Using Leaves for Composting

composting leaves leaf compost the right way

The leaves of one large shade tree can be worth as much as $50 of plant food and humus. Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as manure. For example, the mineral content of a sugar maple leaf is over five percent, while even common pine needles have 2.5 percent of their weight in calcium, magnesium, nitrogen and phosphorus, plus other trace elements.

Since most trees are deep-rooted, they absorb minerals from deep in the soil and a good portion of these minerals go into the leaves. See the accompanying chart for an analysis of the nutrient elements in fallen leaves.

Actually, these multi-colored gifts from above are most valuable for the large amounts of fibrous organic matter they supply. Their humus-building qualities mean improved structure for all soil types. They aerate heavy clay soils, prevent sandy soils from drying out too fast, soak up rain and check evaporation.

A lawn sweeper is a good machine to use for collecting leaves. Using a sweeper is much faster than hand raking, and a better picking-up job is done. Neighbors will be happy to have you sweep up their leaves—and you will add to your supply of leaves.

Composting Leaves

Some people complain to us that they have no luck composting leaves. “We make a pile of our leaves,” these people say, “but they never break down.” That is indeed a common complaint.

There are two things you can do that will guarantee success in composing leaves:

1. Add extra nitrogen to your leaf compost. Manure is the best nitrogen supplement, and a mixture of five parts leaves to one part manure will certainly break down quickly. If you don’t have manure—and many gardeners don’t—nitrogen supplements like dried blood, cottonseed meal, bone meal and Agrinite will work almost as well. Nitrogen is the one factor that starts compost heap heating up, and leaves certainly don’t contain enough nitrogen to provide sufficient food for bacteria. Here is a rough guide for nitrogen supplementing add two cups of dried blood or other natural nitrogen supplement to each wheelbarrow load of leaves.

2. The second thing to do to guarantee leaf-composting success is to grind or shred your leaves. We will deal with this in detail later on, but let me tell you right now that it will make things simpler for you in the long run. A compost pile made of shredded material is really fun to work with, because it is so easily controlled and so easy to handle.

A compost pile can be made in almost any size, but most people like to make rectangular-shaped piles, because they are easier to handle. It is a good idea to put the material in the heap of layers. Start with a six-inch layer of leaves, either shredded or not shredded. Then add a two-inch layer of other organic material that is higher in nitrogen than leaves. Try to pick something from this list: manure, garbage, green weeds, grass clippings or old vines from your garden. You can add low-nitrogen things like sawdust, straw, ground corn cobs or dry weeds if you put in a nitrogen supplement such as described above. It is important to mix leaves from packing down in a dry mat. Keep the heap moist, but not soggy.

Turn the heap every three weeks or sooner if you feel up to it. If you can turn it three or four times, before late spring comes, you will have fine compost ready for spring planting use.

You can make compost out of leaves in as short of time as fourteen days by doing these things:

1. Shred or grind the leaves.

2. Mix four parts ground leaves with one part manure or other material liberally supplemented with nitrogen.

3. Turn the heap every three days. Turning a heap made of shredded leaves is not difficult because the compost is light and fluffy.

One more tip: Why not experiment with covering your heap with a plastic sheet? It will keep the warmth in, and prevent the heap from getting too wet or too dry.

How to Grind Leaves

Leaves can be uses much more conveniently in the garden if they are ground or shredded. Leaves in their natural state tend to blow away or mat down into a tight mass. If shredded they turn into compost or leaf mold much faster, and make mulch better mulch.

If you don’t have a shredder, there are various other devices you can adapt to leaf shredding, or make yourself. Many people use a rotary mower for shredding leaves and even for weeds. A mower that is not self propelled is best, as it is easiest to control. Two people can work together very nicely. One person piles up leaves in front of the mower and the other operates the mower back and forth over the pile. A leaf-mulching attachment placed on the mower will cut the leaves up finer, but sometimes it is not necessary. You will be surprised how much leaves you can shred this way in a half-hour or so, even with only one person working by himself.

Of course, some people us a mower with a mulching attachment to cut leaves up right on the lawn. That is fine, if you don’t want to us the leaves for compost or mulch somewhere else. Most gardeners need leaf mold more on their gardens and beds than on their lawn.

How to Make Leafmold

If you have so many leaves on your place that you can’t compost all of them—or if you just don’t have the time to make compost—you can make leaf mold. Leaf mold is not as rich a fertilizer as composted leaves, but it’s easier to make and is especially useful as mulch.

