Who rakes fallen leaves in a forest? The answer: Nobody. They just fall to the forest floor and decompose. This decomposing organic material is called humus or duff. As they decompose, the fallen leaves return organic matter to the soil to be used by the plants. This is nature’s compost.
Letting leaves decompose naturally in the landscape isn’t practical. They fall on the lawn, in planting beds and even swimming pools and gutters.. Instead, most people rake them up, or blow them into piles. And they get rid of them by the most expedient means. Depending on the laws of the jurisdiction in which you live, you may bag leaves and put them at the curb or you may be able to just rake or blow them to the curb and the town will pick them up.
When the town comes around with a giant vacuum and sucks leaves into a truck, chances are they will be taken to a municipal composting facility and piled into windrows. Windrows are long piles of leaves left out in the weather to decompose. Because the windrows generate heat, they are turned periodically. This not only keeps them from catching fire but also evens out the decomposition process.
When the leaves are completely composted, the municipality uses the material to add organic matter to the soil in parks and other public gardens. If there is any left over, it may be offered to residents. Some municipalities give compost free while others charge a nominal fee. But you have to go to the composting facility and get it. This means your leaves are handled by numerous people before they are returned to you. That hardly fits the definition of sustainability.
I suppose that’s OK if you don’t want to be bothered with the turning and other work involved in making compost. However, if you want to really be sustainable, you’ll make your own compost. Cordon off a far corner of your yard, one that isn’t too visible, and build your compost facility there.
A compost bin can be built with a little work and some lumber and nails or wire. Just build big boxes to hold the leaves. You’ll be able to work the compost easier if you leave the front off the boxes. You can also buy kits for wood or wire compost bins at home stores or online at garden supply sites. They even have various size plastic bins that you can turn simply by turning a crank.
Leaves will compost faster is they’re crushed into small pieces. The most efficient method of crushing them I’ve ever seen was when the host of a TV garden show filled a garbage totter with leaves, donned safety glasses and plunged a string trimmer into the totter like an immersion blender that’s used in the kitchen.
When making your own mulch, you’ll need to check the temperature in the middle of the pile and turn it when it gets hot. Turning also allows the leaves to compost evenly so you’ll have nice, dark, finished compost by spring. If you don’t have a composter with a crank tumbler, just use an iron rake.