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Will compost happen in the winter? Are whole leaves composable?

 
Dar Helwig
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I'm going all out this fall and filling a 10ftx10ftx6ft bin with leaves. I will also keep a replenish pile nearby. Questions....I don't have time to run them through my crappy shredder. Will the leaves still compost at a reasonable rate if I turn them from time to time? If I start this in the fall will breakdown begin before it gets too cold and then continue through the winter?

I have a thought for "turning" the pile. How about a pvc pipe rammed through the center, wiggled around to loosen things up a bit and then left there for a while to let fresh air in. Then the pipe will be moved to a differant location. It seems to me that this should have the same effect as turning...not as well but better than nothing. Also, a spray nozzle inserted could disburse moisture.

What do you think? Sure I'm lazy but aren't we all...aren't many of us...aren't some of us...are you? If I have to turn it I will but if I can find a simpler method I'll go with that.
 
John Polk
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Decomposition will slow down in cold weather.
It sounds like you will have a lot of mass there, so that should be a great help.
That mass, if it can get up to a nice temperature before cold sets in, should be able to hold onto the warmth for quite awhile.  How long?  How much? That will be dependent on what your minimum temps are, and for how long it stays cold.

Will it be finished by spring?  Depends on your weather. There will be some decomposition regardless.  Without knowing your weather, it is hard to predict.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Leaves will have a hard time breaking down all by themselves, or even with the input of some air (your PVC), or water, or turning, or a combination of these.

Leaves (I'm assuming that you are talking about fall leaves, and not green leaves), are primarily what is considered brown material, or carbon rich material in the compost process.  Without green material, or nitrogen rich material, you will not get very much in the way of composting with your leaves.  Composting is all about the ratios of carbon to nitrogen (usually layered), about moistening the carbon source-without making it too wet, and about turning it to aerate it, or leaving it without turning it which will compost it but in a longer time scale.

If you moisten the leaves, there will be some biological activity, but the problem with trying to moisten leaves is that each leaf acts as a shingle, deflecting the water over it's surface and down.  Mostly what ends up happening in a pile of leaves is that some get wet and hold water between them and another leaf, but this is mushy wet and even slimy, while most of the others are as dry as the day they were put in, with no break down at all.  The slimy wetness is generally an anaerobic decomposition, which is not as good (nor as hot) as aerobic decomposition. 

Leaves are an awesome addition to a compost pile, particularly since they do not contain seeds so you can make compost without worry about seeds, but they do not make great compost on their own, and in fact will likely not break down much for a few years unless your turning is vigorous enough to break down their structure so that they accept moisture.

If I start this in the fall will breakdown begin before it gets too cold and then continue through the winter?

If your leaves were properly combined with nitrogen rich material (your own urine would do), and they were shredded, and moistened properly (urine again, could do this part, but water is adequate if their is a source of nitrogen in your heap), then you can compost in the winter, and it will create a hot compost too, if you do it right.  What you are planning at this point will be mostly (sadly) wasted effort.  

filling a 10ftx10ftx6ft bin with leaves.
  This is a large bin!  Awesome.  The great thing about a large bin is that it can really generate compost heat (thermophilic bacteria) in the mass of the heap, as the outsides of a heap are naturally cooled by the external air.

Some people build their compost around a pipe for airflow.  The one's I've seen are pipes with many evenly spaced 1/2 inch holes prefabricated in them.

My suggestion is pile up your leaves dry beside the bin and either:
1.) shred it in small amounts ( to make single layers) and add it to your kitchen waste (nitrogen rich), or other nitrogen rich sources.
2.) shred it in large amounts in the spring/early summer when you have collected a large amount of green material such as grass clippings (which, especially in the spring, can create seed free compost).

I have composted dry fall leaves that had laid on the ground during the fall winter and had a chance to begin decomposing and gain biology by the spring, with the addition of urine and earthworms, adding leaves in layers and adding the day's urine.  This is the only time that I was successful utilizing leaves without shredding. These older overwintered leaves had broken down some, and were further broken down when raked, and so accepted way more moisture than they would have in the fall. 

Good luck.

 
Keith Odell
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Your set up will probably produce leaf mold.  It will take longer but if you have time and space then good. 
If not, then add nitrogen (coffee grounds, food waste, urine, etc.), worms if you want and it will compost.
Either way you are not wasting your time.  Everything rots.  You decide the timeline.