A length of snow fencing makes the best kind of enclosure for making leaf mold. Make a circular bin, as shown in the photograph. A bin made of wood or stones can be used if you don’t have a fence.
Gather your leaves in the fine fall days and tamp them down in the enclosure—after wetting them thoroughly. Leaves have a slight acid reaction. If you plants don’t need an acid mulch, add some ground limestone to the leaves before tamping them down.

Over the winter, these leaves will not break down in the black powder that is the leaf mold you find on the forest floor. But they will be in a safe place, secure from the winter winds, where you can pull them out next spring and summer for use as mulch. By then they will be matted down and broken up enough to serve as a fine mulch. Some people keep leaves “in cold storage” like that for several years. Nurserymen who require fine potting soil sometimes do that. Then, when they come for their leaves, they find really black, crumbly humus.

You can shred your leaves with a compost shredder or a rotary mower before putting them in you bin. Then they will break down a lot more over the winter.

Leaf mold is ordinarily found in the forest in a layer just above the mineral soil. It’s usually soft, like a mattress. It has the merit of decomposing slowly, furnishing plant nutrients gradually and improving the structure of the soil as it does so.

The ability of leaf mold to retain moisture is almost miraculous. Subsoil can hold a mere 20 percent of its weight; good, rich topsoil will hold 60 percent, but leaf mold can retain 300 to 500 percent of its weight in water.

Freshly fallen leaves pass through several stages from surface litter to well-decomposed humus partly mixed with mineral soil. Leaf mold from deciduous trees is somewhat richer in such mineral foods as potash and phosphorus than that from conifers. The nitrogen content varies from .2 to 5 percent.

If you keep poultry or livestock, use your supply of leaves for litter or bedding along with straw or hay. Leaf mold thus enriched with extra nitrogen may later be mixed directly with soil or added to the compost pile.

Looking for information on composting? Visit our main page and see everything else we have to say about the subject.

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how to compost leaves correctly composting

54 thoughts on “Using Leaves for Composting”

  1. This is the second batch of compost I have made with the same results as the first. I use dry leaves, frsh grass clippings, home
    veggies, fruits, coffee grnds. etc. I use a 65 gal plastic trash can with several 3/4″ holes on 3 sides. It starts of warm then turns
    cold. It rotate the can 3/4 times a week. After several weeks, the
    insides look likes lumps of soft mushy horse droppings. Its very soft and damp (sponge) but large chucks. Not too much order. Whats going on ? Thank you for any help!

    1. @Bob Howland, When you compost tends to clump up like horse droppings you likely have too much green or nitrogen material. Also, you need more air vents in your bin (trash can). I also suggest only turning it 1 to 2 times a week. Cut back on the greens and adding more vents should help.

  2. I have a compost pile outlined by 3 pallets and I cover the pile with a an old piece of plywood. There is plenty of room at the top for air exchange and the pile doesn’t get too wet. This works great to keep the pile confined and maintain the heat. I turn the pile whenever the temperature drops below 100F. This is working great and we produce compost within 4-6 weeks. My pile is in the woods, just off from my yard, and I have been startled by snakes that sit on the top of my pile or just below the light layer of leaves on top. This happens when the weather is cool – like early in the morning- or during a cool period. I guess the snakes are there because they like the warmth. I have not had any issues with rodents, and the pile never smells. Any idea how to keep the snakes away? (snakes are just grass snakes and bull snakes- nothing dangerous- but unsettling)

      1. Leave the snakes alone! You know they may be there, so make a racket on the bin before opening it, they’ll leave. They like you a LOT less than you like them. Work with the environment, never against it.

  3. can you put cow manure an dried oleander leaves directly into your garden?? an how long will it take for oleander leaves to compose in the ground ???

    1. @Larry, Yes, you can add both cow manure and oleander leaves to your garden however I would strongly suggest composing both first. Try shredding the leaves to, this will help them break down much quicker. Even running over them with the lawn mower a few times will make a difference, and if you don’t it could take up to a year or longer for them to break down.

    1. @Veena, Not to familiar with “mapple grass” however I imagine like any other grass, when green is a source of nitrogen and when dried its a source of carbon.

