Blackwelder: Leaves good for compost
The leaves of autumn not only provide beautiful color, but can also be a source of plant nutrients through composting.
Composting leaves and other plant material also aids in conserving moisture, improves the physical properties of the soil and reduces weed competition. Leaves and other yard wastes are banned from most landfills, making composting a viable alternative for homeowners.
Composting is actually the decomposition of organic materials that include leaves, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, spent vegetable plants and other organic material.
When composting, try to avoid adding pine needles to the composting pile; pine needles tend to break down very slowly, as do citrus rinds, corn cobs and pecan shells. Meat scraps should not be used in a compost pile because these attract unwanted animals such as skunks or opossums.
Spent leaves and other organic material, along with soil and fertilizer, are piled into a large compost “sandwich.” A layer of leaves 10 inches or more is followed by an inch of soil and a sprinkling of fertilizer. Microbes within the soil accelerate the decomposition of leaves and other material. Organic fertilizer companies have packaged bacteria and other microorganisms that specifically break down organic materials.
Fertilizer supplies nitrogen, feeding the microbes breaking down the organic matter. Lime may also be added when the composting operation is completed. Avoid adding lime at the beginning of the operation since lime converts the nitrogen to a non-usable form that cannot be used by microbes.
Leaves shredded through a mower expedite the decomposition process. Shredding large leaves such as maple and some oak leaves helps them break down faster.
Compost material can be held in different types of structures during the decomposition process. The structures can be as simple as a piece of wire or pressure treated lumber to electric drums which automatically turn composting material. Most home gardeners locate compost piles or bins in low visibility areas readily accessible to the family vegetable garden.
Compost piles should be turned occasionally to prevent unpleasant odors and hasten decomposition. Turning also exposes unwanted weed seeds, insects and pathogens to high temperatures.
The final product from the compost pile should be brown and earthy, similar to peat moss. Composting usually takes a year to complete, depending on weather conditions, material to be composted, etc. Homeowners should use the material as soon as possible to make room for more composting material from the upcoming season.
A perfect demonstration of a working compost pile can be found at the West End Community Park Horticultural Demonstration Garden located on Brenner Avenue near the railroad tracks. Compost is readily used in the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden test plots. More complete information on composting can be found at http://www. ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8100.html
Darrell Blackwelder is an agricultural agent in charge of horticulture with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County. Call him at 704-216-8970.