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How to Compost Leaves

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Ready to put all of those fallen leaves in your yard to good use? Making leaf compost or leaf mold is a cheap, easy, and environmentally-friendly project you can complete at home, and the finished product can enrich your garden soil or flower beds. Homemade compost insulates and adds nutrients to the soil as well as helps control weeds and retain moisture. All you need is brown matter (leaves), green matter (grass clippings or kitchen scraps), water, and air! Let’s get started.

Things You Should Know

  • Create a compost pile with equal amounts of leaves and grass clippings to speed up the decomposition process.
  • While you can use any type of leaves, maple, poplar, willow, ash, cherry, elm, and linden leaves decompose faster than holly, magnolia, oak, birch, and beech leaves.
  • Keep your leaf pile damp and turn it with a pitchfork every 2 weeks. After 4-9 months or once the compost is dark and crumbly, it’s ready to use in your garden.
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    Include maple, poplar, and willow leaves to speed up the process. While you can make compost with nearly any type of leaves, some decompose quicker than others. Maple, poplar, and willow leaves have high calcium and nitrogen content and will break down in less than 1 year. Other types of leaves that are great to use in a compost pile include ash, cherry, elm, and linden.[1]
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    Limit the number of oak, birch, beech, holly, and magnolia leaves. Leaves that have relatively little calcium (and other healthy minerals) can take as long as 2 years to break down, making them poor candidates for a compost pile. If you want to use your compost soon, avoid using any thick, waxy, or leathery leaves in your compost.[2]

    • Also, avoid using any leaves or twigs from black walnut trees, which contain harmful substances.[3]
    • Oak leaves take longer to decompose than many other types of leaves. If you find that oak leaves comprise the majority of your compost pile, shred them more thoroughly than the other types of leaves to make sure they compost well.

    EXPERT TIP

    Steve Masley has been designing and maintaining organic vegetable gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 30 years. He is an Organic Gardening Consultant and Founder of Grow-It-Organically, a website that teaches clients and students the ins and outs of organic vegetable gardening. In 2007 and 2008, Steve taught the Local Sustainable Agriculture Field Practicum at Stanford University.
    Steve Masley

    Try to avoid using a lot of leaves with a high wax content. Pat Browne and Steve Masley of Grow it Organically say: “If you use waxy leaves in your compost bin, your compost will shed water, rather than retaining it. That could make it hard for the plants in your garden to get the moisture they need.”

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    Shred your leaves with a lawnmower to help them decay quickly. Leaves can take many months to decay. To speed up this process, run a lawnmower back and forth over the leaf pile to grind the leaves into tiny pieces and slivers. Just keep in mind that the more finely shredded the leaves end up, the quicker they’ll start decaying.[4]
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    Gather nitrogen-rich grass clippings for your leaf compost pile. If you were to let the pile of leaves decay on its own, it would take over a year. Adding in nitrogen-rich grass clippings will speed up the process.[5]
    You can also use plant clippings, chicken droppings, manure, or blood and bone meal to add nitrogen to compost.

    • If you just want to create leaf mold to use as mulch, combine 4 parts leaves, 1 part grass clippings, and a shovel full of commercial compost or soil in each trash bag. Poke a few holes in the bottom of the bags for ventilation, water the mixture until it’s damp, then tie the bags shut. Let them sit for a few months to a year, then use the mixture as mulch to stop weed growth and insulate plants.[6]
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    Mix leaves and grass clippings into a 4 ft (1.2 m) by 3 ft (0.91 m) pile. Use an equal amount of brown (dead leaves) and green matter (grass clippings) and mix them together thoroughly. A large pile helps maintain the right temperature for quick decomposition. As leaves decay, they break down and shrink in size, so a leaf pile that looks huge at first may end up losing half its size over 6 months.[7]

    • For every 6 to 8 in (15 to 20 cm) of leaves and grass clippings, add 1 inch (2.5 cm) of soil or commercial compost to speed up the decomposition process.
    • Situate the compost pile on a well-draining patch of dirt or grass to allow excess moisture to drain. Avoid putting your leaf pile on concrete or asphalt.[8]
    • If you rake together a leaf pile that’s much smaller than 4 feet (1.2 m) wide and 3 feet (0.91 m) tall, it won’t generate sufficient heat internally to kill off weeds and disease-causing organisms.
    • If you have tons of leaves or want to create a lot of compost, create a rectangular pile that’s 10 feet (3.0 m) wide and 5 feet (1.5 m) tall.
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    Contain your compost in a bin or fenced-in area, if desired. If you want a more aesthetically-pleasing option, get a compost bin to make your leaf compost in. Alternatively, surround the pile with chain link fencing, which will let air circulate through the composting leaves and hold the leaves closely together so that they’ll stay damp and compost relatively quickly.[9]

