Leaves contain 50-80% of the nutrients that plants uproot from the soil to thrive, making them one of the most efficient and worthwhile organic materials to recycle. In a traditional compost pile, they take a long time to break down. We’re going to show you how to compost leaves fast.
There are several ways that you can use leaves to enrich, protect, and enhance your garden. This article is dedicated to helping you learn how to compost leaves quickly as well as using them to protect your garden beds and make leaf mold.
Benefits of composting leaves
Leaves are considered “brown” (or dry) material for compost because the provide a high carbon source.
Any successful compost pile will be comprised of 3 parts brown material to 1 part “green” (or living/active) material such as food scraps, grass clippings, and weeds.
Leaves are a unique and uniquely beneficial compost material for a few reasons.
Benefits of leaf compost:
- Tree roots are very long, extending deep into the subsoil to take in nutrients and trace minerals that have leached out from the upper levels. When leaves fall, they still contain these trace minerals, which include boron, chlorine, copper, and iron. Trace minerals are essential to proper plant growth and they are only found in the subsoil.
- Even if you have just one large tree in your yard, you’ll have ample (and free) compost material in the fall that you’d otherwise have nothing to do with
- Finished leaf compost does an especially good job at loosening tight or heavy soil
How to Compost Leaves Fast: Set Up
Step 1) Should I use a bin?
Depending on where you live and the size of your yard, you can build your leaf compost as an open pile. That’s what I do in southern California. My pile sits happily (usually uncovered) in a corner of my yard where I let it do its thing through the winter and spring.
If you live where it snows or rains a fair amount, you would want to either cover your pile with a weighted-down tarp or use a bin or barrel to store and protect your pile.
TIP: To save money, build your own compost bin from a wide range of materials: wire fencing, cement blocks, bricks, wood slats or scrap lumber. Remember to keep the sides of the container open to a certain extent to allow for an adequate flow of air through the bin.
With an open pile or contained bin, you should also make sure to leave enough room to walk around it. Leaves mat together easily, which means that you’ll need to turn it more often than other types of compost piles.
As with any composting system, it’s most convenient to set up your bin or pile near an accessible source of water so that you can keep things moist.
Step 2) Add the leaves
Before you do anything, know that there are good leaves and bad leaves for composting.
Good leaves are lower in lignin (a polymer that makes cell walls rigid and woody) and higher in nitrogen, which means that they’ll break down the quickest:
Bad leaves are higher in lignin and lower in nitrogen, which means it will take closer to 2-3 years to break down completely.
- Sweet Chestnut
To discern good leaves from bad, just remember this about the color of shed leaves:
Green leaves mean go – add as many as you have
Yellow/red leaves mean slow – add them in moderation
TIP: You can (and should) compost oak leaves. Just know that they’re more acidic than other leaves so be extra cognizant of the quantity that you add. Many of your plants won’t tolerate the acidity of compost with high concentrations of oak leaves.
Brown leaves mean mold – skip the compost pile entirely and make leaf mold instead. (More on that later.)
TIP: Avoid entirely eucalyptus and black walnut leaves because they contain a natural herbicide that will kill your plants.
Step 3) Grind your Leaves
For quickest results, grind or shred your leaves before adding to your bin or open pile.
There are a few ways to grind leaves. You can use a shredder or string trimmer, but for most of us, it’s easiest to just mow them with a lawn mower and collect them in the bag.
Step 4) Add your greens
Remember that leaves are brown organic material with little nitrogen, so you need to layer in greens (grass clippings, other yard waste, kitchen scraps) to hit that magical 3:1 ratio of greens to browns.
TIP: Speed up the composting process with a compost accelerator to give your pile a boost of microbes.
Step 5) Turn, moisten, repeat.
Once your pile is built with 3:1 greens and leaves (browns), you need to turn it once a week (every few days is even better) and keep it moist.
Remember that finished compost should feel like a well-wrung sponge.
You can add some material to your pile as it “cooks,” but you should add greens instead of browns since nitrogen will keep things warm and speed up the process.
TIP: Chicken manure is a TREMENDOUS source of nitrogen. If you keep chickens, or know someone who does, sprinkling a little manure on your pile every few times that you turn it will turbo charge the process.
The two most common problems with leaf composts are matting and break down time.
A matted pile is no fun to turn but if you don’t break it up, your pile will lose air flow and won’t disperse water properly.
Mitigate matting by thoroughly shredding or grinding your leaves before you add them to your pile.
Finished leaf compost is a nutrient-rich material that will nourish your garden with hard-to-find trace minerals.
It’s a long-term investment but totally worth the effort. By starting with only good leaves (lots of green and some yellow/red), turning your pile often, keeping it moist, and jump starting microbe activity with a compost accelerator your pile will finish between 6-12 months.
3 other ways to recycle leaves
There are other ways to reap the benefits of leaves after they’ve fallen.
1) Garden top coat
Skip the compost pile entirely and add leaves directly to your fallow or unused vegetable and flower beds. They’ll insulate the soil through the winter, and protect them from heavy rains which can cause erosion.
2) Compost bin/container protection
Instead of in the compost bin, use leaves as an insulator around your containers. Build up leaves around the sides and tops of bins to protect the pile from extreme cold.
TIP: Turn your pile as often as possible in the winter. Even if that means regularly turning just the very top layers that don’t freeze.
3) Leaf mold
Some gardeners prefer to reserve leaves for a 99.9% leaf decomposition method that results in leaf mold aka “black gold” for gardens.
What is leaf mold?
Leaf mold is an earth-friendly, sustainable, and renewable replacement for peat moss.
It’s made by letting leaves (and only leaves) decompose in a moist pile. It’s not a method for how to compost leaves fast because it takes several years to finish. But it is the most passive way possible to get great compost.
Unlike composting, which is a “hot” process using microbes to break down organic material, leaf mold relies on a “cold” process whereby leaf tannins are broken down by specialized fungi that have evolved with trees for this very purpose.
FACT: Most of the peat moss that we buy in the US is mined from sphagnum bogs in Canada. These bogs or peatland have formed over centuries. Peat moss, which is the accumulation of vegetation debris in peatlands, is harvested and sold around the world.
Benefits of leaf mold for your garden
Like peat moss, leaf mold is an uber-rich mulch that has valuable benefits for your garden.
- Improves soil aeration
- Supplement for sandy soil to help it more effectively hold nutrients
- Improve moisture retention in all soil types
How to make leaf mold
- Make a pile with shredded (good) leaves. You can build a completely open pile, contain it with chicken wire or snow fencing, or store in a paper leaf bag.
- Add water if the leaves are dry.
- Wait 1-3 years.
TIP: You can use the pile before it’s completely finished. And it’s still really (really) good for your soil. The mold at the bottom of the pile will be done first so feel free to start harvesting from the ground up before the one year mark.
We hope that we’ve provided you with everything you need to know about how to compost leaves quickly. If you’re not in that much of a hurry, and you have the space, we also hope that you’ll try out 3 other ways to get the most out of the leaves that fall in your yard.
Leaves truly are one of the most beneficial materials that you can recycle back into your garden. And they’re completely free!