Nature's Guide To Great Compost

By: Skip Richter

Composting Each year Texans purchase compost, mulch and other forms of organic matter by the truckload to enhance their vegetable gardens, flower beds and other landscape areas. Yet the most readily available, inexpensive source of soil-building products is routinely discarded by the majority of Texans - leaves, grass clippings and other organic landscape wastes.

Experienced gardeners know the value of compost when it comes to growing beautiful, healthy, productive gardens. There is nothing like it for building the soil and creating a perfect environment for roots to grow.

Black Gold

Most gardeners have a compost heap or bin near the garden for recycling yard and kitchen wastes into the "black gold" that feeds the soil and stimulates plant life. Anyone who has made compost can tell you its value in building garden soil and making potting soil for container plants. They will also tell you that you can never seem to make enough. A bin heaped full of fresh plant materials will break down into a fraction of its volume in compost.

In order to make enough compost to significantly improve the soil in a medium- to large-size garden, you may need enough bins to encircle the entire garden! But there is another way.

More Compost, Less Work

Are you interested in learning how to make more compost than you ever have before, with less work than you would spend maintaining and turning a couple of bins? How about doing all this with no bins, no turning, and no worrying about getting the pile to heat up properly? Sound too good to be true? It isn't, and it really works.

To find out how let us begin with a look at the natural way plants in forests and meadows feed themselves and build the soil. Plant roots extract water and nutrients from the soil and then transport them up through the stems to the leaves. The "food factories" in the leaves use sunlight to turn the elements into carbohydrates and other products to feed the plant and build more plant material. By a marvelous design these leaves drop to the ground where they serve two very important functions to the plant:

  • They cover the soil, shading out competitive weeds and protecting the roots from erosion, excessive drying and extreme temperatures.

  • Then earthworms, arthropods and microbes begin to decompose the leaf litter, supplying nearby plants with a natural, slow-release form of nutrients.

    Rain percolates through the spongy leaf litter covering the forest floor or meadow soil surface washing nutrients down to the plant roots.

    Experienced gardeners know the importance of mulching, fertilizing and applying compost. These activities are simply our way of doing what nature does. Why not put the natural cycle to work for you? Leaves and other types of landscape and garden plant debris are valuable assets to gardeners. Over half of the nutrients your trees extracted from the soil and air during the season are found in its leaves. Recycling them back into your garden and landscape makes sense. Let's look at three simple, easy ways to turn leaves into soil in your garden:

    Mulching

    Perhaps the easiest way to recycle leaves is to use them to mulch the soil surface. This mulch will decompose over time, building the soil as it breaks down. Flower beds and vegetable gardens benefit from mulch that is 2 or 3 inches deep. Shrubs and trees can use 3 to 4 inches. If you have any extra leaves left over, stockpile them to replenish mulched areas when the weather begins to get hot in June.

    Do not be afraid to use pine needles, too. Their physical characteristics make a very good, long-lasting mulch. All the bad press they have received on making the soil too acidic is undeserved and amounts to a pinch of truth wrapped in a pound of bunk! They will only slightly lower the soil pH over a period of several years. If you live in East Texas and are concerned about the pH dropping below an acceptable level, simply sprinkling a little lime over the mulch will do the trick for several years.

    To collect your leaves for mulching, the old fashioned method of raking the yard works fine of course and is good exercise for that New Year's resolution you made, but there are easier ways. Your lawn mower can be used to blow them into windrows for fast, easy collection. Or, a bagging mower can be used to partially shred and collect leaves.

    Sheet Composting

    Leaves and grass clippings may be gathered and worked directly into garden and flower bed soils. Spade or rototill a layer of leaves and a little high-nitrogen fertilizer into your garden in the fall. In a few weeks you will have a rich, well-prepared soil ready for spring planting. Shredded materials are the easiest to rototill in and decompose the fastest. Once again, your mower will do an adequate job of shredding for you. If you have a large quantity of leaves to mix into the soil, it is easiest and most effective to rototill them in a little at a time. Spread a layer only a few inches deep, rototill the area, and repeat the process. By incorporating leaves into the soil now, your garden will be enriched and ready for planting in spring.

    Walkway Composting

    The easiest way to compost large quantities of leaves in the garden is by walkway composting. Using this method, you can turn those leaves into garden soil over the course of a season or two. This method is so easy and so effective that I am surprised virtually every gardener with walkways between their garden beds does not utilize it. This is how it is done. In the walkway spaces between raised beds, dump your leaves about 1 to 2 feet deep. Walk down the path to press them down and then wet them well with a water hose. When the leaves have been stomped down into the bottom of the walkway from foot traffic, another thick layer of leaves can be added and the process repeated. Over time, the leaves will continue to press down and you can keep adding leaves to the surface until the walkway is as high as the garden beds. This takes a LOT of leaves. You will want to enlist neighbors to donate their bagged leaves to the cause. I have put several hundred bags of leaves into walkways of a 40-foot-by-40-foot garden by this method. It is difficult to believe until you try it yourself. But I warn you, such easy composting can be addictive. In fact, gardeners doing walkway composting may soon find themselves making a weekly predawn leaf run through the neighborhood to support their habit!

    This walkway of compacted leaves makes a great "all-weather" garden pathway. I have noticed that even after several inches of rain, enough to turn a garden path into a muddy mess, the spongy surface allows easy access into the garden. In a couple of months the leaves below the surface will have turned into the partially decomposed, chocolate-brown material called "leaf mold." You will still see the shape and form of some leaves, but they crumble to the touch. In another month or so the material will decompose further into compost. Both of these forms of "black gold" are ready to use as mulch or to work directly into your garden soil.

    It's Compost!

    This is the only time a compost fork is needed in this easy composting method. Rake back the undecomposed surface layer of leaves to expose the composted material beneath it. Scoop the material directly from the walkways onto the raised beds for use as a mulch or to mix in as a soil amendment. The mat of leaves in the walkways will be quite dense and not easily dug. For much easier handling you can run a tiller down the walkway and then easily shovel the loosened material onto the beds. Rototilling once, about halfway through the season, will break up the decomposing leaves and speed up the process but is not necessary. You can also speed up the process by adding green grass clippings or a sprinkling of nitrogen fertilizer. But remember that this is not necessary. After all, no one fertilizes the forest floor! Your normal gardening practices such as watering and fertilizing will do a lot to speed up the process anyway.

    Since each walkway has an adjacent row, your entire garden can receive as much as about 4 inches of compost every time you "harvest" the walkways. I have found it less work and quite effective to harvest every other walkway when I complete a gardening season, say from warm to cool season or vice versa, moving the compost onto both beds adjacent to a harvested walkway. Then harvest the other walkways next time. This method even benefits plants before the compost is moved up onto the garden beds. During the decomposition process nutrients are being released to the growing plants. I have uncovered okra roots as large as your little finger growing in the moist, nutrient-rich environment of the walkways.

    This fall, when cold weather brings on the deluge of leaves in your neighborhood, give these easy ways to compost in the garden a try. Those leaves are truly nature's own slow-release fertilizer! Put the natural processes of mulching and composting to work in your garden. You will be surprised just how easy and effective it can be.