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Bill Starr: The falling leaves ….

The leaves on the trees have been somewhat colorful this year. I think the extreme drought we have been experiencing has caused some to turn brown prematurely this year, instead of the vibrant fall colors we are used to seeing.
The leaves are beautiful when they turn from green to a host of vibrant colors, but they aren’t so beautiful once they have fallen and covered your yard. There are numerous ways you can get rid of the leaves. If you have a mulching mower you can mulch them. Some people burn them, (please don’t do this now ) or you could compost them.
Composting is the most practical and convenient way to handle fallen leaves and other yard waste. Compost also improves you soil and the plants growing. Composting is more than throwing a bunch of leaves in your garden and tilling them in. Although in time uncomposted materials will eventually decompose, adding undercomposed materials directly to the soil without first composting may have some negative effects. For example, if large quantities of uncomposted leaves are incorporated into the soil, microbes will compete with plant roots for soil nitrogen during leaf decomposition. This competition for nitrogen can result in nitrogen deficiency and poor plant growth.
Composting breaks down organic materials into an end product that increases the availability of essential minerals, and reduces the competition for nitrogen. The addition of composted materials also improves soil physical properties, such as texture, drainage and water holding capacity (which we desperately need right now).
So, what’s the secret to great composting? Magic beans, catching a leprechaun, a visit from the magic fairy? No. Actually there is no magic to great composting, only a little bit of planning and knowledge. Decomposition of organic material in the compost pile depends on maintaining microbial activity. Any factor which slows or halts microbial growth also impedes the composting process. Efficient decomposition occurs if aeration, moisture, particle size, and nutrient levels (nitrogen) are maintained for optimum microbial activity.
• Aeration — Oxygen is required for microbes to decompose organic wastes efficiently. Mixing the pile once or twice a month provides the necessary oxygen and significantly speeds up the composting process. A pile that is not mixed may take three to four times longer to decompose.
• Moisture — Adequate moisture is also essential for microbial activity. A dry compost will not decompose efficiently. Proper moisture encourages the growth of microorganisms that break down the organic matter. If rainfall is limited, water the pile periodically to maintain a steady decomposition rate, add enough water so the pile is damp but not soggy. Avoid over watering. Excess water can actually slow down the decomposition process.
To save space, hasten decomposition, and keep the yard looking neat, contain the compost pile in some sort of structure. Structures can consist of a variety of materials and can be as simple or complex as desired. To prevent odors and hasten decomposition, turn the pile once a month. Turning also exposes seeds, and disease causing organisms to lethal temperatures inside the pile. A properly mixed compost pile should have no objectionable odors because elevated temperatures within the pile will destroy odor causing bacteria. When the compost is finished, the pile will be about half its original size and have an earthy smell to it. Compost is a wonderful soil amendment. Compost improves the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the soil. Over time, yearly additions of compost create a desirable soil structure, making the soil much easier to work.
So, get outdoors this fall and enjoy the beautiful colors of the landscape, and don’t view fallen leaves as a nasty chore, but rather a first step to improving your soil.
As always, if you have any questions or concerns, please contact your local County Agent.

Bill Starr is agent/coordinator, Sumter County Extension, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 229-924-4476.