Category Archives: Compost

It’s that time of year again in New England. Leaves are everywhere!

When it comes to leaves, one man's trash is most definitely another's treasure!

When it comes to leaves, one man’s trash is most definitely another’s treasure!

Some nearby towns allow homeowners to put their bagged leaves out by the curb for pickup with the trash. Am I the only one with the urge to pull over and grab these bags of leaves for my compost pile? Fall leaves are one of a gardeners’ greatest resources, and most of them get thrown away!

Leaf mold is gardeners' gold

Leaf mold is gardeners’ gold

Tree leaves are full of nutrients and trace minerals pulled from deep in the earth by tree roots. Recycle them back into your garden by piling them in a shady spot and letting them rot for a while. Broken-down leaves (leaf mold) make an excellent soil amendment that you can use in your gardens, containers and potting mixes instead of buying bagged peat moss.

Best of all – leaves are free!

If you have any trees on our near your property (which is true just about everywhere in New England), now is the time to stockpile at least some of those leaves for future use. You can keep leaves from blowing away using a simple enclosure made from stakes woven into chicken wire:

The leaves at the bottom of this leaf mold pile break down first, but you can use your leaf mold for mulch or as a soil amendment at any time during the decomposition process.

In New England where we get a lot of rain and snow through the year, leaves break down into leaf mold in 6 months to 3 years, depending on the type of leaves (see below). You don’t have to wait that long though, you can use it whenever you need it. The leaves will continue to break down in the presence of moisture and soil organisms.

Shredding leaves first with a mulching mower or shredder will help break them down more quickly. Shredding also reduces volume and the tendency for whole leaves to mat together, but it’s not necessary. Bear in mind that shredding may kill any cecropia, luna, woolly bear and other moth caterpillars that might be hunkered down in the leaves for the winter.

You can also mix your fall leaves with “green” materials such as farm animal manure or grass clippings to make leaf compost. A mix of about 2/3 greens and 1/3 leaves (brown) will heat up quickly and break down into nutrient-rich compost or mulch to use in next year’s vegetable beds, flower gardens and lawns.

DCF 1.0

If earthworms find your compost pile, they will help speed up the breakdown process by consuming tiny bits of leaves. Their rich castings stimulate beneficial bacteria that will heat up the pile and turn it into fine, dark humus that is pure gardener’s gold.

Leaves contain chemical tannins that can only be digested by specialized microbes (mostly fungal in origin)

Leaves contain chemical tannins that are only digestable by specialized fungi that have evolved in northern forest ecosystems. Most bacteria cannot tolerate the acidity of pure leaves and do not readily break them down.

So what’s better, leaf mold or leaf compost? It depends on what you want to use it for.

Leaf mold is pure leaves with no green materials mixed in. It is broken down slowly by “cold” natural processes involving moisture and specialized soil fungi that have evolved with trees since the last ice age. Loaded with beneficial fungi (mycorrhyzae) that tree roots use to feed themselves, leaf mold is the single best mulch for use in woodland gardens and under your trees.

Leaf mold is the soft and spongy "duff" layer that you find on the forest floor of mixed woodlands in New England. If you have trees on your property as well as wooded areas with perennial native understory perennials, your tree leaves left in place should will keep them in good health.

Leaf mold is the soft and spongy “duff” layer that you find on the forest floor of mixed woodlands in New England. If you have trees on your property as well as wooded areas with perennial native understory perennials, your tree leaves are the only fertilizer they will ever need.

Leaf compost is created by hot processes dominated by bacteria that feed upon the greens and convert their nutrients into a form that can be taken up easily by plant roots. With a higher pH than leaf mold, leaf compost is a highly-nutritious, near-perfect product for vegetables, annuals, and lawn grasses which prefer a neutral or high pH, as well as lots of nitrogen for fast growth, high yields and exceptional flowers.



Pure leaf mold is best for native plants such as the beautiful white trillium. Trees feed themselves and their understory partner plants by dropping their leaves to the ground, which are broken down by fungal networks that in turn make nutrients available to plant roots. Scratch the soil of a healthy forest floor and you can see some of these vast networks of fungi that mine the soil for moisture and nutrients.

Use leaf mold and compost as a replacement for peat moss in gardens or in potting mixes for moisture retention and soil porosity. Peat moss is not considered a renewable and sustainable product in the US because it is trucked long distances from Canada, where it’s mined from sphagnum bogs that took millions of years to produce the peat moss that we buy in bags.

