How to Compost Leaves

Don’t just rake those fall leaves — recycle them into valuable garden compost.

wet leaves in a basket

Leaves for Compost

Photo by: Shutterstock/Kritsada S

Shutterstock/Kritsada S

Autumn leaves are good for the soil. This is most apparent during walks through the woods, when you feel the spongey earth beneath your feet, see the dark, rich humus just beneath the blanket of leaf litter, and breathe the sweet smell of the organic matter feeding the forest floor. 

You don’t need to recreate a woodland environment to get the benefits of fallen leaves in your home landscape. Simply collect some autumn leaves and follow these simple steps to create leaf mold or leaf compost for your garden.

What is the difference between leaf mold and leaf compost? 

Leaf Mold is simply decayed autumn leaves with very few, if any, additional materials. The finished product will resemble the black humus that you would find in the woods. One technique is to collect leaves in a pile, bin or bag. If left undisturbed, it may take more than a year to create leaf mold. 

For faster results, be sure to keep the pile moist, mix things around occasionally to break up clumps and add air, and use chopped leaves rather than whole ones if possible. Whole leaves resist decay, so ripping up leaves with a leaf shredder, lawn mower, weed eater, or manually can help speed up decomposition.

Another method is to spread a thick layer of autumn leaves across the surface of a garden bed. Keep moist through the fall and winter and till into the soil in the spring. The leaves will continue to slowly decay in the ground, feeding soil organisms, releasing minerals to plant roots and improving the soil texture.

Leaf Compost is created by combining mostly autumn leaves (which are high in carbon) with a small amount of what composters call “green” material that is high in nitrogen. The nitrogen in the green material allows decomposing bacteria to unlock carbon in the fall leaves, speeding up the composting process. Grass clippings, food scraps, some manure and even small amounts of processed pet foods are good sources of nitrogen. 

Start the pile by alternating thin layers of leaves and greens. Sprinkle a bit of water across each layer so that it is damp, but not soggy. If left undisturbed, the ingredients will eventually begin to break down. Keep the pile moist and turn occasionally to speed up decomposition. For even faster results, use chopped leaves rather than whole ones.

How to Use Composted Leaves

Once your leaf mold or compost has broken down, you can begin to incorporate in the garden. Finished leaf products will be completely broken down with few, if any, remaining leaf fragments. This is a fine product to mix in container plantings or place in holes for new plants. 

However, leaf molds and composts don’t need to be completely finished before using in the landscape. If some leaf fragments remain, you can mix into the soil before new installations, spread an inch or so as mulch on top of the soil, or use as an ingredient in new composting projects. 

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