Before you start bagging up all the excess dry leaves blanketing your front and backyard, why not consider turning them into rich compost? And it’s easier than you think. In fact, the leaves of one shade tree are worth their weight in compost gold. And in some cases, your fallen leaves can produce more nutrients for your soil than a bag of manure. What’s more, homemade compost supplemented with fallen leaves is free. This coupled with lawn and kitchen scraps, nutrient dense and widely available pumpkins, gourds, and winter squashes make for a healthy variety of garden gold just in time for spring planting. Here’s how to get started.
Create A Healthy Mix
Composting is based on a simple mix of a 4 to 1 ratio of carbon or “browns” and nitrogen or “greens”. Carbon-rich items or “browns” include fallen leaves, straw, peat moss, and saw dust. Nitrogen-rich items, on the other hand, or “greens” include kitchen scraps and lawn scraps.
Composting is actually quite simple and in the fall, fallen leaves make for easy composting. Start with 8 inches of leaves (your “browns”) and top with 2 inches of lawn or kitchen scraps (“greens”) to serve as a form of nitrogen. While most kitchen scraps like tea bags, fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, old spices, popcorn, seaweed, hay, and even pet hair can be composted, meat, fish, dairy, and oil scraps should not be added to your composting bin because they go rancid, don’t break down and can contaminate your compost pile.
You also need to add some native soil in between the layers. This adds in beneficial bacteria which can help rapidly break down the compost. Composting is an aerobic process that requires oxygen from either turning a more sophisticated composting tumbler or using a pitchfork to aerate your compost pile.
Additionally, in order for your compost to break down properly it must heat up to somewhere between 90 and 140 degrees F. If it doesn’t, it becomes a smelly mess and could become contaminated. But not to worry, compost heats up naturally if you have the correct 4 to 1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen, it’s properly aerated and you have enough beneficial bacteria from the added soil.
Choosing a Compost Bin
I prefer a compost tumbler stored near my kitchen back door because it’s convenient to move my daily kitchen scraps from the kitchen to the bin. It also has a neat appearance, and it’s easy to aerate. But the simplest way to compost is to create a loose compost pile in your backyard in a corner away from your house (if you have critters you may want to protect with chicken wire). Start by spreading straw over about 3 square feet of ground to help aerate your pile. Then alternate greens to browns with a layer of soil in between. You’ll want to turn your pile about every three weeks to allow aerate with oxygen to help facilitate the process. Cover with plastic sheeting if necessary to keep your pile from becoming too moist.
Pumpkins, Gourds and Winter Squashes Are Perfect For Composting Too
If you have a plethora of pumpkins left over from Halloween, gourds and winter squashes don’t throw them away. They are a perfect addition to your compost pile. First remove any artificial additions like candles, ribbons, or other remnants that may contaminate your compost bin. If you’ve painted your pumpkin, it’s best not to add it to the compost bin at all because paint can contain chemicals which can contaminate your soil. You’ll also want to remove any seeds from pumpkins and winter squashes, because although they are natural, they may germinate in the compost bin. Cut the pumpkin into small pieces and add directly to the compost bin. If you don’t have a compost bin, dig a hole in a garden bed, add the pumpkin, and top with soil. Let Mother Nature do the rest of the work.
How To Know When Fall Compost Is Ready
When it comes to composting, patience is the name of the game. Compost can take anywhere from a few months to a full year to completely decompose and greatly depends on the weather. Warmer weather will facilitate quicker decomposition where cooler weather will slow the process down. You can tell when it’s ready because it looks and smells like a rich dark soil. The end product also shrinks down quite a bit in volume and becomes super crumbly.
Roots, sticks, and other intact fruits and vegetables can be pulled from the compost pile when it’s otherwise completely broken down to speed the process along. This makes the end product more uniform.
Even though the weather is a bit crisp and even cold depending on where you live, starting a compost pile in the fall can be ideal. Not only is there tons of “brown” matter just waiting to be composted, with any luck your pile will be ready for the spring planting season.