Fall is in full swing at my house. The spiraling descent of oak leaves and the thud of acorns on the roof mark the beginning of another gardening season. The hillside where I live produces countless leaves, and each neighbor has developed a routine for dealing with the abundance of the season. Some call in the professionals and pay the price for someone else to deal with the leafy situation. Others choose to ignore what’s on the ground completely.

Compost bin with leaves

In the foreground is the 2-year-old compost that’s ready to use. New leaves will go in the back of the bin, beyond the large pile.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Simple compost bin

Simple compost bins often have three chambers with compost moved from one section to the next until the process is complete. Because the volume is reduced with each stage of composting, the first section should be the largest.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Compost tumbler

Compost tumblers do a good job of producing compost in a short amount of time, but they can be impractical if you’re faced with a mountain of leaves every fall.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Playing in leaves

The leaves your kids play in today can be the rich compost of your garden next year.

Photo Credit: Phil Jaros

I’ll admit to using the do-nothing approach in a few outlying portions of my landscape. The decaying leaves form a nice beige mulch in my beds, protecting little plants over winter and creating a pleasant uniform look. Of course, leaves tend to blow around, so therein lies a problem. One fall, having way too much time on my hands, I undertook a research project to solve this blowing situation. I went to the lumberyard and came home with giant aerosol cans of spray adhesive. Figuring that a light application would stick the leaves together, I set to work spraying. All went well until my wife let the dog out. It was not a pretty sight.

Then there are the baggers. Just as my mother used to always keep us informed about how many quarts of green beans she canned each summer, baggers like to keep us posted on their leaf-bag tally. In my neighborhood, few bags ever seem to make it to the city compost yard. Every fall a caravan of old pickups and Lincoln Navigators prowl the streets, looking for bags to claim for their own. As the bags are loaded, these leaf pirates cast furtive glances over their shoulder to make sure the boys in blue aren’t going to haul them off to the slammer.

But the very best way to deal with leaves is to compost them yourself. I find composting a rewarding experience – probably because it satisfies my tendencies toward cheapness. The idea of getting something for nothing is pretty appealing. And if you use the passive approach to composting, it doesn’t even take a lot of work.

Before launching your new career in composting, decide what kind of composter you want to be: active or passive. Active composters take the job seriously. They own things like long-stemmed thermometers to monitor the heat of the pile. Many also seem to suffer from an obsessive-compulsive disorder – always turning their pile to speed the rate of decay. Like gardeners who feel compelled to have the first ripe tomato of the season, active composters achieve real satisfaction in producing the first batch of compost from their fall leaf harvest.

Then there are the rest of us. We have compost piles, too: Nothing fancy, just a pile.

My half-acre city lot produces about 15 cubic yards of leaves every fall. To accommodate this volume, I’ve constructed an enclosed bin in the service area of my garden next to the garage. It’s 16 x 8 feet and about 4 feet tall. That comes to about 19 cubic yards of storage space. Because mine’s a relatively passive compost pile, my raked leaves spend about 2 years composting before they make it back to the garden as rich, black compost.

Each autumn, before leaves begin to fall, I move the 2-year-old leaves from a pile at one end of my compost bin into a separate pile outside the bin. This aged compost is ready to use. Then I fork the year-old leaves from the other end of my bin into the newly vacated spot.

Every fall I rake my leaves onto a tarp and haul them Santa Claus-style up the hill to the compost pile. With each leaf dump I throw on a couple handfuls of 13:13:13 fertilizer to speed the decay process. Occasionally, I’ll also throw a bit of old compost or soil into the growing leaf pile as a biological starter. While most of the organic debris in my bin comes from fallen leaves in autumn, I add to it throughout the year with plants that are replaced in the garden. I also add vegetable scraps from the table (but never meat or fat, which can attract rodents). What starts out as 15 cubic yards of dry, fluffy leaves composts down during the first season to about 5 cubic yards. Then by the end of the second season, the pile works down to 2 cubic yards of usable compost.

I liken composting to a biological fire: Microorganisms break down carbon from the leaves, and in the presence of oxygen, carbon dioxide is released as a byproduct. The bacteria and fungi responsible for composting the leaves are everywhere in our environment, so they need little special encouragement to do their job. But because they’re living organisms, they have specific cultural requirements – namely oxygen, water and a complete diet of nutrients.

The main two foodstuffs needed for biological breakdown are carbon and nitrogen. Newly fallen leaves contain relatively little nitrogen, so the handful of fertilizer I toss in with the leaves is an attempt to add enough nitrogen to achieve an approximate ratio of 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. As the leaves compost and the microorganisms themselves break down in the process, this ratio moves to about 10:1, the point at which further breakdown stops.

Because I only turn the pile once at the end of the first year, breakdown is at a relatively slow rate. I do have an irrigation head from my lawn sprinkler plumbed into the compost pile so water is applied to the leaves every time the lawn’s watered. This supplies enough moisture for breakdown, but oxygen uptake is through simple diffusion so the rate of breakdown is slowed.

Sure, there are a number of ways to speed the process, but I see no reason to rush. Because all of my leaf volume comes at once in fall, this slow approach works just fine for my needs. And after the leaves are taken care of, we can sit back and dream and scheme about all the plans and projects we’ll undertake next year to make our little corner of paradise even better – thanks to a healthy (and cheap) heap of passive compost.