Fall Clean Up and Cold Compost

  • Post published:10/27/2017
  • Post comments:4 Comments
cold compost
Cold compost ready for spreading as mulch

Leaves are falling, some flower stalks have turned brown and brittle; it’s time for the fall clean up.

I have been cutting back iris and daylily foliage which was looking less and less attractive every day. Cutting back is one way to make the garden look neater and a bit more serene. It is also a way to see clearly which clumps will be ready for dividing in the spring. Where can these divisions make the most impact? Or maybe the divisions can be sold at spring plant sales like those for the Bridge of Flowers or the Greenfield Garden Club.

I also started to cut back the large stand of six foot tall chelone, turtlehead. Cutting back the waning but still tall or spready perennials in the garden make it easier to see the plants with autumnal and winter interest like winterberry.

All of these large leaves and plant stalks go into a special big compost pile. In the spring we will turn the pile, and with a little luck the bottom half of that pile will be good compost to put on the garden beds.

Walking through the autumn garden shows the spots of failure. My sweet peas didn’t get enough sun. The stringbeans didn’t get proper support and were too crowded. The smaller honeysuckle wasn’t as small as I thought; it needs a real trellis. My wanderings show that the vigorous and twining Grandpa Ott morning glory is also going to need careful removal from the honeysuckle.

cold compost
time to load up the cold compost

Fall clean-up doesn’t happen in one day, and it doesn’t need to. Unlike chores in the spring which seem to happen all at once, I feel we have more time in the fall, especially this year because the weather has been so mild. The leaves fall and have to be raked. Then more leaves fall and they have to be raked. Fall clean up encourages a slow and steady approach.

Our biggest problem with clean up this year is the dead brown leaves of our big horse chestnut. We noticed other horse chestnut trees in town also shedding their big brown leaf clusters early. I have tried to do some research to confirm or disprove the rumor we heard that there is a fungus attacking these trees, and that the fallen leaves should be collected and removed, not put in the compost pile.

Our horse chestnut is very tall and branches are not within reach. I cannot see the leaves clearly until they fall off. I did find examples on line of leaf blotch which is caused by a fungus, but I am not able to see my leaves early enough in the fungus development stage to see if they develop as shown in the photos. In any event, we are trying to rake up as many of those leaves as possible, bagging them up and putting them out for the trash collector. The leaf blotch fungus, Guignardia aesculi, can overwinter in a compost pile and be a threat next year.

While we are doing our best to get rid of the horse chestnut leaves, we welcome the sycamore, Japanese lilac, and river birch leaves as well as the maple and oak leaves from our neighbors’ trees. There are plenty of these over the course of the fall. I collect them and put them into a five foot tall wire cage, pressing them down as the season progresses. We can watch the pile melt down and stand in awe of the speed of the rotting process.

I did not invent the idea of a big wire bin. That was the late Larry Lightner’s idea. He was a marvelous gardener and years ago was responsible for many of the gardens on the Northfield Mount Hermon campus. He collected leaves and made what he called ‘cold compost.’ The compost bins that many of us use for our kitchen scraps, grass cuttings and weeds, use the heat created by the rotting process to make compost. In a different process leaves break down in their aerated wire bin without heat. It does take a full year, and sometimes longer to be usable, but it is valuable compost.

Lightner even planted in his cold compost bins. He made them about two or three feet tall,  sometimes circular or of any other shape that suited him. He kept adding leaves all fall until the bins were full. In the spring he would top off the planting bin with cold compost from another bin. The newly full bin was ready for planting. He would make an indentation in the cold compost, add about a quart of soil, and then plant a vegetable or plant start. One big bin could hold numerous starts. These bins did need to be kept well watered, but plants got plenty of nutrition from the still rotting leaves and thrived.

We just pulled our wire bin up and off the rotted leaves we collected all last fall. Unrotted leaves remainrd along the outside edges, but  the rest of the leaves have rotted into good compost. I am spreading that compost over my beds as I cut back and weed.

cold compost
spreading cold compost

As soon as I spread all of that finished compost, we’ll set up the bin again and pile in this year’s crop of leaves. This is a wonderful cycle. It makes me happy to know that I can look forward to a compost harvest every fall.

Between the Rows  October 21, 2017

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Helen Opie

    Another way you taught me to use cold compost heaps was to spread a little soil on top and plant carrot seeds. At that time much of my gatden was on ledge or shaley soil; no way for carrots to grow straight! Carrots growing into a cold compost bed have 6- 10 ” of pure almosf- rotted leaves to grow down into, straight and easy and clean to pull out, too.

    My only problem was once lutting my leaf crib against the garden fence; deer found gaps between upper netting and lower fence to stick their heads through and dine on carrot tops without even having to bend over; a manger of greens. Didn’t repeat THAT error!

  2. We will have our first frost this weekend. Then I’ll be cutting back the Irises and the Peonies. Most of the stalks from the other plants will remain, since bees lay their eggs in hollow plant stems, and birds eat the seed heads of dried perennials through the winter. I’ll do most of my clean-up in the spring. I have a cold compost bin, too, and I usually spread some of that in the fall and in the spring. 🙂

  3. Pat

    Beth – We haven’t had a hard frost yet. Not sure about tonight. I still have nasturtiums, annual daisies and Sheffield daisies blooming like crazy. What a year. I have done some cutting back, but there is lots more to go. You have given me permission not to get worried about that and just be happy for the benefits of remaining plant stems.

  4. Pat

    Helen – You are one of my most knowledgeable teachers! Those deer are the most dastardly creatures! I hope your fall garden is ready for the winter – in the ways that you prefer.

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