Good luck.
 
Scott Charles
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If you want an alternative, this has worked great for me.  I used to do like you're thinking, even mixing in scraps and garden waste, but had a much better and faster result once I started using the lawn mower.  I don't have much grass, preferring garden and flower beds to plain old lawn, but I started raking my leaves into one of the few grassy areas and then running back and forth through them with the mower set on about 2 inches high.  The leaves shred down surprisingly quick, usually just two passes, and it is amazing how much less space they take up after that.  After this quick shred I just rake it up and haul it on a tarp to the compost piles.  This is usually about the time I'm building my "winter" piles which will sit till spring, so I alternate the leaf debris with garden waste and handy kitchen scraps, not worrying too awful much about the right mix.  Once I get a good sized pile, usually 4 or 5 feet wide and tall and 6 or 8 long, I lay old cardboard on the top to keep the late rains from soaking it too much, then leave it till spring.  As soon as things defrost after the snows are gone I'll take the mini tiller to it to break things up and mix them, and that's when I start adding in the greens and paying a bit more attention to things.  I run the tiller through the piles every week or two, keep things moist, and by the time I'm ready to put in the veggies the stuff is usually ready to use.  I'm not sure of the chemistry behind it, but I know that it's a lot easier than a well-managed hot pile, takes much less time and energy, and gives good results.  Even though I often add in hay animal bedding I've rarely had more weeds than in other places in the gardens, so not getting hot temps hasn't been an issue - just don't throw in weeds or plants that have set seeds and could be real problems.  I think with the hay bedding what saves me is that the rabbits, sheep, and chickens probably eat most of the seeds before I get the end results, and maybe the birds visiting the piles help too.  I always enjoy watching the Juncos scratch through the steaming piles on cold spring days.
 
Mike Jay
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A lot of this depends on your climate.  If it gets well below freezing in your winter, I doubt they'll compost much at all.  Here in the north country I rake our fall leaves into piles in the woods and in spring they're totally undecomposed and we rake them back out to use for mulch on the garden beds.  Chipping them up really helps them compost.  Leaves are big and flat and fairly impervious to water/air so they layer together and make a mat that is hard for the composting process to get going.  Mixing them in with bulkier or fluffier stuff helps.

One other simple way to get air into a compost pile is to lay down bundles of twigs/sticks under the pile before you build the pile.  The air channels and pathways in the bundle let air in.  For a bin your size (which is an awesome size by the way) I'd start with 4 or 6 bundles of branches that are 8-12" in diameter.  The heat of the composting process should cause air to rise through the pile, drawing fresh oxygen in through the twig air tunnels.
 
Dar Helwig
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Wow! I was not expecting this much reply so soon. Thanks!
My bin is made from farm fencing (4 inch squares about) 48 inches high to start (I may add a second story when I get it full. And held up with 6 t-posts. One on each corner and 2 on the north and south sides to add a fence divider. This divider will be only 3 feet high. I can fill the bin up to 4-6 feet. Next spring it should be settled down to 2 or 3 feet (hopefully). At that time I can aerate it and pile both side into just one side. Then every so often I can turn the pile by simply pitching the whole pile from one side to the other and add to it as stuff comes available.

And where will I get all these leaves you ask? I'll be picking up peoples bags of leaves in town before the trash man gets them.

As for anaerobic action? I did not realize that fallen leaves are already considered "brown". So I will be adding "greens" and probable some manure.

Sound reasonable?
 
Travis Johnson
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My compost piles decompose so much that they melt the snow on top of them and spew out steam for most of the winter. I actually had a compost fire one winter when I mixed it up and added some more compost to the mix. Wow, talk about hot! I even took a picture of it, but atlas it is on a hard-drive that is busted along with 2/3 of my old pictures.

I am not that cold here because I live close to the coast; in bad winters it might get down to -30 below (f), but even then compost occurs. A lot of it depends on snow cover. Anything under 6 inches of snow stays at 31 degrees so the more snow...no matter how cold it is...stays relatively warm and composting.
 
