By Diane Schlindwein

July 1, 2011 4 min read

Those no-longer-lovely leaves that have landed on your lawn might just be the key to a beautiful garden next year. So instead of leaving loads of raked leaves by the curb, use them to make compost, recommends Kathy Rubino, a master composter.

"Composting is not new," Rubino says. "It has been a gardener's and farmer's best friend since the beginning. All organic matter eventually breaks down. Composting your own leaves uses the same principles that nature uses."

Start your compost pile by rigging up a compost container made from chicken wire and stakes, old railroad ties or even bricks. It's best to have a pile that is 3 feet tall, 3 feet wide and 3 feet long.

"Build a base of sticks or twigs on the bottom that will allow air to filtrate under the pile," Rubino says. "Fall leaves are the brown material, or the carbon, needed for composting and providing carbohydrates the good composting organisms digest to live and work efficiently."

Mix the leaves with a high-oxygen source, such as grass clippings, and periodically add the peelings of potatoes or other fresh vegetables. (Don't use dairy or meat products in your compost.) Your pile should be kept slightly moist -- similar to the moistness of a well-wrung sponge.

"Compaction of piles can occur if they are too wet," Rubino says. "Generally, a smelly pile is a wet pile with restricted airflow. Turning it, adding more brown materials and restricting water contact will help put the pile back into a healthy balance."

Christopher Starbuck, an associate professor of plant sciences for the University of Missouri, says: "You should chop up the leaves and get the moisture right. Also, what you want is balance between carbon and nitrogen. You want the ratio of carbon to nitrogen to be about 20-to-1."

One of the problems with composting leaves, according to Starbuck, is that by the time they are falling, the grass doesn't need to be mowed very often. "The solution may be to add nitrogen from a fertilizer bag," he says. Or use cottonseed meal, which is an organic source of nitrogen.

Try to compost deciduous leaves, not pine needles, Rubino says. "Some leaves are better than others. Oak leaves take longer to disintegrate, and walnut leaves will actually deter plant growth, so don't use them." Other good compost leaves include ash, cherry, elm, poplar and willow.

Be sure to shred your leaves or, at least, break them up as well as you can. The smaller the leaves the faster they will decompose.

Once you have your compost pile in place, turn it often. "The more you turn it the faster it goes," Starbuck says. "Your compost pile should be 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn it once a week. That fluffs it up and allows you to re-wet the pile."

Jennifer Fishburn, who is a spokeswoman for the University of Illinois Extension, says: "Anyone who plans to compost materials needs to check with his local ordinances for composting guidelines. For example, in our city, the compost pile has to be enclosed and it has to be three feet off the neighbor's property. But every city or town is different, and that's why you have to check."

If you have questions, contact your local Extension office. "We need to get people composting instead of piling those leaves at the curb," Fishburn says. "The main thing is to just do it. It's important."

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