November in the garden: composting leaves

Posted on: 16 November 2017 by 50connect editorial

Life in the garden in November seems to be dominated by leaves.

composting leaves

I've been sweeping and raking them up for some time now, but last weekend signified the start of leaf collection in earnest.

There are a number of approaches to this annual clean up and what to do with the remains, but it basically comes down to horse power or elbow power. 

I prefer the elbow power approach as it's quieter and gives me some exercise that I just don't get enough of - it' also better for the environment but in my case that is an accidental extra rather than the reason I do it. Armed with my spring tined rake (like in the picture above) I sweep across the lawn pulling the leaves together in piles that centre in circles the radius of the rake handle plus my arm length wide. It's a good idea to rake from alternate sides, left then right so you don't get too tired too soon or end up like Popeye from one side and Olive Oyl on the other. This method also has the advantage that the lawn gets some degree of scarifying if you didn't do that last month - and the added grass, moss and thatch pulled up adds nitrogen and so helps the leaves to rot down all the better. Don't underestimate the amount of effort this involves, it's a pretty good work out and will need to be repeated a few times before the end of the month.

The horse power method involves the use of a blower / vac to gather the leaves into one place and / or shred them in the process. Alternatively you could get the lawn mower out, put the grass box on and set the blades to a high setting - collection / shredding and mixing with grass clippings for optimal composting. This only works the once as grass won't really grow much now, and it's not a good idea to try it with great piles of leaves, but it's certainly a short-cut everyone should try.

Composting

Once they are gathered together the next problem is what to do with them. The ideal thing is to shred them and compost them properly like you would with any garden waste. Ordinary garden shredders are able to chew the leaves up (which is the best way to get them to rot down) but have a tendency to get clogged if the leaves are wet or if you try to put too much in at any one time.

There's a product I came across recently that seems to only be available in the US at the moment that should solve the problem admirably. A shredder but with a nylon-line "blade" like a nylon-line strimmer upside down and in a box. Another possibility that I've heard suggested but not tried (I don't have a strimmer) is to put the leaves in a large garden waste bucket and shred them with an ordinary strimmer. 

You will often see advice to place the leaves in an open-sided mesh container and let them rot down more slowly than ordinary garden waste. This certainly works, but I'm too impatient for this, with a little bit more effort, you can get the leaves to rot down quicker. First of all they are high in carbon and low in nitrogen which is why they rot slowly, so tip the balance by adding lawn mowings - a good source of nitrogen, or other green material, weeds are fine. You could also add a compost accelerator, though I don't, or pee on the heap, which I do. 

It's important that the leaves are wet enough, if they're very dry jump on them while on the heap for a bit to break them up first and then give them loads of water. My heaps are about 1m x 1m x 0.5m and they get around 6-10 gallons for a good wetting. The sides should be closed but ventilated, I use pieces of ply taken from old furniture with 1" diameter holes drilled at 6" intervals. The top should be covered too, very important this, more so than the sides. Otherwise the heap either dries out or gets too wet and cold from rain. If the top can be insulated as well then all the better, old carpet folded over is ideal. 

Once put together, the heaps should be opened after around 2 weeks, I force a broom handle through to the ground at about 1ft intervals to get some air in to let the bacteria breathe. If it's all going well, the handle will be distinctly warm when it comes out and the holes may even steam - most satisfying! Eventually momentum will slow down and falling temperatures will slow things down a lot. When you get a chance next Feb or March, turn the heaps over to get it all going again.

Chicken wire sided bins are allowed if you have absolutely piles leaves to deal with, but whatever you do, please don't burn the leaves, many local councils have recycling schemes for garden waste these days where you can take them.

By Paul Ward

www.angliangardener.co.uk

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