Zero Waste Tip: Turn Your Fall Leaves Into Gardener’s Gold

The recommended ratio for compost is one part green/nitrogen material and three parts brown/carbon material. Courtesy photo


Now is the best time to start planning for your spring garden. Composting in the fall allows time to create healthy compost by spring. Compost is vital to creating healthy soil to nourish plants. Healthy soil increases plant yields by enhancing aeration, water retention, nutrient availability, and resistance to soilborne disease.

Fall leaves can be used in a variety of ways including:

  • Mulch
  • Leaf mold
  • Compost

Mulch: Covering the soil around tress and in gardens with leaves prevents the sun from bleaching out essential nutrients. As the leaves gradually decompose throughout the winter, they release valuable nutrients back into the soil. 

Leaf Mold: This requires no winter maintenance and is a compost substitute.  To create leaf mold, gather fallen leaves, shred into small pieces, place in a container such as a bin or black plastic bag, and add water. Tie or loosely cover and leave outside in the sun throughout the winter. By spring you can add the leaf mold directly to your garden bed. If you use bags for the leaves, they will break down over time, becoming harder to relocate. Therefore, plan on storing them near the garden.

 Compost: A traditional compost pile will provide the most nutrient-dense decomposed material. 

A healthy compost pile requires four things: 

  • Carbon (“browns”)
  • Nitrogen (“greens”)
  • Water
  • Air

Dry leaves are a good source of carbon (“brown” items). Materials high in nitrogen (“greens”), include grass and yard clippings (regardless of color), food waste, and used coffee grounds. Overuse of nitrogen rich material will cause an unpleasant odor. Therefore, the recommended ratio is one part “green” material to two or three parts “brown” material.

The ideal size for a hot compost pile is about 1 cubic yard (3’ x 3’ x 3’). With that in mind, start with a layer of shredded leaves covering an area of 3’ x 3’ and 1’ deep. Add one layer of “greens” about 6” deep, then water down with a garden hose. Add another layer of “browns” and “greens” and top them off with more water. Continue this layering process until the pile reaches 3’ tall.

Keeping in mind the Los Alamos Code Enforcement concerns, you have several options for creating a compost pile. Remember to avoid creating it in your front yard, and to keep it contained and covered, rather than in an open pile.

  • You can build your compost pile inside a structure such as fencing or wood pallets (available for free at the Eco Station). For ease of turning and removing the finished compost, consider making one side hinged with easily removable bolts.
  • Alternatively, you can purchase a static bin online or from the Eco Station.
  • You can also purchase a compost tumbler. Some have wheels for easy transport to the site of use. If not, be sure it is high enough that you can get a cart beneath it. The tumbler makes it easy to mix your compost.
  • If you choose to leave your pile in a heap, remember that Code Enforcement requires that the heap be covered and not attract bears and rodents.

Each system will break down the materials at a different rate. Regardless of the type of container chosen, regular turning is the key to making the process faster. During turning, check for areas that are too wet or too dry.

  • If the pile is too wet or smells bad, add more “browns”.
  • If the pile is too dry, adding more water for a moisture consistency like a wrung-out sponge. will speed up the decomposition process.

Avoid adding dense items that take longer to decompose, such as branches, pine needles, and avocado pits.

A healthy compost pile will be ready for use in as little as three months. 

If composting isn’t your thing, offer your leaves to a neighbor, or use the new Yard Trimming Roll Cart provided by Environmental Services. If you would like to request a Yard Trimming roll cart, sign up online:

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