Forge Brown Gold — Compost your Leaves

18 years ago I drove my shovel into the ground of my new yard in Libertyville IL and broke the blade off in that rock-hard clay.  I replaced the shovel, and while I was at it I bought a big, black, plastic compost bin so I could compost urbanely.  By the time we moved back to Wisconsin 12 years later, I could wiggle my fingers deep into the spongy, friable garden beds that surrounded the house.

...These vegies are good eats, and what's left is great compost.

Not much makes me happier than improving the quality of soil.

This year we have really improved our composting system and my joy is almost boundless.  (Aren’t I lucky to be so easily amused?)

Most days I make the journey with a bowl of carrot ends and onion peals and such down our twisting basement stairs, through the cellar and out into the back yard to a big, black compost bin very much like the one I purchased 18 years ago.

It would no doubt be the same one I purchased, lo those many years ago – except I managed to burn that one up.  Be advised that if you want to get rid of some still quite hot ash from your wood-burning stove, and you think you can toss a few shovelfuls into your compost bin because moist vegetable matter won’t burn – think again.  I found out the hard way that the bin itself is quite flammable.

So, compost bin Number Two takes bowl after bowl of pumpkin skins and Brussels sprout stalks and cabbage cores and corn cobs.  (No apple cores – Tombo, our Golden Retriever who has adapted well to being part of a vegetarian pack, considers apple cores his prize.)

...Leaves the oaks let go over winter - ready to be shredded into compost.We used to compost our fall and spring harvests of fallen leaves in a massive and passive pile next to the bin.  We are rich in leaves.  Our house sits coolly under a canopy of bur oak tree branches all summer long.

Then comes the deluge.  We shred our mass of leaves into a dense mound with our ancient, 8-hp Kemp shredder.  (If you want to know exactly how old it is – we call it Ollie because Oliver North was being tried at the time – do the math.  Kemp went belly up years ago, but their products were built to last, and we crank Ollie up for a couple afternoons each fall and once again in spring for the leaves that fall over winter.  Ollie chews those leaves up and spits them out.

..Our trusty old Kemp shredder.

Our pile of shredded leaf actually heats up — getting too hot to hold your hand in, and we used to let nature take its course, but this year, we upped the ante after reading the very detailed information University of Washington has prepared on the fundamentals of composting.

..Our dual composting system. Cold outside, but hot inside.


This fall we mixed the shredded leaf with our year’s worth of kitchen scraps from the black plastic bin and transferred them to a bin made out of a 4’ tall roll of welded wire (2” x 4”) held together with buckles we got from a good friend who promotes composting through her Buckle-Up composting business — and you should see her garden!   Her composting website will really get you started.  Check it out here.

..These little buckles really do the job.

By spring, it will be the perfect garden amendment.

This fall we also got a thermometer with a 2-foot probe to see how hot the pile was actually getting in there, and then the fun began.

November 15 we mixed the shredded leaf and gloppy kitchen compost in a pile about 3 feet in diameter and less than 3 feet tall.

By the next morning it was 70 degrees.  The next day it was 90.  Day after that 105.  Next 118.  Next 128, and topped out at 130!

On the 7th day Doug rested. Just kidding. He actually  turned it (those buckles make it so easy) and added some left over compost and more shredded leaf and a little water because it wasn’t gloppy any more.  That made a little bigger pile.

This time the temperature raced up even faster!

Day one was 92.  Next day 115.  3rd day 125.  4th day 133 and stayed there till Nov 28.

Then Doug turned it again

First day 103, next 118, 3rd 122, but then – oh oh — it started to drop.

We thought maybe it was too dry.

..Well, only 80, but it was 29 degrees outside when I shot this.

Doug turned and watered it.  That was day before yesterday.  Since then it has been slowly dropping.  Tonight it was 80.

So maybe it got too wet.  We are no pros, but we had an exciting run.  It’s really good looking stuff and smells really sweet and earthy.  It is fluffy and light weight and squeezes in your hand like a sponge.

Some of it will go into the vegetable and flower beds, and some of it will mulch around our three ancient oaks.  It always goes just far enough, which is probably because the leaf all came from this yard in the first place.

When I see my neighbors raking their leaves to the street for the city to pick up, I am amazed.  It puzzles me that people who will buy a snow blower will not buy a leaf shredder.

They are throwing away brown gold.



2 replies

  1. You know, I’ve never had much luck composting, despite the many pages I’ve read about the process. So I sometimes just mix the stuff up and let it sit for a couple years, maybe turning it a few times. What I’ve been doing more commonly lately is turning the plant remains under directly in the garden bed after harvesting the veggies (e.g. potatoes, tomatoes, beans, sqhash, etc.) and letting them decompose in the bed. And I’ve been taking bags of kitchen waste out to the garden, spreading them out, and turning them under a layer of soil to again decompose in the garden beds. Just skipping the compost pile step. And I grow green manures that I turn under in the spring. We’ll see how all this works out…

    • Yes, for years I just made a heap and used it about a year later. That seemed to work, but it’s being interesting to get a little more involved and treati it the compost like the living entity it can become. I think we’ll have to name it soon.

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