Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fall Compost Trick

We live where green lawns are not capital crimes against nature. Rainfall can be relied upon year-round, at least in "normal" years. If you can say the same for your area, and you have lawn plus deciduous trees on your property or nearby, then I have a composting trick to recommend to you. Sadly, it may be too late for you to use it this year. If so, apologies, but keep it in mind for next year.

In late summer or early fall, stop mowing your grass. Let it grow out for at least three weeks, (preferably more) before the autumn leaves start falling. The grass probably won't grow rampantly in this late season. Let all or most of your leaves fall on the long grass. Don't rake them. Wait for a day when the leaves are as dry as possible, at least a few days after any rainfall. Cut the lawn using a lawnmower with a bag, running right over the fallen leaves so that they get chopped up, mixed with grass and saved in the bag. Dump this mixture in your garden, compost bin, or anywhere you'd like a new bed for the spring.

I've always been a lazy composter, and this tendency only got worse after we got hens and a worm bin, which took care of more than half the material that would otherwise be composted. So I've never fussed over the temperature of my compost pile, nor bothered with watering and turning the pile. Compost chez nous happens in its own time, which is to say, very slowly.

But the neat thing about the fall leaves and grass trick is not that it saves a good deal of leaf raking. No, the coolest thing is that dried leaves (carbon, or "brown" matter) and green grass (nitrogen, or "green" matter) are pretty close to the perfect combination of materials needed to make your compost pile decompose rather quickly. A pile of leaves alone will hardly decompose at all over a year's time. (Ask me how I know this some time.) The shredding action of the lawnmower blade helps break down some of the leaves, at least, into smaller pieces, further speeding decomposition. This mixture is ideal for the compost layer in a new bed that you plan to lasagna mulch (aka sheet mulch).

We keep a portion of our property in lawn for the benefit of our laying hens. All through the summer we cut that lawn without bagging the clippings. They sit on the ground to replenish the soil. But the manure from our chickens is also enriching the lawn month after month. A once-per-year harvest of that high-nitrogen content grass in the interest of the garden proper seems a good practice to me. While I'm sure that some of the nitrogen from the hens' manure can make its way from the grassy surround of the garden into the garden soil itself, it doesn't hurt to facilitate that transfer once in a while either.

We have only a very small bag on our push mower, so this is a tiring and time consuming task at a busy time of year. Even when I dump the contents into the wheelbarrow to make fewer trips, the wheelbarrow fills up very quickly. In all honesty, if I remember it in time, I may look to barter next year for a one-time lawn cutting with someone who owns a large mower with a bag, preferably one of those fancy mowers that practically pulverizes the clippings. However it gets done, adding all that organic matter to our garden is worth it.

Today I made the third of such piles in our garden. I stuck my hand into the middle of the one I made two days ago. It was too hot to comfortably leave my hand in there very long!


Becca's Dirt said...

Thanks for the good composting advice. That is a lot of work with a small mower. It would be nice if like you say - hire someone with a big bagged mower. Hope you have a great day.

Kate said...

Becca, you're welcome. It really has been quite a workout. I'm going to schedule a re-post of this piece for early fall next year so that a) I can alert readers to stop mowing their lawns in advance, and b) remind myself to make arrangements for someone with a big machine to knock this task out for me. Too much else to be doing right about now!

Sara C said...

Thanks for the great idea for compost! When my parents raked leaves when we were kids, they raked them onto a large tarp and then dragged the tarp to the curb for pickup. Perhaps you could use this idea to make fewer trips to your compost area! Just keep emptying the grass/leaf contents of the mower bag onto the tarp, and when its full, drag it on over!

Kate said...

Sara, I like that idea, thanks! It may be enough for me to resist paying or bartering for the service next year.

Anonymous said...

When I do this we dump the bag into a larger container, a trashcan could work or something similar. The chopped grass/leaves push down easily and can be compacted for fewer haulings. Then I dump it in the compost bin as needed and it is mostly already mixed, a quick stir at the end and it is good to go. I would't be able to handle dragging, lifting and dumping a tarp because of the way our bin is structured (it was here when we moved and we never changed it - if it ain't broke...) but I can lift an oversized trashcan. I'll have to reconsider the tarp idea for hauling the mix to the garden for wintering, that I could do by myself I think!