Composting Leaves for Garden Soil – Garden Tips 2024

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Composting is a controlled process that utilizes oxygen to convert various organic materials into mulch or a nutrient-rich soil amendment. The materials you add will decompose naturally and you will end up with a dark, earthy, crumbly, soil-like material that you can use in your garden. It’s easy to make compost at home, but you need to know what materials are compostable. 

Dry leaves are an excellent material to include in compost. Like plant stalks and twigs, they are carbon-rich. But they need to be mixed with other materials including grass clippings and other yard trim that is rich in nitrogen. Additionally, you will need water and air, which provides the oxygen that plays such a vital role in the decomposition process. 

Can you compost with leaves?

Tree leaves are an invaluable garden resource that many people burn or bag. When you burn dry leaves, you pollute the air and create a fire hazard. 

When you bag them, they will generally end up in a landfill. While they will eventually decompose, a landfill environment is low in oxygen. This means that they will break down more slowly and inevitably release harmful methane gas. 

Instead, consider composting leaves. Tree leaves contain all kinds of minerals. 

Some contain more nutrients than others, including ash, birch, cottonwood, cherry, and maple, which has fairly high levels of nitrogen and calcium. Many fruit tree leaves have decent levels of nitrogen as well as phosphorous and potassium. 

All these leaves are also low in lignin. This is relevant, because the more lignin present in the leaves, the harder it is to break them down on the compost pile. 

Are leaves good compost for a garden?

Leaves are a great compost material for any good quality compost, but they must be used with green composting materials. Also, as discussed elsewhere in this article, some leaves should never be used to make compost. 

This is because dry leaves, a “brown” material, are rich in carbon. “Green” materials are rich in nitrogen. So, you should definitely use leaves in your compost mix, but you can’t make compost from leaves alone. 

How to compost leaves for garden use

Before you start the process of composting leaves and other materials, you need to equip yourself with a compost bin or establish a compost pile or heap. Plant Talk, which is sponsored by the Colorado State University Extension has some invaluable advice

If you’re going to use a compost bin it should be about 3 ft x 3 ft x 3 ft in size. Anything larger in size will restrict the oxygen you need for decomposition and slow it down. 

PennState Extension advises that you don’t need an expensive compost bin. Rather, you can make a pile that can be loose or kept in place with chicken wire. 

You must, though, be able to get to the materials you are composting to turn them. This is how you get water and oxygen into the pile to help with decomposition. 

While some sources advise that you should shred leaves, others warn that it encourages compaction, which is detrimental to the composting process. But here’s a broad outline of what you should do.

How to build a compost pile

Once you’ve identified a convenient, well-drained spot for your compost pile, start building it. Start building a compost pile by alternating layers of leaves and other compostable materials, such as grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, and coffee grounds.

Each layer should be about six inches thick. If you like, you can add a bit of garden soil to the pile as you go. 

Keep the compost pile moist, but not soaking wet. Spraying the pile with a garden hose or watering can help.

Be sure to turn the pile regularly every 2-4 weeks. This will help to ensure that the leaves and other materials are breaking down evenly and the compost pile is being aerated.

It’s important to monitor the temperature of your developing compost because this is what converts it into a valuable mulch or nutrient-rich soil amendment. When it reaches a temperature between 130°F and 160°F you will know that the composting process is underway. 

This high temperature will kill any weed seeds or pathogens present in the mix.

After about six months to a year, you should have rich, dark compost. Sift the compost through a screen to remove any large chunks. Then use the compost as a mulch or soil amendment in your garden.

By following these steps, you can create nutrient-rich compost from your leaves and other yard waste that will help improve the health and growth of your plants.

What leaves should not be composted?

Not all leaves make good compost leaves. For example, leaves from poisonous plants such as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac should never be composted. 

Walnut and eucalyptus leaves should also be left out of the compost pile. The leaves from these two trees contain toxins that can harm plants. They can also prevent some seed crops from germinating. 

Additionally, it makes sense to avoid leaves from diseased plants. Unfortunately, the composting process may not kill all the pathogens present, so it’s not worth the risk.

Oak leaves should be used with circumspection because they contain minimal nitrogen and tend to be acidic. They also have higher lignin levels that slow down their decomposition rate. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t use oak leaves, just limit the volume of leaves to less than 20%.

How long Does It Take For Leaves To Compost?

As discussed, some tree leaves compost more quickly than others. But, typically, it takes about six months to a year for leaves to fully decompose into rich, dark compost. 

Of course, the time frame can vary depending on the size of the leaves, the moisture content, and the temperature of the compost pile. Regularly turning the pile and maintaining the right balance of carbon and nitrogen will help to speed up the composting process.


Without a doubt, composting leaves can be a great way to improve your garden soil and reduce yard waste. Just be sure to avoid using leaves from poisonous or diseased plants and be patient. 

Ultimately, composting is a great way to create rich and nutritious soil for your garden. And leaves are an excellent source of carbon and other essential nutrients that are necessary for healthy plant growth. 

When leaves and other garden waste are composted, it all breaks down into organic matter that you can add to your garden soil to improve its texture and fertility. And it doesn’t cost you anything other than a bit of time and patience.

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