Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leaf Mold Compost- How to Turn Your Annual Nuisance into an Asset

My backyard is surrounded by majestic 100+ year old Oak trees. Which is all wonderful and nice until they dump bushels of crunchy brown leaves burying my garden every fall.

But a resourceful gardener will see those leaves as dollars gently swaying onto their lawn (probably more like pennies but the analogy is not as effective). Leaves can easily be turned into beautiful dark brown leaf mold compost that improves soil structure, increases water retention, and encourages life in the soil. All you need is a little space and patience.

We call it leaf mold because the leaves are breaking down without adding food scraps and other materials like in a compost bin. Of course you can still add leaves to your regular compost bin but most of us have more leaves than would ever fit in our backyard composter.

Leaf mold is very easy to make, basically just pile the leaves and let them decompose. However, for those of us without a great abundance of space and patience here are some good tips:

1. Make a “cage” 3ft x 3ft with stakes and chicken wire (both square and round will work)

2. Shred leaves with a lawn mower or weedwacker

3. Put leaves in cage
4. Keep leaves moist

Dead leaves are almost completely carbon so it could take a while for them to decompose. Shredding the leaves and keeping them moist will speed up your waiting time from two or more years down to less than a year.

If you’re like me, you’re staring at the giant mountain of leaves in your backyard thinking that you could probably supply the entire neighborhood with leaf mold once your finished. Don’t worry, once you shred the leaves they compact significantly. But if you still have too many leaves to compost yourself, there are some communities who will collect your leaves and compost them.

Here is a list of all Hamilton County communities and their yardwaste collection policies: http://www.hamiltoncountyrecycles.org/index.php?page=curbside-collection.


  1. leaf mold and compost all good though I think Oak leaves contain certain tannin properties which discourage other plant growt. So make sure oak leaves are REALLY broken down. Both oak and walnut are problematic in this area. Maple and other trees are perfect.

  2. The easiest way to mulch and collect the leaves is to use a blower/vac, I discovered they have a chopper impeller that mulches as you vacuum! I also collect neighbors leaves, just keep an eye out for those clear plastic garbage bags full of typically mower-mulched gold!! I usually score a few bales of hay that folks use for halloween decorations, great for putting out as mulch.

  3. What if I just leave the leaves on my grass through the winter? Is this bad or good for my lawn? Should I mow/mulch them to help them break down? (I have a silver maple)

  4. I would mow or mulch the leaves to help them break down. They likely won't break down on their own before spring and may end up smothering the grass.

    This is defintely something you can also do with grass clippings. Just leave the clipping on your lawn and they will quickly break down, providing nutrients to your soil.

  5. You definitely do not want to leave un-mulched leaves on your grass or garden beds if you can avoid it. They will cause mold or just plain smother the grass as Michelle noted.

  6. This question is not about leaves, but my Christmas tree. Once the holidays are over, can I compost my tree? How small should the pieces be if I cut it up, or can I throw it in my compost pile whole? Is there anything else I can do with it? I'd hate to throw it in the garbage!

  7. Great question! In general, a christmas tree will be far too large for a regular backyard compost bin. If you have some needles that fall off, feel free to sweep those into your bin but you'll want to look at alternative ways to compost the tree. First, see if your community has a tree pick up after the holidays. If not, you can visit one of our yardwaste drop-off sites around the county. Here is a link with community collection and drop-off site information. http://www.hamiltoncountyrecycles.org/index.php?page=recycle-your-christmas-tree

    Happy Holidays!