Members of Murumba Self Help Group in Kakamega at thier manure compost. February 4, 2017. [Chrispen Sechere].

Leaves can be a great source of plant nutrients. This is because 80 per cent of trees minerals and trees end up in its leaves. By making compost out of leaves, it is a perfect opportunity to recycle these nutrients into the soil and making them available for your crops. Efficient and fast composting will depend on the type of leaves you will select for this exercise.

Maple, birch, ash, beech, cherry, and all varieties of fruit and nut trees are the best options. This is because they decompose faster and they provide the compost pile with balanced nutrients.

Leaves that are tough and waxy will take years to decompose and therefore not recommended for this exercise. Leaves from oak trees are acidic and the resultant compost will be acidic and therefore not suitable in production of some crops especially vegetables.

Shred the leaves

Shred the leaves. Shredding ensures that the decomposition process is faster. Whole leaves take long to decompose. Not only does shredding create smaller pieces to compost, it tears multiple edges of the leaf fragments, causing them to deteriorate even faster.

Shredding can be accomplished easily with a leaf shredder or with a push or riding mower. Simply lay out the leaves in a row and mow them. Once shredded, add them to a compost bin, or ring them with a section of fencing or chicken wire. Keeping a pile contained helps hold them in place for faster composting. 

Add nitrogen

Add nitrogen source to stimulate decomposition. Nitrogen facilitates piling up of heat that is necessary for breaking down the leaves. To make the compost pile, put the materials in layers. Start with a six-inch layer of leaves, either shredded or not shredded. The common complaint has been the inability of the leaves to decompose. To hasten the decomposition of leaves, add nitrogen fertiliser.

This can be done by mixing five parts of leaves to one part of manure. Nitrogen will cause the compost heap to start heating up and support the bacteria responsible for decomposition. Spray the leaves with water to moisten them before adding the green layer.

Add layer of manure as a source of nitrogen. Repeat the exercise until you achieve the desired quantity. Turn the heap after every three days. Covering the heap with a plastic sheet will retain the warmth and prevent the heap from getting too wet or too dry.

When it comes to composting leaves, nothing will help speed up the decomposition process like a little chicken manure. Greens include fresh vegetable scraps, eggs shells, coffee grounds, fresh green grass clippings, and the best of all- manure. You can also use an organic compost starter to heat up the pile as well.

Chicken, cow, horse and rabbit manure are incredible to add to a fall leaf compost pile. They heat the pile quickly and break dry materials down with ease. As a side note, avoid cat or dog manure completely. These sources of manure have too many possibilities for contamination.

Add oxygen

Besides a source of nitrogen, a good compost pile needs oxygen to accelerate decomposition. And oxygen is added easily by simply turning and mixing your piles ingredients frequently.

With a little air, water and nitrogen, leaves like this can quickly turn into usable compost. Turn your pile at least once a week as the weather allows. Every few days is even better. This keeps oxygen in the core, and keeps the pile heated, even as temperatures drop. 

In addition, if the pile is a bit dry, moisten it with a little water. A well-built compost pile should be the consistency of a well-wrung wet sponge. If it gets any drier than that, it slows the decomposition process.

 [The writer is a lecturer at University of Nairobi and an expert on sustainable agriculture]  

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