"The falling leaves drift past my window. The falling leaves of red and gold." How can such a beautiful romantic subject cause such serious disposal problems in the fall?
Leaf disposal costs in Salt Lake City alone exceed $250,000 per year. The idea of sending these to the landfill in non-biodegradable plastic bags is not ecologically sound. Gardeners can help by recycling their own leaves and by recycling those of others who don't understand the benefits.Leaves are a natural resource that belong in the garden, not in the landfill. Recycling them into the soil improves the drainage and aeration, and adds small amounts of nutrients. The resulting humus binds the microscopic soil particles together to improve the soil structure.
The bright orange leaf bags for the Salt Lake City leaf recycling effort are available for a small fee at Dan's and other Associated Grocery Stores. Nurseries that carry Fertilone products also have similar bags available. These bags, when filled with leaves, are great "freebies" for gardeners. One master gardener hauled 1,500 bags of leaves into his garden. He picks the leaves up from curbside, then transports them to his garden. He has successfully transformed a heavy, unproductive, clay soil into a well-drained, productive garden soil. Pick up those bags that feel light and you're on your way to successful recycling.
Leaves can easily be disposed of by spreading them in layers up to 4 inches deep on vegetable and flower gardens. Sprinkle nitrogen fertilizer on the leaves (about 1 pound of 21-0-0 per 100 square feet) and till the leaves into the garden. This does away with the need to build a compost pile or pit and recycles large amounts of material in a short time.
Gardeners who prefer to compost leaves and other plant refuse in a traditional way need to construct a compost pile. Compost piles are not piles of rotting garbage! Composting follows scientific principles to accomplish two ends. First, it changes large volumes of plant materials from leaves, stems, etc., to rich soil-improving humus. Second, it raises the temperatures high enough to destroy weed seed, insects and disease organisms. This can be done in various ways, but in all processes the principles are the same.
Composting requires raw materials, oxygen, microorganisms and nutrition for those organisms. The raw materials are the plant wastes (including leaves and grass clippings), kitchen waste or any other organic materials except meat scraps. Avoid weeds that have gone to seed and plants that died from pathogenic diseases.
The microorganisms are always present. I am always amused when I see ads for compost starter. Buying compost starter is about as necessary as buying mold starter for leftovers in the refrigerator. A few shovelfuls of soil will provide billions of microorganisms to facilitate the compost process. Extra nitrogen is needed for high-carbon (non-green) materials. Sawdust, straw, dry leaves or similar materials all have too much carbon and not enough nitrogen for maximum activity of the microbes. Nitrogen can easily be added with a few handfuls of fertilizer.
Oxygen is necessary to facilitate the decay process. The microorganisms grow and decompose the materials. Without oxygen, the wrong kinds of fungi become active, and the pile starts to smell. Correct the problem by turning the material frequently with a shovel or fork. Some commercial compost makers can be rotated to introduce oxygen. Grass clippings should be blended with coarser materials so they don't compact into mats. The compaction excludes the air and prevents decomposition, and that forms odors.
Microbes in the composting process require moisture to function well. The right amount of moisture is about the same as a wrung out sponge. Add water as needed or cover a pile to reduce excess water.
Ambitious gardeners who compost large amounts of material will find a series of three bins very effective. Alternate layers of woody (low nitrogen) materials with green (high nitrogen) materials. The moist organic matter starts to heat rapidly and after 10 days begins to cool. Turn the pile into the second bin and start a new pile in the first. Repeat the process by moving the first and second piles to the next bins. Each turning promotes rapid decomposition as the composting process works. This proven system produces weed and pathogen-free compost in 4-6 weeks but is more work than a simple compost pile.
If you would like additional information on composting, send a self-addressed envelope and 10 cents to:
Compost, USU Extension
2001 S. State Street, S1200
Salt Lake City, UT 84190-3350.
Remember, each gardener can improve the soil, save tax dollars and improve the environment by recycling garden wastes into the garden.
- Listen to the KSL Radio Greenhouse, 7-10 a.m. Saturday. My guest will be Dr. Howard Deer, USU Extension pesticide specialist. We'll discuss food and pesticide safety.