Rus Williams
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I ran the mower over a bunch of leaves, shoved them in a large plastic drum I had and covered with plastic. I turned them once I think, (possibly twice) but I certainly didn't do the 'right' thing by them. In fact I was wondering what would happen if I didn't love/ hug/ squeeze my leaves.
They turned out awesome! lots of nice, dark, rich leaf mould which went on the veggie patch.
It's almost time to do it again this year and I'll do at least 3 times as much if I can get some more free  200L barrels.

As an aside (and if it's not a thread hijack) can someone tell me the difference between compost and leaf mould?
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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I wonder how Mother ever managed to compost anything before humans invented shredders?

 
Travis Johnson
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:
I wonder how Mother ever managed to compose anything before humans invented shredders?



After lots of time
 
Jamie Davis
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re: What do you think? Sure I'm lazy but aren't we all...aren't many of us...aren't some of us...are you? If I have to turn it I will but if I can find a simpler method I'll go with that.

I did an experiment a few years back in winter with my leaf pile. At first I just piled them up and left them exposed to elements, sun, rain, etc. Not much happened. Then I began to urinate on the pile every few days. Didn't dilute it and use a sprayer, just stood there and did my thing. Within a week the pile had reduced in size by +75%. So as far as low maintenance way to add nitrogen and make sure a pile breaks down over the winder, it doesn't get much easier than that.
 
Amit Enventres
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So, first-hand experience all over my yard in Ohio. Yes, leaves decompose rather nicely over winter. So do sticks. No other ingredients necessary. Is it perfect? No. I never turned my piles, so that could be part of it. But, the freeze and thaw plus little earth-wormies  and little buggies going at it made the piles shrink and turn to black humus on the bottom. By spring I was able to add that part my beds. Maybe my piles decomposed better than others because we are the low spot and therefore the sink for everyone's nitrogen or maybe my herbivorous buggies are especially vigorous. Regardless, I say go for it! At worse you will have to pee on it like Jamie did or add some other animal feces.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Travis Johnson wrote:
Joseph Lofthouse wrote:
I wonder how Mother ever managed to compose anything before humans invented shredders?



After lots of time


Actually, it doesn't take the earth mother long to compost most tree leaves.
Trees have interesting mechanisms to protect them from fire, fast decomposing leaves are one of those mechanisms.
The leaves that take the longest are pine needles.
The fast decomposers are the light weight hardwoods like birch, maple, elm, hawthorn, poplar and lots of others that are similar.

The slow deciduous decomposers are Oaks, Hickories, Pecans, etc.
If you want to know which are most likely to have fast decomposing leaves, look at the bark thickness.
Thick bark means good heat tolerance (fire resistance) which means the leaves don't really have to decompose quick as a wink to protect the trees that the leaves fell from.
Thin barked trees are subject to be very damaged by fire, so most likely their leaves will decompose rapidly, leaving no fuel for any fire that might come roaring through.

Redhawk
 
Brandon McGinnity
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I used to compost leaves like this with my dad when I was a kid. Our pile was roughly 8 by 4 or 5 feet and maybe chest high, depending on the load of leaves. The unshredded leaves would soon compact down to about half that height in a week or two. We would throw on what green yard waste we could while we made the piles, though never with any real concerted effort to achieve the right ratios (didn't have enough to even try) and sprinkle dirt/old compost in layers as we piled them, along with soaking them good with the hose.

We did turn it once or twice, as I recall, though with a pile that big, and given the rather confined area where it was, with little room to pile it away while trying to mix it up, it wasn't done perfectly. The leaves would end up matting together and that was a little annoying but we would just thrash it some with the pitchfork and didn't worry too much about it. When turning we'd add water if needed (though the pile was uncovered), and would pee on it sometimes; never a very well managed pile, BUT we did get nice compost out of it.

I can't remember the timing but I feel like it was probably done by April or May or so, which was fine for us there in Detroit MI. Even if it wasn't all done, we would be able to sift it and take out some of the useful "done" part and let the rest go longer. We just used it all as top dressing anyways so there wasn't any rush for us. 

Also, Bryant may be on to something. The bulk of the leaves were from the two huge silver maples, with a bit of crab apple and other miscellaneous thrown in, so the speed at which they decomposed may have something to do with the species.
 
