The best way to improve any soil is to add organic matter, and in the autumn, the supply of
organic matter is unlimited: it's falling from the trees.
Autumn leaves are a main ingredient in compost, nature's own fertilizer. When you work a
shovelful of it into the soil, it improves the soil's structure. Spread on top of a flowerbed
as mulch, compost helps control weeds and enriches the soil as it breaks down. A thick compost
mulch around flowers and shrubs works as insulation to keep the soil temperature even. It also
"Everybody should try composting, even on a small scale," says Jim Crist, a Kansas City
master gardener who built a three-bin compost system in his back yard. "Compost connects me to
the whole cycle of decay and growth — that's the spiritual side of gardening. And it smells so
Along with autumn leaves, grass clippings and small garden trimmings are all appropriate for
a compost heap. Use your lawn mower’s bagging attachment: the last grass clippings and the
first autumn leaves, mowed together, make a healthy mix of brown and green material — the
carbon (brown) and nitrogen (green) are the principle elements in a compost heap. Any organic
matter from the kitchen (broccoli stems, apple cores, potato skins, banana peels, tea bags and
coffee grounds, eggshells) is also great in a compost heap. The finer they're chopped up, the
faster they will decompose.
You don't need a lot of space to start a compost pile. Look around your garden for a spot
about the size of a robust hydrangea: most backyard composters and tumblers are about this
size, or you could simply define an area about three feet wide and deep with wire fencing or
It takes up to a year for a pile of leaves and grass clippings to turn into crumbly compost.
You can speed up the process by chopping the ingredients up fine. Turning the heap once a month
during the warm season, or every two weeks if you're in a hurry, will also speed things up.
Many gardeners are content to wait.
Compost makes soil lighter and easier to dig, and it supports a healthy population of
earthworms and beneficial microorganisms. "It's amazing," says Judy Jackson, a master gardener
in Kansas City who stockpiles autumn leaves for her compost bin. "I very seldom put any
fertilizer on my garden, because my soil is so rich. I just really have great soil now."