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Composting Calendar for Institutional Grounds Managers
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Here are some basic suggestions for how to compost your leaf and yard waste throughout the year (organized by season). There are no hard-and-fast rules in composting, so consider what is most important for you and your staff, and come up with a plan accordingly.

fall
late fall/winter
spring
summer
late summer/fall


Fall

Before collecting leaves, consider mowing over them to shred them, and make them part of the soil. Do this for the first few weeks of the leaf season, while the amount of leaves is not too heavy. During the three weeks of heaviest leaf fall, rake, blow, and vacuum leaves to collect them. Because garbage in the leaves can be a problem, some people send a trash collection team just before leaf collection. Others pick trash as they collect. Some just leave the trash to screen out later.

Decide whether or not you will shred the collected leaves. Shredded leaf piles may require more turning, and if you also shred the trash, it may be harder to remove later on. If you have a small space or want finished compost fast, shredding may make sense. A mower with a vacuum attachment is the most convenient for collection and shredding. Leaf vacuums, either push models or those towed behind a truck, can also be used. If you have a small shredder or chipper/shredder, you can break the leaves up before you pile them up. This reduces the volume of leaves, and makes composting go faster.

Avoid bagging the leaves as you collect them; you can save yourself a lot of bags, and avoid having to debag them at the site.

Form leaves into piles. The goal is to make piles big enough to hold heat in, but small enough to let air in as well. The best way to do this is to make long piles called windrows. This is done most easily with a Bobcat or other loader. We suggest piles about 6 ft. high and 8-10 ft. wide, and as long as you like.

If you don't have a Bobcat or loader, then you can drill holes into PVC pipes and place the pipes either under the piles horizontally, or into the piles vertically to get air to the decomposing material.

If you don't have a lot of leaves or yard waste, you can form chicken wire into a hoop the size you need to surround a small pile. Water the material and turn it with a pitchfork. For more information about smaller-scale composting in New York City, see the NYC Compost Project.

Add water as you form the windrows. Be sure to wet as you go, because leaf piles shed water that is sprayed on top of them. A dip along the top of the windrow will help it hold in rainwater. In general, try to keep your piles about as wet as a wrung-out sponge (add 20 gallons of water for every cubic yard of leaves).

"Harvest" last year's compost. You can use it on beds and for other fall projects.

Chip woody brush trimmings or prunings into a separate pile to be used as mulch or as browns for your compost pile. Learn more about making and using mulch.
 

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Late Fall/Winter

As you start to form good-sized piles of moist leaves, they should start to heat up. The heat comes from the bacteria breaking down the leaves, and is a sign that things are going well. To learn more about the decomposition process, go to compost science.

Check the temperature periodically. Temperatures between 120° and 140° F are excellent. Higher temperatures mean your pile is too big; lower temperatures indicate that your piles need some water or turning. In extreme cold, composting can slow way down, but it will pick up when the weather breaks.

Turn your piles about once a month to mix them and let in air. This will kick the temperature back up the first few times that you do it. As it gets colder, turning too often may prevent the windrows from retaining heat. Turning less often is OK, but your leaves may break down more slowly. Knowing when and how often to turn is much like cooking — it requires some trial and error. As your windrows shrink, you can combine them.

Add water as necessary.

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Spring

By this time, the temperatures will be lower and you can turn less frequently. They also will have shrunk a lot during the decomposition process, freeing up some room.

If you have been curing material older than one year (see Late Summer/Fall below), now’s the time to use this finished compost to reseed lawns, plant shrubs, aerate turf, fill holes, etc. See how to use compost for more information.

Do not fertilize your grass in the spring; this will promote overgrowth at the wrong time, and will make mulch mowing more difficult (see Summer below).

If you have woody brush trimmings or prunings, store them in a separate pile. Don't let weeds grow on the brush piles and, if they do, definitely do not let them go to seed, as this will contaminate the quality of the compost! When you are ready, chip the hedge and brush clippings and use as mulch on particular plantings or add as browns for your compost piles. Learn more about making and using mulch.

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illustration: sprinkler Summer

During the hot summer months, you may need to add extra water so that your compost pile remains moist and never dries out. You want your entire compost pile damp, but not soggy for the organisms that do the work of turning your plant materials into finished compost.

When adding water, make sure to turn the pile as you spray to evenly coat and soak the material. Leaves should glisten with moisture. Shredded paper should be wet, but not "mushy." Turn occasionally until compost is finished; then store until use.

Leave your grass clippings on the lawn by mulch mowing. This will save time, work, and fertilizer. Although it is possible to compost grass, it is more complex than using leaves alone and should be done with care to avoid odors.

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Late Summer/Fall

By this time, your leaf piles should be fairly stabilized and no longer need turning.

To make room for this fall’s leaves, move existing leaves into curing piles of any convenient size to continue their slow breakdown.

Put your curing piles out of the way so they don’t interfere with your new batch of leaves and yard waste.

Mow leaves into the grass in the first few weeks of the fall-leaf season and make sure you have equipment in place to handle fall leaves and seasonal prunings.

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ALSO SEE: 
compost science
seasonal guide to a healthy lawn
outdoor composting
indoor composting

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