  4. Steve – Interesting article and thanks. Funny because I run the mower over the leaves since it just seemed to make sense that the smaller they were the faster it would break down and the do not blow away. I was told that too much wood in the compost would create too much nitrogen. Is this true? We got a load of “compost” from a local stable but it appeared to have a lot of sawdust or wood byproducts and the vegetables that we planted in it did not seems to do so well. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    1. @Kevin, If you planted your vegetables in soil mainly comprised of compost you would likely not see good results. If you want to go that route you should consider using several different types of compost. At least 3 different types of compost is recommended, cow, mushroom, cottonseed, etc. Also, add some vermiculite and peat moss or coir from coconut husks. The peat moss and coir will help the soil not dry out so quickly.

    2. I’ve worked in the horse industry a long time. I have always been told by gardeners that horse manure is very “hot” and will “burn” your plants if not composted before use. I have seen this happen, where the roots of plants turn black as if burnt and the plant dies. The sawdust requires additional nitrogen to compost properly in a timely manner. Most barns that compost add ammonium sulfate or something similar to the mix before composting and even then it takes six months to a year or more to create a usable product. I would not recommend using manure from a horse stables unless you have the time and set up to compost it before use. I have had success composting horse manure as described and in vermicompost (worm farm) situations but it does take some time and effort.

      1. Properly composted horse manure with or without sawdust will look like compost when it is ready. If you still see bits of sawdust or balls of manure it is not ready to use.

  5. Most of my clients are not interested in composting their own tree leaf litter. I try to collect it for them and put it in my own compost bin but it’s too much for me. Is it better to leave the fallen leaves in the garden where they will slowly decompose, or should I remove the leaves and add fresh compost mulch? Obviously the first option is free to the client, whereas the second option is not. I appreciate your thoughts.

    1. Zeke, The minimal amount of nutrients is not really enough to justify leaving the leaves if the person with the garden is more concerned about ecstatic appeal. It’s really a personal preference, if they don’t mind the leaves then yes having them break down is better, but it takes so long that it might not be worth it. Especially if a spring garden is in the plans.

    1. @jeanne, Camphor trees are considered a highly invasive species and there is debate to the use of their leaves as mulch is toxic to other plants and therefore should not be used as mulch. If you plan to use the finished compost as a barrier to stop growth there is likely not going to be a problem. However if you are using it as a mulch around existing plant it may cause them a problem.

  6. hey steve,i have a ? why is it,when i pile up bradford pear tree leaves,by my white plastic fence, through the winter months,come may,i can pick up worms by the hands full, are these leaves better liked by worms?or is this the heat from fence and the tinyyyy pears that fall,during winter,put a lot on my garden ,so just wondering tu bobby

    1. @bobby, It could be a combination of all three, however its more likely due to the leaves and food source than the fence.

  7. Hey Steve, I have 5 acres of leaves…Uhhhh. I just can’t do it on my own and can’t afford someone to clean it up for me. I want to start a natural compost using leaves and things I have here without buying any product. “One with Nature” He He He. I do have chickens…therefore I have the “goods”. In my front There are several trees, pear, peach, apple, pecan, black walnut. I’m telling you this to give you an idea of what I have available to work with. The leaves are mainly from the Oak, Pecan, Hickory..(Forest, or Sherwood Forest!). My chickens get the fruit and veggie scraps, so that’s out. But I can add things like their shells? Anyway, I have no idea how to build a proper bin that would be easy for me to turn. Thanks buddy

    1. @Janet, The simplest way would be to just pile them up and eventually they will break down. However to speed the process up you need to add nitrogen (coffee ground, chicken manure, green grass trimmings, etc). Also, make sure the pile stays moist, so add water occasionally and when possible give it a turn. If you have pallets you can build a large bin to confine the leaves, otherwise a pile will have to do.

  8. Hello.
    I have a vegetable garden with too much mushroom manure in it. My veggies were puny last year. I believe need to add nitrogen to my soil. I have a yard full of dead maple leaves from last year, would it help if I crushed them all up and put them in the soil?

    1. @Lorna Peglow, Leaves are carbon not nitrogen and they need to be composted first. I suggest you add some peat moss, or coconut coir, as well as some other types of finished compost, or cow manure. Then mix is really well.

    1. @charlie, Since dog food typically has meat in it, it’s possible the dog droppings will have potentially harmful bacteria. If using the finished compost on your lawn or plants you will be fine, but don’t add it to a vegetable garden.

  9. Thank you! we wondered About the Camphor tree leaves!! What about a Pepper tree….Schinus molle

    1. @anita and karine Ribbens, Camphor trees are considered a highly invasive species so I would not recommend composting them unless you are not afraid of the potential of spreading them and taking over your yard or garden. As for the pepper tree (Schinus molle), which I believe is native to Peru, those leaves should be great to compost.

