Lots of Leaves, Some Grass Clippings – How do I Start a Compost Pile with Limited Materials?
by Rob Frisby
(Sandy, UT. USA)
Years ago my grandfather told me that his dad said to never put leaves in the garden because it soured the soil.
For many years I have just raked my leaves and dumped them in the garden in the fall and spread my lawn grass clippings out in the spring and tilled it all in.
I think I have found that my great grandfather was right, I am having a real problem growing gardens now because the leaves have depleted the nitrogen out of the soil.
So now I am going to start composting, the only problem I think I will have is not having enough green matter to mix with all of my leaves. I have a half acre of ground with several trees which give me tons of leaves but the only green I have is my lawn clippings to mix with them. I can only mix green and leaves as I mow my lawn.
My question is will my compost turn out good with only being able to add to it layer upon layer when I mow through the summer?
I grow a large garden, it's about 1/3 of the half acre plus all of the fruit trees, grape vines, strawberry and raspberry patches. I get enough leaves to completely cover the garden with about 6-8" of leaves, I mow my lawn about once a week and get about three large wheelbarrow loads each time.
That's what I have to work with other than food scraps and my daughter saves her bunny poop for me.
I live in Sandy Utah, cold winters and hot dry summers.
Some Options on Using Leaves Including Composting
You have a few options here. I'm going to go through your questions bit by bit.
Souring or Nitrogen Depletion
Leaves can be a great addition to the garden. I wonder though about it souring the soil. Souring usually refers to lowering the pH, in other words making the soil more acidic. If leaves do sour the soil in your area that might actually be a bit helpful. Often dry areas tend to have alkaline soil.
I think though that you do have a case of nitrogen depletion. The microbes in your soil need nitrogen in order to multiply and eat up that carbon rich food the leaves provide. Because you waited until Spring and tilled in the leaves with some of the early grass mowings things went rather well. The grass is more nitrogen rich, especially in the spring.
This created a balance of sorts. But even the combination of leaves and spring grass is going to occupy those microbes and tie things up at the time you are also sowing your garden.
Mulch Don't Till
If instead of tilling in your leaves you simply left them on top of your soil you would not get the nitrogen depletion. The material will act as a mulch and will break down over the year. Earthworms and ants and I imagine other critters will pull the leaves down into your soil at a rate that won't overwhelm your soil's balance.
I would strongly recommend shredding your leaves before spreading them onto your garden. It is also helpful to shred your leaves before using them in a compost pile. Unshredded leaves tend to mat and can prevent water from penetrating into the soil or through a compost pile.
You have enough leaves in your life that you might actually want to invest in an electric leaf shredder.
I do have a leaf shredder. I have six big trees in my yard so a lot of leaves. And I share my shredder with neighbors and with the Community Garden.
An electric leaf shredder is essentially a hopper that can hold a bag of leaves. There is an upside down weed wacker type thing in the bottom and out the bottom you get a very nice pile of shredded leaves. The machines are light weight and provided you have a long enough extension cord can be easily moved and placed over the area you are wanting to cover.
It really only shreds leaves but it does so very well.
Planting with Mulch
When it comes time to plant just rake aside the area where you are planting your row of seeds or transplanting your seedlings. Leave the leaves in place as a mulch. This will help handle the weeds and help conserve moisture in the soil through your hot dry summers.
Making Compost with Limited Materials
You can definitely make compost with just leaves, grass clippings and the kitchen scraps and bunny poo. And it would be worthwhile to do this. Having even a small amount of your homemade compost is worthy.
The more different things you bring into the compost as your ingredients the better. But you do need to take care with some of the high nitrogen greens we all used to be able to use safely.
I'm talking about manures from horses, cows and other animals. Unfortunately pastures have been treated with persistent herbicides that can have long lasting negative effects on your soil.
Don't add grass clippings from a lawn that has no broadleaf weeds in it. It has probably been treated with those herbicides.
Also when adding grass clippings add them in thin layers or dry them out a bit before mixing them in.
If you can get coffee grounds from a coffee shop that would be a good high nitrogen addition. The bunny poo should be fine as well.
It's okay to just build your pile over the summer layer by layer. Add your leaves in layers too. Reserve them, preferably shredded, in a pile and add them to your compost in about the same volume as whatever greens you are using.
Just make sure it doesn't dry out. If it does it will stop decomposing.
I think that's enough for the moment. Feel free to ask further questions either using the comment section or by my Contact Me form.
You may also find two of the pages on this site useful. The first one has details on Composting Leaves
. The second one is useful for handling Composting Grass Clippings