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We love the beautiful colors of fall, but what’s a gardener to do with all that lawn debris? Add it to the compost pile! Rhonda Sherman, an Extension Solid Waste Specialist in the Department of Horticultural Science at NC State University, walks us through a few tips for taking full advantage of the leaves.

1. Toss it in the bin.

While composting works just as well when material is simply gathered in a pile, many neighborhoods have rules about what can and cannot be displayed on the lawn. If your neighborhood requires composting bins, make sure to choose an area that is flat, shady, and at least six feet away from any structures. Sherman also recommends placing your bin close to a garden hose for easy watering. A bin with a lid will help keep moisture in and animals out.

2. Choose materials wisely.

Since composting depends on decay, gardeners have to be very careful about what goes into their bins. Materials such as meat, fish, bones, dairy products, grease, animal wastes, and dirty diapers are just a few things that should not be used because they contain hazardous pathogens. However, Sherman says that there are over one hundred items that can be composted, including fur, cotton materials, and dryer lint. “I composted my double-size futon,” Sherman says, laughing. If you have any questions about what can and cannot be composted, contact your local Extension Agent.

3. Make a leaf barrier.

The biggest mistake you can make when composting is not adding enough carbonaceous materials, Sherman says. While this may sound intimidating, it simply means people don’t take full advantage of their abundant leaf collection. If you can’t find a bin with a lid, encasing food wastes and other materials in an extra barrier of leaves will help with moisture and animals.

4. Know what to expect from your leaves.

Different trees produce different types of leaves. This not only creates a beautiful rainbow of colors and shapes, but different rates of decomposition as well. All leaves can be composted, Sherman says, but you want to consider how fast you want them to break down. She recommends maple leaves, which have a perfect carbon to nitrogen ratio for quick decay. Avoid composting leaves with waxy exteriors, as these tend to resist decay.

5. Water often.

“To survive, microbes need air, water, and food like all living things,” Sherman says. To keep your compost continually breaking down at the desired pace, make sure it’s the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. If it’s too dry, spritz the pile with a gardening hose or spray bottle. Sherman also recommends freezing any food wastes you want to compost later. Not only will this prevent odors, but it will provide a self-watering system when frozen water particles begin to melt.

6. The most important meal of the day.

If you want your compost to break down a little faster, Sherman recommends a trip to the gardening store, where you can buy a nitrogen meal to speed things up. All it takes is a little sprinkle of alfalfa, soybean, canola, cottonseed, blood, bone, or hoof meal. “It’s amazing how quickly things will decompose,” Sherman says. Collect your leaves into a pile, make a small hole in the center with a digging fork, add your composting materials, and sprinkle a little meal over the top.

7. More is more.

Sherman’s golden rule: “Get enough leaves to last all winter long.” Adding leaves throughout the year will keep your compost pile from drying out and ward off furry intruders. Keep a small bag of leaves beside your bin to make sure you have fresh compost all year long.

8. Turn baby, turn.

Turning your pile introduces air and water that encourage decomposing agents to get to work and speeds up the process. But if a bad back or a busy schedule makes it hard for you to turn your compost once a week, don’t stress. No matter what, materials will decompose. “There is no shaming in composting — no one way to do it,” Sherman says.

Have more questions?
Contact Rhonda Sherman, Extension Solid Waste Specialist (vermicomposting, composting, recycling): (919) 515-6770 or

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Pusser is a fall 2019 editorial intern.