It’s that time of year again when the leaves begin to fall. And you’ve probably figured out that dry leaves are an excellent source of brown composting material. But what’s the best way to store dry leaves for compost?
At certain times of the year gardeners often find themselves lacking brown, carbon rich material. Which is why a stockpile of dead leaves provides an ideal source of browns to use in the summer months when you tend to have an abundance of greens.
This is something I puzzled over when I started composting. I have some splendid hazel trees at the bottom of my yard, and I wanted to keep a stash of the autumn bounty of dried leaves!
So what do you do with all those leaves?
A quick reminder: Greens are nitrogen rich materials which tend to have a higher moisture content like grass clippings. Browns are carbon rich and tend to be dry, like dead leaves, twigs and branches.
How to Store Leaves for Compost
It seems that the best way to deal with your autumn leaves is to stock them in a dedicated leaf compost bin.
Yes… I do mean “compost” bin.
Because even if you stockpile dry leaves on their own (without any nitrogen rich materials), they will start to break down like any organic matter. But because dead leaves are carbon rich, they will take a loooong time to decompose.
If left alone a heap of leaves can sit for years before they turn into decomposed compost.
Leaving leaves to rot in a dedicated bin like this creates what is known as “leaf mold”. Leaf mold on its own is a useful gardening product and produces compost with a fine structure. This compost has a relatively low nutrient value, but an excellent fibrous structure close to pure humus. Leaf mold is said to have very good water retaining capacities and can be used for potting mixes, or used for enriching soil.
Given the copious amounts of dry leaves available in the fall you may want to consider making leaf mold.
Related reading: Fall Composting
Alternatively you can just pile up your leaves and use them later when brown materials are scarce.
A simple wire or mesh container will do the job nicely. A few wooden posts and some chicken wire wrapped around them can be used to make a container. Because fall leaves tend to arrive in big quantities you’ll need something reasonably large. For example a four foot (1.2m) high circular bin with a four foot diameter will contain around two cubic yards of leaves.
Leaves are inclined to be bulky at first, but don’t worry, they soon pack down and take up less volume.
It helps if you put some kind of a lid on the pile. Not because you need to keep them dry, but more to prevent them from blowing around. A weighed down sheet of plastic will do fine.
If you’re collecting wet leaves you may find them difficult to handle. They easily clump together and can be heavy because of the added moisture. If this is the case, try to spread them out and fluff them up. Leave them to dry for a day and they’ll be easier to work with (You could even spread them on a garden tarp to make them easier to gather up).
I advise leaving your leaf bin somewhere near your compost bin so that you can quickly grab some of the stored leaves to mix with other materials as needed.
Tip: know where your leaves come from – park leaves can be contaminated with dog droppings which is not something you want to put in your compost!
Leaf Compost Bins
A great DIY solution for a leaf bin is simply to use some 3 or 4 foot wooden stakes to create an enclosure then wrap the exterior with some kind of heavy duty netting or wire mesh. You can use something fairly rigid like galvanized chicken wire.
I like this plastic fence netting (links to Amazon) which I think is a great alternative because it’s easier to work with.
A bin like this is super easy to make and provides an effective leaf bin with plenty of aeration. And if you drive the stakes well into the ground it won’t blow away! The advantage is that you can customize the size of the bin to suit your needs. However, try to make it a compact shape like a cylinder or a cube, especially if you’re using it to make leaf mold and you want the mass to retain some heat.
If DIY isn’t your thing, or if aesthetics are an issue in your garden then a ready-made bin is a probably a neater solution.
For example, this plastic mesh compost bin on Amazon is affordable and easy to build. I recommend you put a few long branches in the base to help it keep its form in the beginning. This will also help with drainage. You might also want to use some pegs to tie it down to the ground.
If you’re looking for something more rigid, this coated steel wire bin (Amazon) provides a sturdy compact cube.
Using Stored Leaves for Compost & Mulching
Collecting fallen leaves should be an important part of anybody’s composting routine.
It would be a huge shame to waste such a great organic source of carbon for the coming months.
Once you have your leaf bin set up near your compost bin, you have a few choices of what to do with your leaves. You can:
- Stockpile them for future use in your main compost
- Make leaf mold
- Use them as protective mulch
If you want to use your stock of leaves as mulch, whatever you do don’t use whole leaves. In nature whole dead leaves create a layer which smothers any competing plant life. And you’ve probably noticed that when they’re wet they stick together can form a barrier to moisture. The easiest way to prep your leaves for use as mulch is to run over them with your lawn mower! But if you want to avoid contamination by grass clippings, you can rake them up and put them through a leaf shredder.
This increases the surface area of the leaves and makes them nice and fluffy! Leaf mulch like this will insulate your plants and help protect against frost. Shredded leaf mulch will break down quicker and in the process provide some beneficial organisms like fungi for your plants. This is why most gardeners use a shredder like this one to process their leaves (Amazon link).
Leaf mulch also helps retain moisture and suppresses weeds.
If you want to make leaf mold you’re better off starting with shredded leaves. This is a far more efficient way to make leaf mold. By breaking up the leaves you increase the surface area for composting bacteria to work on. You also need to keep them moist.
Leaf compost like this provides the important humus content which does so much to improve the structure of our soil.
Stockpile Leaves for Composting
A dedicated “bin” for stockpiling your leaves and dry brown matter is a huge advantage during the months when carbon materials are scarce. Simply stash your leaves during the fall then mix them with greens during the spring and summer months to balance your compost mixture. The same rule applies when you add your leaves to your main compost bin – shredded leaves will break down quicker and help speed up the composting process.
After all… I’m sure you’re impatient to see the results of your compost!