Hester Winterbourne
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On my allotment I use fallen leaves as follows.  I go out with my wheelbarrow and rake them up from somewhere I am fairly sure people have not been emptying their dogs, and pile them up pretty thick on the bed which is going into potatoes next spring, which has just been corn and squash, and not dug. Come potato planting time, the soil underneath is friable as you like (the old boys who have been digging all winter to let the frost "break down the clods" scratch their heads at this point).  The leaves are then turned over onto the plot which a couple of months later will be corn and squash, and has had winter tares on over the winter.  This slows down the spring weed flush and also kills off the winter tares the rabbits haven't eaten. When the squash and corn goes out, what's left of the leaves goes under the soft fruit.

I do have a slight rash of tree seedlings, but they are no trouble to pull out when they are a few inches high.
 
Richard Gorny
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One cubic meter of maple leaves tightly packed in autumn takes more than three years to decompose here (Zone 5), while same amount of birch leaves is decomposed in less than a year. Shredding speeds things up enormously, also turning a pile and mor importantly keeping it moist enough. If you just leave it and wait, you will get a leaf mold, excellent for perennials (orchard trees and bushes especially). When you add nitrogen in any form to the mix, decomposition is way faster and you end up with bacterial compost suitable for annuals (veggie garden).
I'm experimenting now with speeding up maple leaves decomposition by using bokashi innoculant, I will know results next spring. Second part of experiment involves adding kitchen wastes on top of maple leaves in a compost bin where quite a lot of red wiggles have been added. We will see if they make it through the winter.
 
casey lem
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I would like to second two suggestions above. First, shredding with a lawn mower is the most efficient method I have found to speed up decomposition. Second, placing said shredded leaves in your garden as mulch to break down over the winter. When I do this several inches of leaves will be gone by spring. I would guess the health of the existing soil would be a factor as more hungry critters break things down faster. I used to do the same the OP is suggesting with unshredded leaves and it could take a year or longer to decompose. So if shredding is an option, I strongly recommend it.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Richard Gorny wrote:One cubic meter of maple leaves tightly packed in autumn takes more than three years to decompose here (Zone 5), while same amount of birch leaves is decomposed in less than a year.


Any time you "Tightly Pack" any organic material you are removing space for air, this tends to go against nature and so should not be confused with leaves that are simply piled up as if the wind created the heap of leaves.
I notice you didn't mention if the Birch leaves were tightly packed or just raked into a heap of leaves.

Anytime humans do something different than what Nature does, there is a significant change in how things work.
When you tightly pack a compost heap, you are turning it into an anaerobic heap instead of allowing it to quickly heat and decompose you have, by your manipulation, slowed this process down significantly.

My composting heaps are loose, so air can flow through and around just like on the forest floor. I do add Nitrogen to my heaps because I want them to heat up and destroy pathogens and eggs.

Redhawk
 
John Polk
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...so the speed at which they decomposed may have something to do with the species. 


QUOTE from Steve Solomon's book "Organic Gardener's Composting": ( SOURCE: )
Leaves from leguminous (in the same botanical family as beans and peas) trees such as acacia, carob, and alder usually become humus
within a year. So do some others like ash, cherry, and elm. More resistant types take two years; these include oak, birch, beech, and
maple. Poplar leaves, and pine, Douglas fir, and larch needles are very slow to decompose and may take three years or longer.

Some of these differences are due to variations in lignin content which is highly resistant to decomposition, but speed of decomposition is
mainly influenced by the amount of protein and mineral nutrients contained in the leaf. 


( SOURCE: )

C-N-Ratio-Leaves.PNG
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Richard Gorny
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Maple leaves pack themselves tightly, under their own weight, and due to their shape. They tend to stick to each other tightly, moisture causes osmotic pressure to "glue" leaves together. There is no air between maple leaves in nature, unless they dry out and wind moves them around. Under my huge maple tree the leaves create impermeable carpet under which everything dies (perfect to get rid of grass if you pile them elsewhere and keep wet).
Birch tree leaves due to way smaller size, thickness and different composition do not pack themselves that tight.

I do not want to add nitrogen to these leaves, neither to turn these piles. I add leaves gradually on top when they fall from trees. I do that until compost bin is full, a week later, it is half full - the leaves pack themselves down on their own.

I do use "regular" composting methods as well, but not for maple leaves.
 
