Compost made from leaves, or leaf mold, is prized as a mulch or soil amendment for its excellent water retention and nutrient-rich makeup. Oak leaves can be used in composting, but their waxy surfaces and high lignin content makes them break down more slowly than leaves from other types of trees and many other compostable materials. If you're making compost using oak leaves, be sure to account for their slow breakdown if you plan to use the final product of your composting in the garden.
Rake the oak leaves into strips or long piles a few inches high, picking out and discarding all branches, twigs and other nonleaf debris that you notice.
Run a lawnmower over the piled oak leaves one or more times until they are shredded well. The smaller the pieces, the faster the leaves will break down to become usable compost. If you do not want to shred the oak leaves, they'll still break down but will take longer to decompose. In that case, it may be preferable to create separate compost piles for the intact oak leaves and other compostable materials that will break down much faster.
Build a pile with alternating layers of the shredded oak leaves or other "brown" or high-carbon materials and high-nitrogen or "green" materials such as grass clippings, manure and table scraps. Make each layer 3 to 4 inches thick; water the pile after you add each layer so it will be uniformly moist. The ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio for a compost pile is 30 to 1. Leaves have a 60 to 1 ratio, grass clippings have a 20 to 1 ratio, sawdust or wood has a 600 to 1 ratio and table scraps have a 15 to 1 ratio. Build up the pile so it is at least 3 feet high and 3 feet wide in all directions.
Turn the pile after about four to seven days or when it begins to cool, and water it if the materials look dry. Use the compost when it is dark brown, crumbly and fluffy, with no recognizable original material and an earthy odor.
Items you will need
- Lawn rake
- Garden fork
- It is not necessary to shred the leaves to turn them into compost or blend the oak leaves with other materials in the compost pile. These techniques will simply expedite the process, turning the leaves into usable compost within months rather than years.
- Rather than use a lawnmower or leaf vacuum with a shredder or a similar machine to shred leaves, you can rake the leaves into piles and encourage children to jump around in the pile vigorously until the leaves are broken up well. Another "alternative" shredding method involves spreading the oak leaves out in a thin layer over the driveway and leaving them for a few days so they are subjected to enough vehicular and foot traffic to break them up. Then sweep up the broken leaves and add them to the compost pile.
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Compost Tips for the Home Gardener
- Colorado State University Extension: Composting Yard Waste
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences: Leaf Disposal
- University of Illinois Extension: Composting in the Home Garden - Common Questions
- University of Minnesota Extension: Options for Disposing of Leaves
- Martin Poole/Digital Vision/Getty Images