial composting operation. In fact, I often refer to composted leaves as “black gold”.

Here are some steps in converting leaves to black gold. To start with, chop up the leaves. This can be done with the lawn mower or with a chopper/shredder. I don’t have the latter but thanks to the forethought of our daughter we have a battery powered mower with a mulching blade which finely chops leaves. This first step is not essential but leaves will decompose faster if chopped.

The next step is converting the leaves to compost. There are many methods of composting. One of the easiest, and one which I most often use, is to create a compost bin. There’s no need to buy expensive compost bins or drums. I simply use 12-foot-long pieces of 3-foot-wide, 1-by-2 inch-mesh fence. Each piece is formed into a 3-foot-diameter cylinder. These can be set up in the garden or in a corner of the yard. Recently, I started putting a piece of plastic downspout vertically in the center of each bin. Holes were drilled along all sides of the pipes to facilitate air flow to the center of the bin.

The chopped leaves are then tossed into the wire cage bin with alternating layers of grass clippings. The latter ingredient is rich in nitrogen and hastens decay of the leaves. Once filled, the leaves are left to decompose through the fall and winter.

As another alternative, simply stack chopped leaves into a pile that is at least 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall. Again, grass clippings can be added as a nitrogen source. Turing over the pile every few days with a garden fork will hasten decay. In addition, covering the pile with a tarp held down with bricks will help retain heat in the pile and speed decomposition.

By following these simple steps, there should be plenty of rich organic matter, aka black gold, to work into garden soils next spring.


While on the subject of leaves and composting, a question about the wisdom of putting diseased leaves onto a compost pile has come up a lot this fall. Given the frequent heavy downpours experienced this year, foliar diseases have been very common and a factor in the premature dropping of leaves from many trees. As such, is there a risk of these diseases being carried over to next year when using leaf-based compost?

The answer to that question is a definite “maybe”. It all depends upon how much heat is built up in the composting process. Generally, a minimum temperature of 131 F at the center of a compost pile sustained over 15 days is enough to kill diseases, as well as any weed seeds which find their way into the pile. This is especially important if diseased plant materials from gardens are also being composted. Temperature checks can be made using a long stemmed compost thermometer. Most garden centers will have these.

Here are some tasks that will raise your body temperature:

  • Rotate houseplants near sunny windows every few days so that it doesn’t look like they are trying to escape your lack of attention.
  • Divide a clump of mint and pot up a piece or two for growing on indoors. Mint doesn’t need as much light as other herbs, e.g. basil, and will do well indoors with just natural light from a south facing window. Mint also tolerates cool temperatures near windows better than other herbs do during winter months.
  • Don’t worry about perennial plants that were cut back earlier this fall and are now sending up new shoots. With the unusually mild weather this month, such regrowth is a fairly common occurrence, especially with daylilies. Just leave the plants alone, that is, don’t cut back this new green growth. Doing so may do more harm than good.
  • Place labels or small stakes in the ground near perennials that take their time emerging in spring. Knowing the location of these garden procrastinators will prevent disturbance to their roots when working garden soils next spring. Among the most tardy of perennials are balloon flower (Platycodon), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), butterfly weed (Asclepias), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), and Russian sage (Perovskia).
  • Sharpen mower blades. Fuel consumption is about 22 percent greater from mowers with dull blades. That may explain why I am so tired after my morning shave.

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