Published on 11/04/98

Fall a Great Time to Start a Compost Pile

Those beautiful autumn leaves have blown from the trees. Now they're just unsightly brown masses in your lawn and other places you don't want them.

Don't fret and don't burn. Simply build a compost pile and recycle these leaves into valuable organic matter.

When you're cleaning up the garden, yard or flowerbeds, too, don't forget that almost all of that can be added to the compost pile.

It's easier and cheaper to compost those materials than to have the government pick them up. Since yard trimmings were banned from landfills in September 1996, all Georgians should be practicing home composting.

As a soil amendment, compost improves both the physical condition and fertility of the soil. It's especially useful for improving Georgia soils that are low in organic matter. Although some nutrients will be derived from compost, its main benefit is improving soil characteristics.

Here are some simple composting rules to follow.

  • The best activator for compost is old compost.
  • Use almost any organic material -- leaves, grass clippings, hay, straw, some weeds, chopped corn cobs, corn stalks. Use kitchen scraps, too, except for animal fat and bones. Avoid weeds and grass with seed heads, too.
  • Good kitchen scraps for the compost pile include coffee and tea grounds, peelings of vegetables and fruits, canning by-products such as tomato peels and cores, eggshells and corn husks. These kitchen scraps and others are completely degradable in the compost pile within 4-6 weeks.
  • Don't make the compost pile smaller than 3 feet wide by 3 feet high. That's too small to heat up and decompose the material properly. It is best not to go more than 5 feet by 5 feet by 5 feet deep, either

Photo courtesy Texas A&M University
compost.gif (87266 bytes)

OPEN SIDED edging, like this fencing, allows plenty of air to circulate through your compost pile, yet keep it contained. Good circulation, water and 'food' keeps your pile composting, even through the winter. For the quickest results, turn the pile frequently to keep it well mixed and aerated.
  • The sides of the compost bin should allow free air movement into the material. The best siding material is probably 2-inch by 4-inch fencing 3 feet high. If you don't want to use anything, just pile up the material. It will still work.
  • You don't have to build the pile all at once. Begin by spreading an 8-inch to 12-inch layer of organic material. On top of this, spread one cup of complete garden fertilizer or a couple of shovelfuls of manure. You can also add a light layer of soil. Continue to alternate these layers, watering each thoroughly. Keep the pile moist but not soggy -- like a wrung-out sponge.
  • You will speed the decomposition if you turn the pile every few weeks. If you don't choose to turn or can't do it, don't worry. The decomposition will just be slower.
  • Compost is ready to use when it turns dark and becomes crumbly. Finished compost will have lost much of its original identity and will have an earthy smell. Normally, it takes five to eight months to finish compost, depending on the material used and the heat and moisture available during the composting.

When the compost is ready, apply it to garden soil at about 4 bushels per 100 square feet, or 2 inches deep over the area.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.