The fall brings about many changes in plants, especially in trees.
The leaves will start to change colors and then they will drop. Older needles on pine trees are turning brown and dropping. The rest of the needles should still be green. The deciduous trees are dropping their leaves as well.
Now these leaves and pine needles are covering the grass in yards. If they are covering turfgrass, they need to be removed.
If there is too deep a layer of leaves or pine needles covering the grass, the grass doesn't go dormant, as it is supposed to. This can make the grass more susceptible to cold damage.
Most people will rake the leaves, put them in bags and let disposal companies pick them up. To me, however, these pine needles and leaves are a gold mine. This yard waste can be used in a number of ways -- for compost, adding organic material to soil and as mulch.
Making compost is one of the ways we can put the leaves in our yards to work for us. Composting uses a natural decomposition process that takes leaves, lawn clippings and trimmings and turns them into dark, rich, humus that can be added to soil.
Almost any organic plant material can be added to compost piles. However, I would advise against using diseased plant material, weeds or weed seeds and invasive plants. If the pile doesn't heat up enough, the diseased organisms and seeds will not be killed. This compost can increase the number of weeds in the garden or shrub beds.
Compost piles need to be placed in out-of-the-way areas that receive full sun, and on a well-drained site. The full sun will help heat up the pile. The size of the compost pile also will help with the heating process. The larger the compost pile, the more heat it produces.
I have had the best success with a compost pile that is 5 feet high and 5 feet wide. I use a piece of fencing material that is 5 feet high and 12 feet long. This will give me close to the size hoop that I need.
Once I have my hoop in place, I start making layers. The first layer is what is called brown material: leaves, sawdust, wheat straw or any other material that has high carbon content. This layer will be 6 inches to 10 inches deep.
The next layer will be the green layer. The green materials could be grass clippings, kitchen scraps or manures. This layer will be 3 to 5 inches deep. A brown-to-green ratio of two-to-one is desired.
Garden soil or compost can be added to the new compost to inoculate the pile. The fungi and bacteria needed by the compost pile are in the soil. Water is then added to the layer to moisten the materials. Compost piles will not work without adequate moisture.
Continue with the layers until the hoop is full. The pile should be turned to add oxygen. This needs to be done when the pile stops reducing in size. Adding oxygen keeps the bacteria and fungi working. The more the pile is turned, the faster it will become compost.
The compost will be finished when it looks like rich, crumbly earth and the original plant material can no longer be recognized.
When the compost is finished, add it to the garden soil or use it as potting soil.
If composting sounds like a big chore, leaves can be put on in the garden and incorporated into the soil. Two to 4 inches of leaves in the rows of the garden will add plenty of organic matter to the soil.
This should be done in the fall to give the leaves time to decompose over the winter.
Decaying leaves pull nutrients out of the soil to aid in the decomposition process. If the leaves in the soil are not fully decomposed, plants grown in that soil will need extra fertilizer to replace the nutrients going to the decomposition process.
Once the leaves are broken down, the nutrients become available to the plants.
The other way that I use leaves and pine needles is for mulch around my plants. I will place 2 inches to 4 inches of leaves and pine needles around my plants and then place an inch or two of pine bark, hardwood or cypress mulch on top. This holds the leaves in place. As the leaves decompose, they add organic material to the soil and release nutrients into the soil. Leaves that are decomposing on the soil surface do not pull nutrients away from the plants.
Leaves and pine straw can be used around landscape and gardens and will benefit these plants. So use them at home instead of sending them someplace else.
Charles Phillips is a retired Columbia County Extension Service agent and operates Hort Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.