J Hampshire
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Dar,

I'm of the opinion that compost and leaf mold should only be looked at through one lens; results. It behooves us as land stewards, permaculturalists, gardeners, farmers, ecologists, and humans to simply and absolutely remove the element of time. If there is a particular result in mind using a methodology with a proven track record of success with mixed data of how long it "should" take; simply engage in the act of creating the result. Time will pass. It is the singular, ironclad guarantee in nature. Thusly, if the mindset is "I want compost"; do some research of what it takes to get a good quality compost, find the slowest, lowest energy input method, expect double the time it "should" take, make the compost and walk away. Now begin something else. Forgetting about something you started, in order to let time pass without worry, is a very beneficial human characteristic.

We are trying to emulate nature, and she works very, very slowly with very little energy expended. The time we use to wait in between projects can be used to stack functions, think of other projects and continue to observe!


One man's opinion. Be well and God Bless!
 
Dar Helwig
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Rus Williams wrote:It's almost time to do it again this year and I'll do at least 3 times as much if I can get some more free  200L barrels.



I get all the 55 gallon plastic barrels I want at the local car washes. Soap barrels.
 
Dar Helwig
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Temps here have been in the 30s and 40s at night and in the 50s and 60s during the day. I have about 16 large leaf bags of leaves shredded and piled in my compost bin. Its been 1 week and  the pile is about 100 degrees inside. Size is currently about 5 ft x 5 ft and 2 feet high after settling. There are probably 50 or 60 pounds of coffee grounds thrown in also. I will probably need about 60 bags of leaves minimum to fill this bin. Trees in this area are currently about 50 percent fallen and even less in many areas. Lots of leaves to be collected.
 
Dar Helwig
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Got around 30 large bags of mulched leaves now. Heres some pics. Temp inside has ht 140 degrees. These are all fallen leaves. I assume that this temp will not hold since they are low in nitrogen. Correct? I will probably require to add greens to hold the temp right? Still planning on topping this off and have started a second bin to the left of this one. Lot of leaves yet.
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Jamie Davis
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You can add lots of greens and turn it...or...you can urinate in a bucket, dilute it 10:1 and then apply it via a backpack sprayer.
 
William Bronson
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Jamie Davis wrote:You can add lots of greens and turn it...or...you can urinate in a bucket, dilute it 10:1 and then apply it via a backpack sprayer.


Some of us apply it undiluted via a frontpack sprayer.....
 
Peter Ellis
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Rus Williams wrote:I

As an aside (and if it's not a thread hijack) can someone tell me the difference between compost and leaf mould?


Hot composting is a bacteria dominated process with some fungi.  Leaf mould is almost straight fungi.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Some of us apply it undiluted via a frontpack sprayer.....
  Ha Ha!  

you can urinate in a bucket, dilute it 10:1 and then apply it via a backpack sprayer.
  From my understanding, diluting is necessary only for applying (watering/fertilizing) near plants, but not when adding to a compost to charge a carbon source, unless the goal is to gain more moisture (also necessary in the compost process) than your urine alone could provide-In that case, diluting can also serve the function of spreading the nitrogen to a larger amount of compostable carbon, though, obviously, with less concentration.

 
Adam Eccleston
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You know, I wouldn't think so hard about the leaves breaking down.  You don't need to add air, or water the pile or even turn it.  Just let the leaves, be leaves.

Leaves will break down on their own, albeit with a little time.  Something to think about would be to spread out the pile a little more.  You don't need to create such a large mass of leaves.  Cut it in half (the depth) and spread out the surface area if you have the space.

Once you spread out the leaves a little bit throw in some winter rye or something very cold hardy and get something growing.  I believe winter rye will germinate with temperatures as low as 34 degrees.  Once they germinate, they stand a good chance of surviving all winter because the leaves will provide the insulation.  The roots will assist in breaking everything down.  After all, it’s the roots that build soil.  Not compost.

Another beautiful thing about leaves is that darn near anything grows in leaves.  No soil is even required.

We love leaves so much for preparing an area for growing that we have one of the larger suburban cities of Columbus, Ohio deliver ALL of their leaves that they pick up from the municipal park as well as the leaves that people rake to the curb for pickup.  I’d say we’ve had about 100 yards of leaves delivered this fall.

But the bottom line is this, just let them be leaves.  They have been mulching trees for eons.  Why fix something that isn’t broke.

Adam

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