The Q&A Archives: Leaf Compost Mulch

Question: What's the best way to compost autumn leaves? Last year, I just piled them up and let them be. Unfortunately, they still haven't decomposed completely. Should I have added manure or lime? Can you offer any advice?

Answer: Leaves from different types of trees will compost at different rates -- for instance, tough oak leaves take longer than more delicate leaves, like maple. Your pile will eventually rot down to rich leaf mold, but to speed the process you can chop them up with a lawn mower or shredder, and moisten them to the feel of a wrung out sponge. Mixing them thoroughly with a source of nitrogen such as fresh hot stable manure or a nitrogen fertilizer and adding a few shovels of garden soil adds microbes and a nitrogen source. Periodic turning of the mixture keeps it well aerated. If you want a compost pile to heat up quickly, the heap must be a minimum of about four feet square. Composting will happen faster in warm weather and stop when the pile is frozen, too, so you might try covering it with a dark tarp to try to keep it going longer into the winter. If you are going to use the leaves as mulch, they do not need to be fully composted. A roughly chopped and partly decomposed layer of leaves will last much longer in the garden than fully composted leaves.

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