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 Composted leaves are a valuable resource. They can be used to fertilize lawns and gardens, as an excellent mulching material, and can even be utilized as part of a potting soil mix.

Resources: LLM Archives
For nearly a century, Lutheran Laity Movement for Stewardship assisted, inspired and trained congregations in important ways. LLM ceased operations on May 31, 2003, but the Stewardship of Life Institute is proud to continue its work by making its web resources available to a new generation of stewards.

Leaf Composting on the Prairie
By the Rev. Kathleen Kinney

A regional reference appears in the title of this article to emphasize the point that whether your congregation is in the middle of a deciduous forest or in an irrigated tree-lined neighborhood in the desert, or even on the prairie where there are relatively few trees, this project can work for you.

I am the pastor of St. Johnís Craig, Iowa, a farming community located in the Western Iowa Synod about 15 miles from the South Dakota border. Nearly all of the people in this congregation either are or have been linked to agriculture as a way of life. Ecological issues that are of interest here often involve soil conservation, pesticide use and other large scale, high impact issues. As our confirmation class sought to develop a service project for the community we began to focus on being environmentally responsible on a somewhat smaller scale.

The project that follows is one that is simply done with as few or as many people as are available. We had seven confirmation class members, seven 4-H volunteers, one pastor, two 4-H leaders (and a few extra youngsters to jump in the leaves) to accomplish our project.

I. The project here in Craig involved youth and the property committee.
The environmental emphasis is on recycling organic material. On that basis the first step of the leaf composting project is the construction of a leaf compost bin using recycled pallets. (Used pallets are available from a variety of sources. I have gotten some from local newspaper offices for no cost.)

Materials and tools required to build the compost bin(s):

A. A pick-up truck or other vehicle for transporting the pallets to the church yard.
B. Five pallets at least 3í x 3í square.
C. Wire suitable to be used for ties.
D. Nails.
E. Hammer.

Nail and/or wire the four pallets together to make a four sided container. Place the container on the fifth pallet which should be placed slats up, and fasten or nail the container on it. The bottom pallet will allow more air to get to the compost. Place the compost bin in an area where it will be inconspicuous yet accessible in the church yard. It is now time to gather the waste material together to be composted.

II. Bring out your garbage!
This part of the project may be as varied as any situation arises. In Craig the youth volunteers gathered together the leaves and yard clippings of the elderly residents of the town. (Those who are able and who live outside of town can bring their leaves to the church in plastic garbage bags which may be turned inside out to dry and may then be reused.) Cars and trucks should be available to pick up waste that otherwise would not make it to the bin(s). Waste leaves and grass were also cleaned up from the church yard on our compost day

As waste arrived at the bins younger members of our group were placed on the leaves to jump up and down on them and break them up as much as possible. The leaves were then topped with a quart measure of dry fertilizer, to aid composting, and sprinkled with water. Layers of waste were piled in the bins in this manner until all of the waste had been stowed in bins. Additional waste that may be added includes fruit and vegetable peels, paper, coffee grounds and egg shells (no meat or meat products such as oils).

III. The rationale for this project
In most communities there are only two alternatives to composting leaves and yard waste. One is to incinerate them and the other to leave them on the ground. I am not familiar with the laws of all fifty states but I do know that in many places landfills will no longer accept leaves.

An example of the effect that yard waste has on such disposal facilities is that, in 1989 in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (my home state) 36 percent of all solid waste consisted of yard and food waste. In 1989, 95 percent of that waste was placed in landfills. Consider these statistics in light of the fact that of the 1,100 landfills operated in Pennsylvania in the 1970ís only 75 percent remained open by 1990.

Clearly in Pennsylvania, as well as many other places, solid waste disposal facilities are at a premium. It becomes clear than that these facilities cannot afford to accept materials that can be easily composted.

But the status of our landfill situation is not the only reason we should consider composting leaves! Composted leaves are a valuable resource. When they are composted, leaves and yard waste can be used to fertilize lawns and gardens, as an excellent mulching material, and can even be utilized as part of a potting soil mix.

IV. How compost works
Microorganisms break organic matter into a soil-like substance called compost or humus. Composting occurs when material combining carbon and nitrogen are combined with oxygen and adequate moisture.

The microorganisms that decompose waste material are primarily bacteria and fungi that occur naturally in the soil. The organisms use the leaf material as food and produce heat, carbon dioxide water vapor and compost in the process.

The most useful bacteria for composting are aerobes which require oxygen to survive. In order to assure the organisms enough oxygen to live, it is necessary to occasionally rotate the compost with a shovel or pitchfork. If the oxygen supply is cut off, anaerobic bacteria takes over the decomposition and offensive odors may be the result. When successful decomposition has finished, the compost should be relatively dry and inoffensive to handle.

It is also useful to monitor the temperature of the compost. Ideally, compost temperature should be between 100 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Moisture should be kept at about 40 to 50 percent.

The compost should be ready for use in one year. It may then be used as an additive to improve garden soil structure and increase moisture and nutrient retention. Compost also serves the purposes of suppressing plant disease and increasing plant growth.

Used as a mulch, your compost will control weeds and help control excessive heat or cold in your soil as well as providing a moisture barrier.

Composting makes excellent potting soil with the addition of perlite to avoid caking. A liquid fertilizer may also be made from compost by soaking a bag of compost in a bucket of water until the water becomes the color of weak tea.

Here at Craig we will be using the compost as a soil additive and a mulch. In the fall when our compost will be ready, we will request that the WELCA and other groups donate flowering bulbs to be planted in the church yard near our sign. Bulb gardens of Hyacinth, Daffodils and Lilies will be planted in beds enriched with our compost and then these beds will be mulched with the same material.

This project is quite simple to do. It worked well for us because it became an intergenerational endeavor. Adults of all ages and youth worked together to help to meet some of the needs of our elderly members. At the same time we provided a needed service to the community. In Craig (population 110) municipal services are relatively few. The leaf composting project has filled a need of the community to dispose of leaves from the trees that line our streets and provide a wind break around neighboring farm houses. It also provides a good model of how youth can be involved in an ecological project locally and see its impact on the community and the environment in a short time.

 © Copyright 1996, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. All rights reserved.

The Rev. Kathleen Kinney was pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, Craig, Iowa, when this article was published in spring 1996.