Leaves aren’t garbage

With all the talk of recycling, I can’t understand why homeowners don’t recycle their tree leaves to make wonderful and rich organic soil. Every autumn (and spring) I grin and shake my head when I see bags of leaves at the curb to be picked and up and sent to a landfill site. Leaves should never go to the dump.

This summer, a friend and I were walking down our cottage road and stopped to chat with new neighbours who were outside watering some plants. Two sisters had bought the cottage a few years ago and had been busy sprucing it up. Knowing that I am a farmer, they had a few questions about soil. One of the sisters said it was difficult making a little vegetable garden because of large trees on the property and poor soil quality.

“What do you do with all the leaves that fall off these trees?” I asked.

“We rake and rake, bag them all and pay a guy with a truck to take them to the dump,” they replied.

I think my answer shocked them. “Oh, no. Why do that? The leaves of one large shade tree can be worth as much as $50 of plant food and humus. Why not compost the leaves and make ‘black gold’? Most trees are deep-rooted enough to absorb minerals from deep in the soil, and a good portion of these minerals go into the leaves.”

Their response also surprised me. No place to compost even though they have a big wooded lot. They buy bagged material, which in my opinion is a waste of money. Paying someone to take their leaves to a landfill site was their best solution.

Backyard habits

At an early age, I learned the value of leaves. In the 60s my father took care of a few spacious grounds in town that had many large trees and pretty flower beds. He would make the beds look neat; my job was cutting the lawns. At one of the grounds were two stately homes owned by an elderly man who had spent most of his life in India. He was very particular. At the back of his treed grounds sat the remains of a small beekeeping shed that had burned down years ago. Its small cement floor and two-foot high cement walls were the ideal place for composting leaves, grass clippings and garden waste. Turning this compost over with a fork was quite a task and one I didn’t particularly enjoy.

If you don’t have compost bins or a cement pad – make one in a corner of your property. It’s important to keep your pile together to allow it to heat up and decompose. You can also make your compost right where you are going to need it – in your garden! And while that pile is “nicely cooking,” you can add some normal compost pile trimmings: coffee grounds, fruit peels, scraps and grass clippings (no dog poop or meat!).

Whole leaves won’t compost quickly if left alone on the ground – and especially in piles where they can bind together and become a soggy, matted mess. If you don’t own a shredder, a lawn mower will do a great job of shredding your leaves into a fine chopped mix. In a half hour or so, you can reduce 25 garbage bags of leaves into a couple wheelbarrow loads of shredded bits.

Organics such as grass, leaves and plant waste make up approximately 30 to 40 percent of residential waste going into landfill sites, and food waste makes up another 20 percent of household garbage in Canada. Composting can significantly reduce this!  


  • Meindert VanderGalien

    Meindert was born in The Netherlands in 1949. The family immigrated to Canada (The Ottawa Valley) in 1953. He’s a life-long cattle farmer, enjoys traveling, reading, writing, gardening, bush work in the winter cutting firewood and country life. He’s been a columnist since 1987 writing for many newspapers and is currently the bulletin editor at Hebron CRC in Renfrew, where he is a faithful member.

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