Turning Leaves Into Garden Gold

Rake and bag. Rake and bag. Rake and bag. The leaves are beginning to fall, and with it comes a whole new yard work routine of tidying things up for winter. It’s always sad, sometimes downright depressing, to say goodbye to the blooms of the growing season here in Indiana. But if you make a working plan for at least some of those pesky leaves and trimmings, you can usher in spring with some garden gold in the form of compost. It’s a great way to build a little mental sunshine all winter long!

Why Does Decaying Matter Matter?

Composting is a process that layers carbon rich materials (called Browns) and nitrogen rich materials (called Greens) and, along with moisture (via rain, snow, or plain old garden hose), allows those materials to decompose and morph into a nutrient rich humus that will work magic for your lawn, garden and flower beds. In addition to enriching the soil, it cuts down on the need for commercial chemical fertilizers and reduces methane emissions from landfills. Consider your carbon footprint minimized.

The Plain and Not So Plain Basics

You don’t need to get fancy, but you certainly can! There are many options on the market for composting bins, ranging from simple wire enclosures to sophisticated rotating barrels and everything in between. If you want to give composting a try before making the investment into an official infrastructure, you can by just clearing down to dirt a 3ftx3ft space in a shady area of the yard and starting your layering there.

A Sure Recipe for Success

Who remembers the Dump Cake of the 80’s? Fruit cocktail hit its 15 minutes of fame, and nobody has opened a can since. Anyway, dump cake was all about the layering, and the same theory goes for composting. Let’s talk about layers, because you need just three main ingredients for a great composting combo:


  • Wood chips
  • Wood ash
  • Dead Leaves
  • Straw
  • Hay
  • Shrub prunings
  • Pine Needles


  • Tea leaves (bags and all)
  • Fruit and Veggie scraps
  • Lawn trimmings (but not if you are using pesticides on your lawn)
  • Coffee Grounds (filters, too)
  • Prunings from live bushes, trees, etc


  • Often this will be supplied with rain or snow

The ratio for Brown to Green should be 2:1 for best composting. It is always best to bury the greens in several inches of Brown matter and to start your compost pile with several inches of Brown matter as well. The easy rule: When in doubt, add Brown. How wet do you want the pile to be? It’s good to be able to pick up a handful and squeeze out a few drops of water. A disposable glove is nice for this step. Truly.

Just Say NO!

Composting can be a little addictive. It may be the first time in your life that you’ve felt a compulsion to hoard onion peels and make another pot of coffee just for the grounds. (Though, who needs an excuse for another cuppa?) No matter how tempting though, refrain from adding animal products to the mix. This is not a scrape the plate into your new, cute For The Compost Pile collector (adorable little counter sized containers for your Greens are available) proposition. Animal products make things just gross, and this includes animal waste! So none of last week’s General Tso Chicken take-out that you forgot in the fridge, and definitely no doggie, kitty, hamster droppings. Ever. Ewww. Go peel a carrot or something.

Shake, Rattle and Shovel

Every week or so you should take a few minutes to disturb and turn your compost pile a bit. You can do this with a flat shovel or pitchfork—it doesn’t have to be complicated, just shift and turn the brown and green matter, add in new materials if you have them, tuck them in with a layer of brown, and call it done. If tromping out to the backyard in the middle of winter with a shovel isn’t your thing, consider investing in one of the handsome composting systems set up as a rotating barrel, and park it conveniently near the house. No matter how you do it, the tossing about introduces air to the mix and allows the decomposition to really begin cooking. It also will keep any build up of gases (read: smelliness) from accumulating and prevent attracting any unwanted critters.

When is Compost Done

There is a lot of science to this, and it involves composting thermometers and more. But, unless you’re going for a PHD in making Garden Gold, you can just relax and make a few visual assessments of your compost. Finished compost should be full of rich, dark, crumbly goodness. It should not resemble any of what originally went into the mix. You don’t want a tea bag tag popping out, for example. If you want to do an easy test just to make sure, put a bit in a pot and sprinkle on grass seeds. They should sprout up happily in just a few days.

Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor

It should take between 2-3 months to turn a good mix of materials into compost. The timing of it all depends on many factors including the air temperature, the humidity, the number of times you made it out back to turn it and what went into the whole mix to begin with. But, if you start now, you’re sure to have a nice stash ready for all your spring planting. This will make everything bloom a little bigger and brighter, and you’ll be very pleased that you took on the project. Now that you have a higher purpose, get back out there and rake!