    • If you prefer to contain your pile even more, use wooden slats, like those on a shipping crate. Nail the slats together into a 4 ft (1.2 m) by 3 ft (0.91 m) rectangle surrounding your compost pile.
    • Using a compost bin or fencing will also help keep your leaves contained so they don’t blow around in the wind.
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    Include kitchen scraps in your compost pile to add richness. As the grass clippings and leaves decay, you can begin adding more organic material to the pile. Include fruits and veggies, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, crushed eggshells, nut shells, shredded newspaper, cardboard, or paper, houseplants, hay, straw, and sawdust.[10]

    • When you add kitchen scraps, bury them about 10 inches (25 cm) deep in the pile.[11]
    • Avoid adding meat, fish, poultry, or dairy products to your compost pile.[12]
      Similarly, avoid adding foods containing fat or oil, bones, coal, charcoal, wood ash, or pet waste.[13]
      These items don’t decompose well, and could introduce harmful bacteria to your compost or even attract animals to your yard.
    • Don’t add diseased plants, plants treated with chemical pesticides, or plants that spread through roots or rhizomes (like ivy).[14]
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    Keep the pile damp. Check your compost pile every few days and add enough water so that the material stays moist, but not soggy. The amount of water to add depends on the climate, humidity, and amount of rainfall in your area. For example, if it rains frequently, you may not need to add water at all. If you live in a dry climate, you might need to water your compost a few times per week.[15]

    • Avoid creating standing pools of water. Water so that the compost is damp enough that when you can pick up a handful of compost and squeeze, only a few drops of water drip out.
    • If your compost gets too wet, mix in shredded newspaper or sawdust.[16]
    • Put the compost pile in a shaded area to reduce moisture loss. If your compost pile is exposed to direct sunlight for more than 3–4 hours a day, much-needed moisture will evaporate from the leaves and organic matter.[17]
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    Turn your compost every 2 weeks. Dig the tip of the pitchfork or shovel into the bottom of the pile of compost and turn clockwise to mix the compost. Continue mixing until the whole pile has been turned through, the top layer is buried, and the leaf compost looks fresh and wet on the top.[18]

    • Turning the compost pile frequently speeds up the process, allows the leaves to decompose uniformly, and keeps a good mixture of oxygen throughout the pile.
    • The moist pile of leaves and clippings will heat up in the center to speed up decomp, which is often called “cooking.”
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    Cover your leaf pile with a tarp to insulate it. Adding a tarp can preserve heat in a colder climate, and also helps trap moisture.[19]
    Drape the tarp over the pile and pin down the edges with rocks. Or, drape the tarp over the fence that surrounds your compost pile and secure it to the fence.

    • Using a tarp can also keep your leaves from blowing away in the early stages before they’ve had a chance to break down.
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    Use the finished compost once it’s dark and crumbly. When the compost is ready to use (which could take 4-9 months), it will have a rich, earthy smell, and feel thick and crumbly. You shouldn’t be able to see individual blades of grass or leaves at this point.[20]
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    Add your leaf compost to your garden to enrich the soil. Mix a 38 to 34 inch (0.95 to 1.91 cm) layer over the surface of your garden or flower beds and mix it into the top 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) of the soil.[21]

    • To use compost as mulch, simply add a 2 to 4 inches (5.1 to 10.2 cm) layer around the base of your plants.
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Steve Masley Steve Masley has been designing and maintaining organic vegetable gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 30 years. He is an Organic Gardening Consultant and Founder of Grow-It-Organically, a website that teaches clients and students the ins and outs of organic vegetable gardening. In 2007 and 2008, Steve taught the Local Sustainable Agriculture Field Practicum at Stanford University.

Steve Masley

Home & Garden Specialist

Expert Answer

Try to avoid using a lot of leaves with a high wax content. If you use waxy leaves in your compost bin, your compost will shed water rather than retaining it. That could make it hard for the plants in your garden to get the moisture they need.

  • Question

    What can I do about ants and flies?

    Community Answer

    Community Answer

    If you’re composting and getting ants and flies, then you probably have something sugary or some sort of meat in the pile. Leave that out to avoid such pests.

  • Ask a Question

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    Things You’ll Need

    • Need more leaves? Call local landscaping companies and ask if you can pick up bagged leaves from them.
      As a small thank you, we’d like to offer you a $30 gift card (valid at GoNift.com). Use it to try out great new products and services nationwide without paying full price—wine, food delivery, clothing and more. Enjoy!

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    About This Article

    Steve Masley

    Co-authored by:

    Home & Garden Specialist

    This article was co-authored by Steve Masley and by wikiHow staff writer, Sophia Latorre. Steve Masley has been designing and maintaining organic vegetable gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 30 years. He is an Organic Gardening Consultant and Founder of Grow-It-Organically, a website that teaches clients and students the ins and outs of organic vegetable gardening. In 2007 and 2008, Steve taught the Local Sustainable Agriculture Field Practicum at Stanford University. This article has been viewed 41,526 times.

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    Updated: October 29, 2022

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