Composting maple leaves

pondluvrApril 30, 2010

I am researching a lot about composting. I recently started a worm bin, and I am loving it! However, this question pertains to a compost bin or heap. In the fall, we have a ton of maple leaves from 3 large, mature maple trees. We usually bag them in the brown paper bags, and our trash company hauls them away. Bad, I know. And I pay good money for compost to put in my gardens every year. I would like to compost all of the maple leaves. But it is a LOT of leaves, and I don't think I can come up with enough of the green stuff to put with the leaves to do a good job. I've read all about the layering, etc. and the percent brown to green. I can add food scraps, but I won't have nearly enough all at once. The leaves are raked pretty much all at once.

Any suggestions? I would love to compost all of the leaves this year instead of having them taken away.

Thanks a million for any advice. I'll continue my researching now....


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mustard_seeds(4 -Onalaska Wisconsin)

Sandy, do you have a lawn? I would mulch mow some of your leaves into lawn if possible when a portion of them have fallen - instant organic matter for your lawn. Collect some coffee grounds if you are near a starbucks and you can sprinkle those in your pile. Neighbors grass clippings make good greens (I prefer neighbor who does not apply chemicals to lawn). Shred leaves for fall garden mulching, and if you can store some of the leaf bags, you would have wonderful makings for mulch in the spring.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2010 at 6:33AM
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The C:N ratio of tree leaves in the fall, just after they fall off the trees, is around 40:1 close to the optimal C:N ratio of any compost pile. What I have seen is that a mixture of Maple and Oak leaves (nothing else) will heat up in the fall when those leaves are shredded and mixed together in a decent size pile.
However, as mustard seeds states, mulch mowing them into your turf is a really good thing you can do for your soil.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2010 at 7:19AM
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spiced_ham(z5 OH)

You can add some high nitrogen lawn fertilizer to the pile to speed things up.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2010 at 9:14AM
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Leaves will decompose with adequate moisture and air. Because there really aren't any pathogens I'd not worry too much about getting heat in the composting of just straight leaves. Sure heat is fun and it will speed up the process but it isn't absolutely necessary so don't panic about getting greens.

As far as C:N of leaves, Steve Solomon has a nice chart with some actual numbers including maple in chapter two.


    Bookmark   April 30, 2010 at 9:25AM
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When maple tree leaves are shredded with a lawnmower, the volume is much reduced, to maybe 30% of the original volume. The leaves should be fairly dry, and they should be raked into windrows, about three feet wide by one foot high. Its a messy process, and there is raking involved in the clean-up. I collect the shredded leaves on a pvc tarp, and drag the load over to the compost pile. They make great compost, eventually. It takes them 6 months or a year to break down.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2010 at 11:29AM
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After shredding, or even if you don't shred your maple leaves, gather them into a pile and wet them completely. Toss the leaves while running a sprinkler on them to make sure you get them all good and wet. Then take a small amount (relative to the volume of the pile)of sifted soil and toss it into the leaf pile and mix it in real good. Then cover the whole pile with a tarp and leave it all winter. Weight down the edges of the tarp with rocks or bricks so it stays in place tightly over the pile. In the Spring you will have fine dark leaf mold that is great for all plants as a mulching fertilizer. Feed some of it to your worms too they love it. Cheryl

    Bookmark   April 30, 2010 at 11:51AM
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lcpw_gw(z6 St Louis)

Sandy, the information one sometimes reads about ideal ratios and layers and so on - they probably do a fantastic job of maximizing heating in the pile, or minimizing overall time to finished compost. But it isn't necessary to follow them in order to get good compost.

As some have said, if you shred the leaves and keep them damp, they'll compost pretty well by themselves. But I us an in-between approach. Every autumn I shred all the leaves I have room for (the others get raked to the street and the city makes compost out of them). Then, all winter long I add kitchen scraps to the pile, stirring them in some each time. In the spring, I still have recognizable bits of leaf, a ton of worms, and I've avoided putting lots and lots of good organic matter into the garbage from kitchen scraps. The neighbors in the next three houses to the east of mine all start dumping their grass clippings onto my pile in the spring (and one house adds kitchen scraps all year too), and all I have to do is stir it in to get a HOT pile each time. (Yah, they should be mulch mowing, but when I see them putting clippings into the dumpster I always invite neighbors to come use my pile.)

Anyway - bottom line, even a lackadaisical approach like mine yields great compost eventually. At some point in the spring I decide the pile should stop getting new stuff, so it can finish off. I put a sign up telling the neighbors to add their stuff to the other bin (which I've just finished digging out and using), and the cycle begins again.

