Tag Archive | Composting

Improve Your Soil by Raking Less

by Terry Ettinger

1024px-Listí_na_hrázi_rybníkaIf you dread the annual fall leaf-raking marathon, I have good news for you: Raking and collecting leaves every autumn is a tradition without scientific basis. Research has proven that mowing leaves into your lawn can improve its vigor, and observation shows that unraked leaves in planting beds don’t smother shade-tolerant perennials. Based upon research at several universities, the organic matter and nutrients from leaves mown into lawn areas has been proven to improve turf quality. At Michigan State, researchers set a rotary mower to cut at a height of 3 inches and then mowed an 18-inch-deep layer of leaves into test plots. That’s the equivalent of 450 pounds of leaves per 1,000 square feet. The tests resulted in improved soil and healthy lawns with few remnant leaves visible the following spring.

You can achieve similar results if you set your mower to cut at the same height as in the Michigan State study, and mow at least once a week during peak leaf fall when your lawn reaches a height of 4 inches. Leaves shred most efficiently when slightly damp, so mow after a light dew. If you follow these simple guidelines, you will never rake another leaf and improve the quality of your soil. Build planting beds with leaves. Under trees or in other shady spots where a lawn won’t grow, you can create planting beds from fallen leaves as a source of soil-building organic matter. Shredded leaves applied as mulch protect tree roots from heat and cold and retain soil moisture during dry spells. Some gardeners believe that excess leaves can harbor insects or disease, but I have experienced no such problems in my garden.

autumn-494390_960_720After we bought our property, I created planting beds where the leaves would naturally collect on our densely shaded and sparse front lawn. It’s been 15 years since I’ve raked a single leaf dropped by these trees. Instead, the leaves settle among the hellebores, epimediums, Japanese forest grass, hostas, and spring-flowering bulbs, where they decompose over time, just like on the forest floor. Easy, ecological, and fiscally responsible To treat leaves as trash is both environmentally foolish and financially ruinous. Currently, many municipalities encourage residents to rake leaves to the curb for collection, but before they are collected, heavy rains often wash the leaves into catch basins. There, they decompose and release phosphorus and nitrogen into streams and rivers that flow through the community. These excess nutrients contribute to algae blooms during the summer, which result in lower oxygen levels, making it difficult for fish and other aquatic species to survive.

Rake your leaves into the empty beds, and shred them with a lawn mower. Sprinkle the leaves with a 1- pound coffee can’s worth of 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden. Turn the leaves, and water thoroughly to disperse the fertilizer, which speeds decay. Turn the leaves again in spring, and plant right through the remaining clumps, which will provide nutrients as they decompose.

Municipalities, both large and small, spend thousands, even millions, of dollars each year to collect, transport, and process autumn leaves, tying up resources that could be used elsewhere in our communities. If we all keep our leaves on our properties, we will improve our gardens, save money, and enhance the environment we all share. Your own source of free fertilizer A little effort can supply an organic source of nutrients for your plants. Here are two ways to use your leaves:

  1. Pile composting for mixed borders
  • Rake the leaves into loose piles or in wire bins about 4 feet square within your borders.
  • Mix in a few shovelfuls of soil, and add 20 to 30 gallons of water to aid decomposition.
  • Pull the piles or bins apart in the spring, and spread the decayed leaves throughout the border
  • Cover the decayed leaves with a 1-inch-deep layer of fresh mulch.

2. Sheet composting for annual beds

  • Rake your leaves into the empty beds, and shred them with a lawn mower.
  • Sprinkle the leaves with a 1-pound coffee can’s worth of 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden.
  • Turn the leaves, and water thoroughly to disperse the fertilizer, which speeds decay.
  • Turn the leaves again in spring, and plant right through the remaining clumps, which will provide nutrients as they decompose.
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Don’t get rid of those leaves!

NeaveFall2The weather has been beautiful — the weather has been rainy and cold.  Welcome to Spring in Wisconsin! On those days that are beautiful, have you been cleaning out your gardens, lawns, and under your trees?  All of those wonderfully dried leaves are just waiting to be turned into nutritious compost for your gardens. Compost provides the perfect amount of food for every plant — including essential nutrients not found in commercial fertilizers. Raking compost into your turf improves the structure of the soil under your lawn. If you think that plants need chemicals to survive, just look around you!  The woods, plains, and wildflowers sustain themselves without any man-made materials.

It all starts with shredding those leaves! Whole leaves take quite a while to break down on their own, and tend to mat together.  Whole leaves just sit there cold in compost piles.  Not only don’t they help — they can actually prevent the composting process.  Shred them up, though, and you create the perfect compost makings. Remember, though, that shredding decreases the volume by a factor of ten. In other words, 10 bags of whole leaves can be shredded down to the point where they can all fit in one bag.

imagesThere are a multitude of publications that help you with the dynamics of what to use for composting, how to compost, what to add, what not to add, etc.  You can use commercially manufactured compost bins, fenced-in piles, garbage cans studded with drainage holes, or simple black garbage bags — all of these solutions and more work to create quality compost as long as you’re using the right ingredients! My favorite book is Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost, which is written in plain English in a light and humorous style. There’s even a chapter on vermiculture (composting using worms). [Note: for more information on vermiculture, see our previous post here.] Another resource is a pamphlet produced by the UW-Extension Master Composter program, which can be downloaded and printed here.

Dark, nutrient-rich compost

Dark, nutrient-rich compost

Don’t be afraid to start composting — it’s easier than it looks and you can start small. You don’t have to make enough compost for all of your gardens — just set a goal to make enough for your container plants, or for one container! Your lawn and gardens will thank you for the nutrition, and you’ll save the money you would have spent on expensive fertilizers.

Earth Day 2015

Earth Day challenges us to consider various ways we might contribute mitigate our impact on the planet and its resources.

Each year, Wisconsin households still send 600 million pounds of “food waste” and compostable material to our landfills. Composting table scraps and yard waste can reduce the use of water and synthetic fertilizers. The microbial decomposition of biodegradable materials that have been piled, mixed and moistened will result in a humus-rich organic soil amendment containing nutrients that will foster plant growth. Compost moderates soil temperature, improves soil drainage, fertility, and structure, and can suppress weeds.

9bbce-compostrecipe

Compost bins are available for purchase for $45 at:

Outagamie County Recycling and Solid Waste Office
1419 Holland Road, Appleton

posted by Sue