November is an excellent time to start composting especially if your yard is full of trees.
Many homeowners will rake all their leaves down to the roadway so the county can take them to the landfill — but by composting the leaves the homeowner can create a wonderful soil amendment at almost no cost to them.
Composted leaves can be used as a slow release fertilizer for trees, shrubs and vegetable gardens.
It improves the soil aeration and water holding capacity and it can suppress many of the soil borne diseases that attacks the roots of plants.
How does compost work? The microbes on the leaves are already there waiting to help nature compost the leaves into soil, the homeowner just needs to help it along.
Leaves when they fall off the tree are a great source of carbon while fresh grass clippings, green weeds and kitchen waste are a great source of nitrogen, two of the ingredients needed to create a compost pile.
To start a compost pile, pick a level spot in the yard a bit out of the way but near a water source.
Compost doesn’t need to be created in full sun since it is the microbes that do all the heavy work and not the sun.
Water is necessary since all living things including the microbes need water and the compost pile should never be allowed to dry out.
Air is also necessary for the life of the microbes.
Lots of compost is created in a three bin system but one will do if room is limited.
The advantage of a three bin system is the ability to start the compost in one bin, when it is almost done it can be transferred to the second bin and the first can be filled up to start more compost.
With only one bin, the new materials are just piled on top of the old.
The bins can be created with wire fencing, old pallets, snow fencing, or even cement blocks loosely stacked to allow air into the compost.
There are also tumbler units if space is limited or the appearance is important.
The space for the compost pile should be no larger than five feet tall and five feet wide and deep.
Start with about a foot of leaves and then add a thin layer of cut grass, kitchen vegetable scraps. Follow up with more leaves (the carbon source) and more cut grass, coffee grounds, tea bags, fruit and vegetable peelings, weeds (the nitrogen source) until the pile is up to 5 feet tall.
Horse, cow or chicken manure can be added for the nitrogen source but never add dog or cat manure to a compost pile.
The microbes will begin to break down the plant materials and will heat up the compost pile up to 160 -180 degrees F within a few days by digesting the sugars and starches of the compost ingredients.
The microbes work best with moist ingredients and lots of oxygen. If the ingredients dry out or the air is limited, the microbes slow down until the pile receives the needed moisture and air. If a compost pile gets too wet, the ingredients can be turned or stirred up to dry it out a bit.
Compost piles that are turned or stirred regularly will become useable compost in four short weeks.
The materials can be chopped or shredded to smaller pieces, or the leaves can be run over by a lawn mower to achieve the same results.
For the faster composting, the pile should be turned every three days to mix the carbon sources of leaves and the nitrogen sources of greens together.
In the summer the compost pile will give off heat and steam will attest to the heat that is being generated.
Be sure to maintain the proper moisture during the high heat!
After two weeks the temperatures will drop as the composting process slows down.
Let the compost pile age about two more weeks until the material looks brown and crumbly and smells earthy.
Compost piles left alone will still compost but it may take six months to a year to mature into true compost.
(Editor’s Note: Ginny Rosenkranz is a commercial horticulture specialist with the University of Maryland Extension.)