Note that most earthworms are not native species in New England forests–not since the last Ice Age wiped them out, anyway. Most earthworms found in the northern US were brought here in Colonial ship ballast and have been welcomed by centuries of farmers for their capacity to rapidly turn farm waste into crop fertilizer. Earthworm populations in woodland soils is not good for long-term forest health–their ravenous appetite for leaves means that they break down leaf litter much faster than natural fungal processes, and earthworm castings (manure) feed bacteria that raise soil pH and release nitrogen, creating an environment highly favorable to invasive exotic weed species that often outcompete the natives.

07-15-trashed-leavesIf you want to create “pure” leaf mold (for native plants) without earthworms, bag your leaves and store on a surface where earthworms cannot enter the leaves from the soil below. Or place a wire cage on a hard surface to exclude them. If you bag leaves, you will need to water the leaves occasionally to encourage the moist conditions that fungi love.

Trees that hold onto their leaves long after other trees have dropped theirs generally take longer to break down Beech leaves are pictured above still on the tree in February.

Trees such as oak and beech that hold onto their leaves long after most other trees drop theirs generally take years to break down into humus. Pictured is a young Beech still holding most of its leaves in February.

Different tree species have varying levels of tannins, and leaves with the highest tannins take the longest to break down. Oak leaves, especially, are high in tannins and can take quite a few years to break down.

Fastest: Maple, Ash, Cherry, Poplar, Linden, Willow, Poplar, Elm (6 months to 1 year)

Slower: Oak, Beech, Birch (2-3 years)

Slowest: Needles from Pine, Hemlock, Spruce and Fir–not because of high tannins but these leaves have a waxy coating that slows decomposition – 3+ years minimum





Bale Beds

In the past few years we’ve been experimenting with growing food crops in a variety of ways to determine how to squeeze as much organic food out of our small farm with a minimal of cost and effort. By a huge margin, our biggest successes have been using raised beds filled with our own farm compost.

Thanks to our 2 horses and a small flock of chickens, two materials that we have in abundance here on our small farm is locally-grown hay and compost:


mini farm bale beds IMG_1407We try to farm with a minimum of outside inputs that consume resources in their production and distribution, so building raised beds using old bales of hay that are too dusty to feed our horses makes a perfect solution to building “temporary” planting beds that last one season.

Bales + Compost = instant Mini-Farm with no digging in our horrible rocky soil required!


bale beds filling IMG_1404

A couple of tractor buckets full of our most aged, best quality compost and beds are ready to plant…plus, my hubby gets some quality time with his beloved tractor.

We used to scramble each year to get rid of old bales of hay to make room in our barn for the season’s new hay…now, the more we have left over, the more food we can grow that year.

Cucumbers, melons, squash, beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, kale, swiss chard, all of these love the deep rich soil of the raised beds:

bale bed july IMG_0549

Using companion “square foot planting“, you can get two or three crops out of a single raised bed this size — for example, cucumbers and summer squash planted along with later maturing crops such as broccoli or kale.

Probably the best crop of all for bale beds are potatoes, which are traditionally planted by digging a 3” trench for the potato spuds, then adding soil over the plants as they grow through the season.

bale bed potatoes

To grow potatoes in a raised bale bed, lay potato eyes about 12″ apart at the bottom of the bed, and cover with 3″ or so of soil/compost. When the plant foliage is about 12″ high, add another layer of soil or compost around the potato stems. The new potatoes form along the stem above where your eyes were planted.

Compostable beds!

At the end of the season, the bale beds are easy to dismantle with the tractor, and the whole thing gets mixed back into the compost pile to make next year’s garden fertilizer:

bale bed dismantling

Here is this year’s mini-farm all ready to plant! We harvested bushels of potatoes, tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, kale, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, celery root, swiss chard, plus a variety of culinary herbs in this one area.

raised bale beds mini farmBecause I like my gardens to be beautiful as well as functional, I “disguise” our raised beds with lots of flowering plants — they not only add color but the flowers attract pollinating bees and beneficial insects that control vegetable pests:

pond raised bed gardens

As the season progresses, you can hardly tell that our pondside gardens are an intensive agricultural operation that feeds us well into winter….

Hints and Tips for Bale Beds:

Try not to saturate the bales when you irrigate the beds – the moisture will cause the hay or straw to begin decomposing, and you don’t want them to collapse during the season. During seasons with lots of rain (such as 2013!), the bales do start to break down and sag a little, but they should stay intact until harvest.

If you build a raised bed over existing grass or weeds, cover the ground at the base of the bed with a thick layer of cardboard or sheets of newspaper before adding your soil/compost. The cardboard layer kills the grass and prevents it from growing up into your compost layer and competing with your plants.

