×

Between the Rows: Wonderful cycle of composting

  • Pat Leuchtman spreads cold compost on a bed where perennials have been cut back. The compost bins that many of us use for our kitchen scraps, grass cuttings and weeds, use the heat created by the rotting process to make cold compost. In a different process, leaves break down in their aerated wire bin without heat. It does take a full year, and sometimes longer to be usable, but it is valuable compost. FOR THE RECORDER/PAT LEUCHTMAN

  • Pat Leuchtman digs out finished cold compost. Last fall, the five foot wire bin was full of leaves. The leaves broke down over the winter and summer, resulting in a 2-foot-high pile of mostly finished cold compost. FOR THE RECORDER/PAT LEUCHTMAN

  • Pat Leuchtman



For The Recorder
Friday, October 20, 2017

Leaves are falling, some flower stalks have turned brown and brittle; it’s time for the fall cleanup.

I have been cutting back iris and daylily foliage, which was looking less and less attractive every day. Cutting back is one way to make the garden look neater and a bit more serene. It is also a way to see clearly which clumps will be ready for dividing in the spring. I start to wonder where can these divisions make the most impact? Or maybe if the divisions can be sold at spring plant sales like those for the Bridge of Flowers or the Greenfield Garden Club.

I also started to cut back the large stand of 6-foot-tall chelone, turtlehead. Cutting back the waning, but still tall, or spready perennials in the garden make it easier to see the plants with autumnal and winter interest like winterberry.

All of these large leaves and plant stalks go into a special, big compost pile. In the spring we will turn the pile, and with a little luck, the bottom half of that pile will be good compost to put on the garden beds.

Walking through the autumn garden shows the spots of failure. My sweet peas didn’t get enough sun. The string beans didn’t get proper support and were too crowded. The smaller honeysuckle wasn’t as small as I thought; it needs a real trellis. My wanderings show that the vigorous and twining Grandpa Ott morning glory is also going to need careful removal from the honeysuckle.

Fall cleanup doesn’t happen in one day, and it doesn’t need to. Unlike chores in the spring which seem to happen all at once, I feel we have more time in the fall, especially this year because the weather has been so mild. The leaves fall and have to be raked. Then more leaves fall and the cycle continues. Fall cleanup encourages a slow and steady approach.

My biggest problem this year is the dead brown leaves of our big horse chestnut. We noticed other horse chestnut trees in town also shedding their big brown leaf clusters early. I have tried to do some research to confirm or disprove the rumor we heard that there is a fungus attacking these trees and that the fallen leaves should be collected and removed, not put in the compost pile.

Our horse chestnut is very tall and branches are not within reach. I cannot see the leaves clearly until they fall off. I did find examples online of leaf blotch which is caused by a fungus, but I am not able to see my leaves early enough in the fungus development stage to see if they develop as shown in the photos. In any event, I’m trying to rake up as many of those leaves as possible; bagging them up and putting them out for the trash collector. The leaf blotch fungus, Guignardia aesculi, can overwinter in a compost pile and be a threat next year.

While I’m doing my best to get rid of the horse chestnut leaves, I welcome the sycamore, Japanese lilac and river birch leaves as well as the maple and oak leaves from our neighbors’ trees. There are plenty of these over the course of the fall. I collect them and put them into a 5-foot-tall wire cage, pressing them down as the season progresses. We can watch the pile melt down and stand in awe of the speed of the rotting process.

I did not invent the idea of a big wire bin. That was the late Larry Lightner’s idea. He was a marvelous gardener, and years ago was responsible for many of the gardens on the Northfield Mount Hermon campus. He collected leaves and made what he called ‘cold compost.’ The compost bins that many of us use for our kitchen scraps, grass cuttings and weeds, use the heat created by the rotting process to make compost. In a different process, leaves break down in their aerated wire bin without heat. It does take a full year, and sometimes longer to be usable, but it is valuable compost.

Lightner even planted in his cold compost bins. He made them about 2 or 3-feet-tall; sometimes circular or of any other shape that suited him. He kept adding leaves all fall until the bins were full. In the spring, he would top off the planting bin with cold compost from another bin. The newly full bin was ready for planting. He would make an indentation in the cold compost, add about a quart of soil, and then plant a vegetable or plant start. One big bin could hold numerous starts. These bins did need to be kept well-watered, but plants got plenty of nutrition from the still rotting leaves and thrived.

I just pulled my wire bin up and off the rotted leaves collected all last fall. Unrotted leaves remained along the outside edges, but the rest of the leaves have rotted into good compost. I am spreading that compost over my beds as I cut back and weed.

As soon as I spread all of that finished compost, I’ll set up the bin again and pile in this year’s crop of leaves. This is a wonderful cycle. It makes me happy to know that I can look forward to a compost harvest every fall.

Pat Leuchtman has written and gardened since 1980. She lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her website: www.commonweeder.com