Composting Fall Leaves

Sustainable Landscape Tips Nebraska Statewide Arboretum,

“If we cut down and compost these plants, we may be composting next year’s generation of butterflies.” Tracy DiSabato-Aust

       Reuse, recycle, repurpose may be the best guide to fall landscape efforts. It’s tempting to go into winter with a clean slate, but one of the best ways to improve soil is to add organic matter, not take it away. Though you may have too much waste to use all of it, any materials you do recycle—lawn clippings, leaves, stems, branches, straw, kitchen waste—can make a difference.

       Adding organic matter to soil increases the amount of nitrogen and other nutrients available; improves soil structure and its ability to absorb nutrients, air and moisture; increases the diversity of organisms that will further decompose it into humus; and makes it easier to pull weeds, plant and otherwise manage. After a light frost, applying or simply allowing a 2-4 inch layer of residue to build up will insulate plant roots from extreme temperatures and prevent water runoff and soil erosion.

       Many composting guides (like diet guides!) are so complex or extreme that they discourage any attempt. But it’s not an all or nothing venture. Simply figure out what you’re willing to do and start there. Is there a corner of your property where you can throw some leaves, grass and kitchen scraps? Good enough. If you dig a trench and add water, worms and other decomposers will speed up the process. If you want to start a new garden bed over turf, lay down thin layers of organic matter and let it work over winter (again, water will help break things down).

       Remember too that your garden isn’t entirely your own. Even the smallest garden feeds and shelters a variety of birds, pollinators and other wildlife.

       Most of us don’t want to look out on a bare, flat surface once the cold weather settles in. The winter landscape offers far more interesting options. Grasses will move in the wind and be backlit morning and evening by the low, winter sunlight. Ice and snow will glitter on branches and seed heads. Crabapples and berries on viburnums and other woody plants will offer color until repeated frosts make them palatable to birds, another recycling. So save what you can and see what winter does with it.

SUSTAINABLE LANDSCAPE TIPS – Nebraska Statewide Arboretum Contact: Karma Larsen 402-472-7923,




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