You can use straw or hay bales, whatever you can source locally. Straw is better — hay generally contains plant seeds that may sprout from compost it is made from, but both hay and bale beds saggingstraw make excellent compost additions.

In the spring and early summer, look for free ads such as Craigslist for local farms looking to sell or give away old hay bales.

Also check with local farms for compost to fill beds — many farmers offer bulk compost for free or very little cost compared to buying by the bag.

Left: These bale beds contain tomato plants underplanted with parsley and cilantro, mulched with dried ferns sourced on-site. This bed cost us only a few dollars total to build, plant and grow…


Mulch – Use What You’ve Got!


If you grow vegetable gardens, you probably know that mulching around plants is essential – not only does a thick layer of mulch control weed growth in your beds, but it shades the soil, keeping it cooler and helping retain soil moisture during the dry spells of summer.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on bagged mulch, though. Look around. You might have materials that can double as mulch and save you money. Cut sheets of cardboard into long strips and lay them between rows of vegetables to cover the soil. Stockpile your dry fall leaves, and run them through a chipper or shredder to use as mulch for next year’s gardens.  If you bag your lawn clippings during mowing, use a few inches of clippings as a nutritious garden mulch that will also feed the soil as it breaks down. Important: NEVER use grass clippings from lawns that have been treated with Weed & Feed or other pesticides! You don’t want those chemicals in your food.

Get creative! Do you have anything growing that you could sacrifice for mulch? One plant growing in abundance here on our farm is hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula). This aggressive native fern takes over my planting beds, so I occasionally pull up armloads of the stems to keep the ferns from invading nearby garden areas.

Hay-scented fern makes an excellent natural-looking mulch!

hayscented fern armload IMG_0269_2

You can bundle small amounts of fern foliage together and fit them between rows in your garden. The green fronds dry quickly and unlike other weed plants, ferns won’t bring scads of unwanted seeds into your beds.

Below: the green fronds dry out and turn beige after a few days.hayscented fern tomato mulch IMG_0277

It’s easy to fold the stems into angles to neatly fit around each plant. Always keep mulch a few inches away from plant stems to prevent stem rot and the introduction of pathogens.

Another great “free” mulch is the trimmings from ornamental grasses when you cut them down to the ground in early spring. Dried stems and leaves make great mulch for strawberry plants or potatoes. I’ve heard of gardeners who grow large grasses just for the sheer bio-mass they produce, which can be used to feed compost piles too.

In the woods of New England, hay-scented fern colonizes areas of moist shade, such as this slope at our farm. There was once a garden here, but the fern has taken over completely:


Below: Hay-scented fern growing out of our front steps. Yep – this is one of our most tenacious weeds…

hayscented fern steps IMG_0901

Do you have weeds that can play double-duty as garden mulch? I’ve been known to use the enormous leaves of burdock or squash as a temporary mulch around newly planted veggie seedlings to shade the soil. Be careful what you choose though – don’t pull up weeds that have gone to seed, and don’t introduce roots from weeds that spread through underground rhizomes (some field grasses and goldenrods) – they may root in your garden.

Our Hay Days

It’s haying time! Life is put on hold in this valley when the hay is ready to bale, and we drop everything to get our winter’s worth of hay up and stacked in the loft before Saturday night’s predicted rain.

Hay may not seem a likely topic for a blog on Habitat Gardening, but our two horses (who eat the hay) do supply the copious compost that is my essential ingredient to lush gardens and a healthy lawn without chemicals. And since it’s my blog, hay is on my mind and hay will be today’s topic!

So anyway, yesterday we got our first wagon load from the Andrews farm on Paxton Road:

hayingSo we got our hay elevator working and started the sweaty work of stacking 93 bales of the scratchy stuff. Before we were halfway done with this load, though, another wagon arrived. Groan. What do normal people do after work each day?

View from the hayloft of Load #2

View from the hayloft of Load #2

We have one load still to arrive tonight or early tomorrow. While other New Englanders head to the Cape or to New Hampshire for the long holiday weekend, we’ll be loading, hauling and stacking another 200 bales. It’s always worth the sweat after the job is done, though! We’ll have a full hayloft to feed Rocky and Sneaks right through til June of next year, and all that hay will keep the barn insulated through the long winter.

Keeping horses is not always easy, but we sleep SO well at night during the Hay Days.

And Rocky and Sneaks’ verdict on the quality of this year’s hay? Eight hooves up!