Honestly, I compost more to avoid adding to landfills (and to be entertained by the process, and to get exercise) than because of a craving for the compost itself. That is - I like the stuff! I just am not in a huge rush to make it; the slow process I have works nicely for me.


    Bookmark   April 30, 2010 at 5:34PM
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gardenfanatic(MO zone5b)

Shred the leaves, make sure they're good and wet, and it will make no difference that you don't have that much greens to put with them. They'll compost. Maple leaves probably break down the fastest of any of the leaves. Just make sure they're shredded so they don't clump together. And wet. Dry leaves don't decompose.


    Bookmark   April 30, 2010 at 10:34PM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

The absolute lowest input method would probably be leaf mold. Make a couple of containers with chicken wire. Pile in the leaves unshredded. Try to get at them before they have formed a wet compacted layer on the ground. Put something on top to stop them blowing about eg old carpet, cardboard and a few weights. Then forget about them. Have a look every few months. When they're crumbly and brown and earthy looking use them to top dress anything you like.

Here is a link that might be useful: leaf mold

    Bookmark   May 1, 2010 at 8:01AM
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You may be trying to make this more difficult than it should be.

The maple and sweet gum leaves I collect are used a bit differently from the oak leaves. The range of C:N values of leaves usually range from 20:1 to 70:1. I think one list of tree leaves had maple at around 20:1, which is on the green side (30:1 is the dividing line).

If you use the leaves while they are freshly fallen, you may find a pile (4'by4'by2'tall) will pretty much self-decompose.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2010 at 4:06PM
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Just what the C:N ratio of leaves would be will depend on when they are harvested. Leaves with some green will have a very low C:N ratio, probably like 20:1, while the leaves that have turned color completely will be in the 40:1 range and leaves that have been laying around for several months will be more like 80:1.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2010 at 7:35AM
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I would like to compost all of the maple leaves. But it is a LOT of leaves, and I don't think I can come up with enough of the green stuff to put with the leaves to do a good job.

You are researching too much and making it harder than it needs to be.

Leaves compost in the forest just fine without coffee grounds, 'greens" or much of anything. Moisture is all you really need.

Make some round chicken wire bins 3 to 4 feet across and pack the leaves into the bins, soaking them with water every foot or so of packed leaves. Leave them alone all winter and they will compost just fine.

I used to do that with mixed oak, maple and what-all leaves and by spring I had mostly decomposed leaves that were great mulch and garden amendment.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2010 at 11:53AM
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For the last four years I have collected the neighborhood fall leaves. Most are oak, maple, and sweet gum. Some of my mesh bins are four feet in diameter, larger ones are 5'by8'by 2' high. Bins consisting of all or mostly oak leaves show slow breakdown (sight and core temp); while the bins containing maple and sweet gum show a more rapid breakdown, with core temp of 110 or 120F. These bins require watering and turning every four to ten days.

So my greens (grass and coffee grounds) go in the oak leaf bins, and the maple/sweet gum bins are left to decompose on their own.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 4:30PM
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harebelle(z6a NY)

I just rake the maple (and all the other leaves) into piles then use them whole to mulch the gardens. Much less work and far more environmentally sound than trucking in commercial mulches or using fuel to chop the leaves up. Does a great job as mulch. And they do break down without being shredded. But I don't want my leaf mulch to break down too quickly so the leaves remain whole.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2010 at 11:03AM
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I've been plagued with the same job every year. This year is different :)

Due to travel, I couldn't get the leaves up before they were saturated. So, I left them all season. Today I rented a Lawn Vaccum from the local rental company. This was the strongest they had. To my surprise, it not only vacuumed up the leaves, but shredded them to fine pieces. This inturn reduced over all volume by approx. 1:15 volume. I'm now going to just toss them at the side of the house and wait.
One thing I was thinking of was to add a bunch of worms to the 16'x10'x2' pile of leaves. I heard worms create fantastic soil.

I'd like to know two things.. confirmation that worms would be better than nitrogen and how do I keep the critters away from my wormy friends.. :)


    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 7:10AM
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toxcrusadr(Zone 6a - MO)

Worms will work slower than adding nitrogen to make a hot compost pile. Leaves alone can take a year or more to compost, but the results are fantastic.

Keep in mind the worms may or may not stay around your leaf pile. They have to have just the right moisture and food and temperature conditions. Generally composters don't try to add worms; it's more of a 'if you build it, they will come' sort of thing. There is an entire micro-herd besides worms working in there, too.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 11:08AM
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