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How to Make Compost Without Fall Leaves
Updated links for May 2, 2014 GA site posting. Copy unchanged.

Q. You often mention that one of the secrets to making successful compost is to include sufficient "brown" material in the mix, specifically shredded fall leaves. But in the fall, I mow all my leaves and use the shredded leaves as mulch for my shrub and flower borders. As a result, I have little left over to use in my compost pile. I'm hoping you have some suggestions for other sources of brown material. Thank you,

---Bonnie in Centreville, Delaware

A. Thank YOU, Bonnie! This is a hugely important question at this time of year, when Earth Day, Springtime, and the lure of gardening often lead well-intentioned folks to try and start composting with only kitchen waste. But, as I've frequently pointed out:
   1) Kitchen garbage contributes very little in the form of 'plant food' to finished compost;
    And
    2) a composter filled with kitchen waste will, at the end of the season, be…well…a composter full of kitchen waste…that the summer heat has not improved.

That's why I'm always urging people to recycle their kitchen waste through a worm bin, where the wonderful little wormies will take that otherwise close-to-worthless garbage and turn it into super-wonderful worm castings, which I consider the only thing better than compost for feeding plants and soil.

And for people in the city (or even in the country with lots of roaming critters around), a worm bin is often the only safe and sanitary place to recycle your garbage. Even I, The Compost King, restrict our kitchen waste to my big multi-level worm bin and my sealed composting units, like tumblers, spinners and those big black recycled plastic ones that have locking lids. The only 'kitchen waste' that goes into my open piles is coffee grounds, which attract no vermin and, unlike apple cores and lettuce leaves, DO add incredibly valuable nutrients to the finished compost.

But even if you have a worm bin and/or a compost bin with a locking lid, that still leaves a lot of green matter that should be composted, like spent garden plants, the occasional dead houseplant, and pulled weeds (which are perfectly fine to compost if they haven't yet set seed). And to correctly compost this 'green' material you need a larger amount of 'brown' material.

The long-term answer is to collect and shred more leaves this fall. Once shredded, you can store 12 to 20 times as many leaves in one bag as when they were whole. There is also the time-honored tradition of trashpicking—impossible to resist when people {gasp!} THROW AWAY their precious fall leaves at the curb. (And the big bags with 'yard waste' printed on them [which I call SPBs, for 'Stupid People Bags'] make such pickin' really easy.)

Between your leaves and the unwanted orphans of others, gardeners in the realm of deciduous forests should be able to collect, shred and hoard enough leaves to fuel compost making throughout a full year.

OK—enough preaching. I will now—gasp—directly answer the question. When I was researching my (now best selling!) "Mike McGrath's Book of Compost" (Sterling publishers; 2006; I'm getting back-end money—who would have thunk it?!), I pondered this exact query to renowned composting expert Dr. Frank Gouin, retired head of Horticulture at the University of Maryland. His answer? 'You can replace fall leaves with anything that was once green and is now brown'.

Dr. Gouin explained that the browned out tops of the previous year's perennials—like black-eyed Susan, Echinacea, ornamental grasses and the like—are perfect substitutes for fall leaves in a compost pile. All their nitrogen has retreated to the roots, he explains—turning what was once a source of nitrogen to carbon (the famous 'dry brown' component of compost piles).

The bigger and browner the better—think old cornstalks, the browned out leaves and (especially) stems of last year's hostas, ornamental grasses and the like. And the browned-out upper parts of those plants should still be there for you to utilize in the Spring—especially the further North you are. The top growth of perennials should always be left standing over winter and only removed the following Spring.

Leaving those tops in place over winter:
    • Increases frost protection for the roots and crown;
    • Avoids the risk of plant loss due to the weak late season growth that Fall pruning can stimulate;
    • Provides food and shelter for birds in the off-season;
    • And gives our landscapes what Martha used to call "winter interest" (before she had to go up the river and make little doilies out of big doilies).

The more dried-out and crunchy, the more usable such materials will be as a 'dry brown' component of your pile. Just remember to shred it first—EVERYTHING that goes into your compost pile should be in the smallest pieces possible. This can be a challenge with corn stalks and ornamental grasses, which is why I yell at people to hoard leaves so often—the ease with which fall leaves can be shredded makes them THE low hanging fruit of the composting world.

Yes, straw also works well; but you generally have to pay for straw. And be careful to GET straw and not hay. Don't believe signage or sellers; if there are visible seed heads in the bale, it ain't straw. It is hay: animal feed filled with seeds that will make your compost pile a weedy mess.

And for reasons explained in depth in previous Questions of the Week, don't use paper, sawdust (or any other form of wood) in place of leaves.

A final note: When you pull weeds for composting, keep as much dirt around their roots as possible. Having lots of lively garden soil in the mix can really help move the composting process along. And it allows you to get by with slightly less dry brown material.

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