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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Time to Compost Fall Leaves

LAS CRUCES - Fall is a time of cool weather and golden leaves -- leaves that eventually end up in a landfill. As landfill sites become more scarce and costs of creating new landfills increase, homeowners should consider backyard composting, said a New Mexico State University horticulture specialist.

"Recycling organic wastes in the backyard is the easiest way to keep them out of the landfill," said George Dickerson, with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "Compost returned to the garden in the spring will help improve soil structure, resulting in improved yields."

Compost piles or bins should be at least three feet high and three feet wide to insulate the microbes from the cold.

Enrich brown organic wastes such as dry leaves and sawdust by combining them with green wastes such as grass clippings and food scraps. Chicken or dairy cow manure can be added to counteract the carbon in the brown wastes, Dickerson said. You also may use nitrogen fertilizers instead of manures.

"Adding horse manure to the pile is a great way to add microorganisms to start the composting process," he said. If you don't have horse manure, use a layer of soil.

Shred leaves and branches to increase their surface area and speed up the microbial process. For optimum composting activity, maintain a moisture content in the compost pile equivalent to that of a damp sponge.

"Properly constructed compost piles will begin 'cooking' in a few days," Dickerson said. Temperatures inside the pile can reach 130 to 150 degrees F, high enough to kill most weed seed and disease organisms.

Turn the compost pile every few days with a garden fork to aerate it and ensure that all wastes are composting.

Adding compost to spring gardens will help increase the water-holding capacity of sandy soils and help aerate heavy clay soil, Dickerson said. Compost also will improve the soil's ability to retain nutrients for plant use and provide some of those nutrients in organic form, especially in New Mexico's alkaline soils.