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
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
Materials and tools required to build the compost bin(s):
A. A pick-up truck or other vehicle for transporting the pallets to the
B. Five pallets at least 3í x 3í square.
C. Wire suitable to be used for ties.
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
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
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
The Rev. Kathleen Kinney was pastor of St. John
Lutheran Church, Craig, Iowa, when this article was published in spring