Falling Leaves Don’t Only Inspire: The Art of Composting

It took only a day or two of rain and some strong winds to strip the glory off the maple tree that inspired my Falling Leaves quilt. In the last few days, instead of shining with magnificent fall colors, my garden was filled with sad-looking naked branches, and huge piles of fallen, muddy leaves:

Fallen leaves in my yard

Granted, I must admit that some were still quite beautiful, even on the ground:

Fallen leaves in my garden

To me, however, even in their deplorable state, falling leaves are a pure treasure. And not only for their former (or lingering) beauty. I already confessed to being a little obsessed with recycling. Whenever possible, I religiously recycle paper, plastic and metal, and of course–FABRIC. I also already mentioned my love of gardening. So it is only natural that, whenever possible, I try to recycle in the yard, as well.

One of the first things I did once I got my own garden, was to take a composting workshop. This might seem somewhat unnecessary to all you seasoned gardeners. At the time, however, I really didn’t know much about decomposition. A workshop seemed appropriate. It lasted about two hours, and could be summed into one sentence: fill a bin with 50% green cuttings and 50% dry material, mix, wet, and wait.

Since then, I’ve been trying to return everything that comes from the garden back into the garden. In the city’s garden-waste bins I deposit only diseased plants, parts that are too fibrous, or especially-thick branches. Everything else goes into my compost bin:

My compost bin

In fact, there are many weeks in which I don’t even bother to take the city garden bins to the curb. They are often completely empty.

Composting everything is a lot of work, and requires some advance planning. For things to compost at a reasonable time (for me, that means up to a year), every plant needs to be chopped into smaller pieces. In spring and summer this translates into hours and hours of standing above the compost bin and chopping green cuttings. In the fall, the main season for collecting the “brown” component that composting requires, it means hours of collecting leaves. After I collect the leaves, I store them away in paper bags, and add them to the bin slowly over the remaining months of the year.

It’s actually really good for the soil to just let falling leaves decompose where they fall. There are parts of my garden where I do just that–let nature take care of itself. I collect only leaves that fall on paths, the lawn or on other plants. Depending on the location, I either rake or vacuum them. The vacuum automatically chops the leaves into smaller bits, which are easier to store and which decompose faster.

Last weekend was my last crafts fair for the year. The weeks leading to the fair were hectic, leaving me with little time for anything else. Once the fair was over, however, I took a break from sewing. This week I tried to catch up on all the neglected tasks. The garden was on the top of my list.

I still haven’t used up all the leaves I stored last year. This year, therefore, I decided  to  use everything I collect as ground cover. A thick layer of ground cover (preferably six inches thick) helps protect roots from frost, and in summer helps keep the moisture in. So this week I raked and vacuumed wherever needed, and then deposited piles of chopped leaves all over the yard:

A pile of shredded fallen leaves in my garden

In the coming days I will spread these piles more evenly, covering as much ground as possible with this highly-beneficial dry material.

The hours (and days!) it takes to collect leaves and other organic matter, chop , spread, or compost everything aren’t always pleasant. However, all that work pays off in the long run. My modest compost bin reliably produces rich, high-quality and entirely organic (!!) compost. My compost is swarming with life: earthworms, Armadillidiidae (also known as Roly Polies), earwigs and all kinds of other creatures call it a home. Once I even found baby salamanders in the mix! Every year I spread this compost around fruit trees and on flower beds. It enriches the native California clay soil, feeds the earthworms–who in turn dig and loosen the soil, bringing air to roots–and in general makes my plants happy.

The reward comes in spring and summer, with amazing flowers and tasty fruits . And it all begins with these leaves, that shine with golden light in the fall and then turn into black gold by summer!