  10. Hi Steve. I made a pile of shredded leaves (maple, oak, sycamore) approx 5’x5’x3′. I have added some grass clippings and coffee grounds and have been keeping it moist. I have 2 questions. The first is, how much/little yard waste is acceptable, preferable, not preferable. When I say yard waste I am mostly referring to: grass clippings, weeds+roots+soil waste (from weeding), small tree limbs etc. I generate quite a bit of yard waste in my yard and would prefer to do something with it. Right now I have a huge pile of weeds/soil/sticks in the back that I am afraid to add to the compost pile. My second question is, what will be the best use for the leaf compost when it is ready? Garden beds? Vegetable beds? For tree holes? any other things you can think of? Thanks so much for this article and for answering questions.


    1. @Tom, I don’t suggest adding sticks (twigs) unless they are chipped or shredded. Sticks and twigs take years to break down. Weeds can be a problem as well. If your pile does not get hot enough to kill the seeds you could end up spreading them when you use your finished compost. You need a good mix of browns and greens. A ratio of four parts browns to one part greens is a good ratio. If you don’t have a good source of greens, i.e. not enough kitchen scraps, a good source of nitrogen is coffee grounds. Many coffee shops give used coffee grounds away for free, just stop by one mid morning. The best use for your finished compost is any where it’s needed. If you have low spots in your lawn, planting a new garden, etc.

  11. Hi Steve, thanks so much for this article, i’m impressed by your responses too. I have an outdoor firepit and i was wondering if i can incorporate the ash from this (i produce a lot) into the composting. i have a good handle on the article, but i was wondering if the levels anything should/could be cut back to compensate for the addition of ash.


    1. @Slater, Yes ash from your fire place is great but don’t overdo it. I suggest you add maybe a half gallon full of ash at a time. Give it a good mix and wait a week or two before adding more.

  12. I am new at gardening but i have a spot for one but it has not been used for a few years. I have a bunch of leaves from last fall in bags. Would it help our dirt if i ground them up and put them in the soil a week or two before i plant vegetables in it?

    1. @Joe, I suggest you let the leaves break down before adding them to your soil. Build yourself a compost bin with bricks or pallets and add the leaves with some kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, etc. If possible before adding them to your compost pile shred the leaves with a shredder or mower over them.

  13. very good info. on the leaves which is 75% of our pile. some people in our area us liquid molasses in their mulch pile. they mix it: 1oz to 1 gal.; will this be of value and how and when do you apply it to the pile? thanks for your help, charlie

  14. Just starting composting and as I add dried leaves from last fall, am also wondering if I can add the little “helicopter” maple seeds that have fallen this spring and are everywhere. Not sure if they’ll break down as quickly as the rest and whether they will survive the process and end up planting lots of little maple trees in my composted areas.

    1. @Cindy Hatcher, Any seeds including the “helicopter” maple seeds have a fairly good chance of surviving the composting process. Typically the compost needs to get over 140 degrees to kill them, which the average compost bin is 120 degrees or less. I suggest avoid adding them and the few that make it may or may not germinate. It’s easy enough when spreading the finished compost to pull any that have sprouted out and toss them to the side. Any others that make it to your garden can likewise be pulled out.

    1. @Pat, As for as I know leaves from a felled hickory tree should not cause a problem for mulching in your garden.

  15. Here’s how we’ve used leaves in our compost for the past decade or so.

    Each fall we rake up the leaves from about 30 trees in our yard. It’s quite a lot and from varied trees, which is important because each type has it’s own composting rate and mineral quotient.

    We also gather the debris from our garden and any last minute landscaping.

    About a month before the leaves start falling we make weekly trips to a couple of starbucks and get about 100 lbs of their free used coffee grounds.

    When the leaves start to fall we start the compost. We layer leaves, coffee grounds and garden debris and water it well. What ever kitchen debris we have on hand goes in also.

    We have a 4 by 4 by 4 compost bin and I want as many leaves in there as possible so every few feet of leaves I get in the pile with my oversized boots and stomp until it it as flat as I can make it. Yes, I know that this drives the air out, but life is full of compromises, and it doesn’t hurt it too much.

    We can actually squeeze much more leaves into the bin than you would imagine with all the compression that goes on. Sometimes I shred, and sometimes I don’t. In the end, it really doesn’t make a difference since I plan for the long term anyway.

