Autumn leaves stand prominent in song and poetry. Their blazing colors attract countless visitors to Maine solely for the purposes of taking in the visual treat of radiant yellows, purples, oranges and reds. But for gardeners, autumn leaves have a more prosaic and in fact, more long-lasting use.

Autumn leaves, when broken down to their base elements, make the perfect compost. The steps from leaves falling from the trees to the black gold that gardeners prize are long and time-consuming, but in the long run are more than worth the effort.

The first chore, made easier by many helping hands, is to gather the leaves. This is done either by raking into piles that are then transported to the place where they will stay for the duration. Some people use leaf blowers to accomplish the same task. Whichever suits your taste is fine.

A second way requires yet another step, but it can help to speed up the decomposition process. That is, allow the leaves to fall from the trees and run them over with a rotary lawn mower. This can be done in stages, since leaves do not fall from the trees all at once.

We know that whole leaves take a very long time to break down. If they are chopped, that process is greatly hastened. But even with whole leaves, we can speed up the process by turning over the piles. Decomposition is really a type of slow combustion and begins in the center of the leaf pile. Allow at least a few weeks before turning the pile, and when you do, look for whitish ash, the result of decomposition. The decomposing leaves should be warm and steaming.

It would take ages for a pile of un-turned leaves to fully decompose, which is why it is important to turn them.

Compost Bins

Composting, or the breaking down of organic material, speeds up when the material is compacted and slows when the material is loosely piled. Thus, when we simply dump dead leaves in a pile, they take seemingly forever to break down. But when we compact the leaves, as in chopping them up first, they quickly decompose.

The process is also helped by containing the leaf pile, or piles. To do this, some gardeners use bins. These are easily made of scrap lumber. Lacking scrap lumber, just stick posts in the ground and attach poultry fencing to make an open-ended structure. Some people make several of these, placing them side-by-side and tossing the semi-composted material from one bin to the next. This aerates the leaves and helps them to heat up. We can have no combustion without oxygen, which is why we turn our piles.

Easy Way

The “lazy gardener’s” method entails mixing chopped leaves directly into the soil. The leaves will gradually decompose over the course of the winter, but don’t put whole leaves in the soil, because that nearly halts the decomposition process.

My plan this year for the first full autumn at my new place is to begin a permanent leaf pile, which has already begun, and to also run over leaves with my mower and mix them directly in my garden bed.

All Welcome

Come growing season, the leaves should be well along the way to being composted. At that point, it’s okay to place other organic material on the piles and mix it in. This saves creating a second compost pile. In other words, all are welcome.

As an avid fisherman, I often have fish carcasses to dispose of. It’s entirely acceptable to turn these directly into the garden soil. However, that can be problematic as digging may uproot your plants. It’s better to do it this way before and after planting.

Fish products can also go in the compost pile. Bury it deep so that marauding skunks, raccoons and house cats will leave it alone. Fish nourish the soil greatly. Remember Squanto, who taught the English colonists how to place one alewife in each hole and covering it with a thin layer of earth before planting corn. As the season progressed, the plant roots would pull up the nutrients from the decaying fish and the result was a hardy, healthy crop.

Chemical Versus Natural

I have nothing against granular fertilizers, 5-10-10, for example. The elements are the same and the plants don’t know or care how they get them. But I have found that chemical fertilizers are at best, slow-acting, while natural fertilizers such as compost are much more quickly absorbed.

So this fall, don’t just observe those beautiful, autumn leaves. Use them to your advantage.