    After the bin sits about a week it has reduced by about one third. We normally have enough more ground leaves to fill it up to the top again. This goes on for about a month. When the bin is full and we can’t squeeze another leaf in there I call it quits. By this time the inside is heating quite well.

    Here outside Chicago we have up to about mid-December to continue to add kitchen debris before the pile cools down and freezes. We save all the kitchen stuff outside in a covered container until spring. Usually about April the weather is warm enough for me to start working on the pile. It is completely frozen thru, and I have to break it apart over several weeks while it thaws. I turn it over at that time. The leaves are compressed into blocks which have to be broken apart, which they easily do when unfrozen. This re-aerates the pile for me. For the most part, little composting has taken place.

    Over the spring and summer we continue to add kitchen debris to the pile, turning ot over every now and then. By the end of summer we have a nice, large pile of wonderful, sweet smelling compost. If we had shredded the leaves it would have happened faster, but we are in no hurry.

    Come fall I empty the pile out onto our vegetable garden. We have enough compost to cover a 120 sf garden to 4 inches. We leave it sit all winter, and in the next spring when we get ready to plant the compost is completely gone — all absorbed into the nicest soil you can imagine. As I said… long term thinking. It’s a full year from collecting the leaves to spreading them as compost, and then another six months before we plant in the garden where the compost was used.

    1. Thank you! I really appreciated your detailed description. I’m a few hours north and just bout a house with a similar number of trees. There aren’t a lot of spots in the yard to fit a bin and it’s very helpful to know the size that works for you, along with the duration that it takes for them to break down. It killed me to put all the leaves on the curb this fall so now I have a plan for this year!

  16. If I added a small amount of Rododendron species leaves to my compose is it safe to use in Vegetable gardens or should I be worried about the toxins?

    1. @Phil, As far as I know Rhododendron is toxic to small animals and horses so it should be fine to add to your compost bin. However whenever you are not 100% sure on something that you may feel is toxic its best to not do it.

  17. An Australian friend has a big spread and grows trees from seed. She finds an old concrete mixer by far the best way to make her top-soil.

  18. Hi there.
    While googling about my camphor mulch, I came across this thread. I read that it is invasive and I have no intentions of keeping/planting one. The camphor that was in our back yard is long gone. We did, however, recently have the stump ground down. There is a decent amount of shaving/mulch left and I was wondering if it was safe to spread around the garden. We recently moved in and I could really use the extra cover to help block out the weeds.

    1. @Sarah, I assume you want to know if you can use the wood chips as mulch. Yes, it should not be a problem using the camphor stump as mulch.

  19. thank u very much your kind and helpful adv on making compost from leaves i was aready using it your great adv onm adding nitrogen by
    adding manure also the best .i was in uk till aug in back yrad garden lot of tree leave wasted i will use them only prblum ingring or sherding thm

  20. I recently raked my Mother’s yard and brought back 4 trash bags full of Bradford pear leaves, which leads me to my question. Are Bradford pear leaves good for compost or should I just stick with the oak leaves that I always use?

  21. Hi i have a question about compost that i have started. now i gathered dead leaves from the ground on my property that had already started to decompose from the rain. I piled up the leaves like a huge flat matress then added a layer of alfalfa and mixed up with the leaves until the alfalfa to leaf ratio looked about even then i piled it all up into what i guess is called a windrow looks like an earth pimple pretty much. the second pile was made the same accept i also added cottonseed meal and then the third pile was made with hay instead of alfalfa and also used cottonseed meal. i made sure to wet the piles as i was mixing the ingredients and when it all was piled up i sprayed the outer edge. the first pile was steaming for a couple days then stoped and the other two piles never really started steaming but are warm when i pull the top layer back. my question is am i doing something wrong the second pile looked and smelled funny like anarobic or something and so i turned it and it seems to have cleared up and today i tossed piles 1 and 2 which were both made with alfalfa but pile 2 was also made with cottonseed meal. thoughs two piles had an oily look to the leaves and i added gypsum as a suppliment and rebuilt the piles. what do you think i should do or not do next time

  22. I have three compost bins, all in different stages of “cooking” . At this point, I have not been diligent in using the contents and beginning new cycles. I have four raised garden beds (5 x 10) which I am putting to bed for the winter, and I would like to trench down the middle of each of them and add my “almost “done” compost, with my “not done yet” compost. My question is, can I add mulched leaves to these trenches, and if I do, what ratio would you suggest? Thank you, Rebecca

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