Composting pine needles and leaves?

AZtransplant2005(z7 - Raleigh)October 31, 2005

Hello - I am clearing out some beds that have layers upon layers of pine needles. I am shoving them in bags right now - looks like the lower layers just matted up. Is there a way, or a reason to compost these babies? We also have lots of layers of leaves in the back yard that I would like to break down into stuff that will help the garden. Is there a best way to do this?

Thanks bunches!


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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

There are zillions of 'how to' guides for composting on the web. Look up several of them and you'll get the idea. The most efficient method of composting leaves and pine needles is to chop them up into smaller pieces....many folks simply mow over them! The smaller the pieces, the faster it will turn into usable compost. However, this is not mandatory by any means.

Layering is important in composting. You want add layers of coarse material in between leaves to keep oxygen introduced into the pile. No composting. Small wood chips (not pine bark, which decomposes slowly), twigs, vegetable scraps, newspaper shreds, are all just a few examples of what you can use to make layers.

Mix the pine needles with the leaves and they will decompose faster. Adding a handful of nitrogen can speed up the process, and you need to keep the whole batch tumbled or stirred periodically. If it is allowed to simply mat down, anaerobic conditions may arise and you'll not be happy with the results.

There are many ways to corral your compost pile....chicken wire, wooden bins, or even commercially made compost boxes or tumblers. It all depends on how much personal effort you are willing to put into it.

To skip all of this composting biz completely, simply chop those leaves and needles up, mix them together, and use them to make a 2 to 3 inch layer of organic mulch in your garden and landscape beds. A layer that small will decompose quickly with the help of worms (who will do all of the work of getting it into the soil), and all of the decomposing microorganisms that exist in every soil. Decomposed leaves and pine needles do not change the pH of the soil significantly, so don't be concerned about that (in case someone should mention's a myth).

Here is a link that might be useful: Composting

    Bookmark   October 31, 2005 at 4:36PM
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Leave the old pine needles! If you put a new layer on top, the old one should break down and amend your soil and save you the work of moving the needles to a different spot to compost them. If they are not breaking down, they are probably not moist enough - which means that your soil isn't moist enough for plants either. The biggest mistake I used to make with mulching is to put down too thin a layer. A thick layer - at least 5" IMHO - will truly stop most weeds and retain moisture in your soil. If you really want to put some speed on it, put a newspaper layer down on top of old pine needles, then put the new layer of needles on - this also forces you to put enough new pine needles, since if you don't, the newspaper will show. There are lots of formulas for proportion of greens and browns in a compost, as well as layering strategies, but I find that a simple newspaper layer between mulch layers gives me softer, richer soil underneathe in a couple of months. (And if you look on the Soil/Compost forum, you'll see that those folks are just itching for you to put those lovely bags of old pine needles on your curb for them to nab. Don't let them have your organic matter!)

    Bookmark   October 31, 2005 at 5:36PM
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limhyl(z8 NC)

I'm one of those people who take bags from curbs. Where do you live? Theresa.

    Bookmark   October 31, 2005 at 7:58PM
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AZtransplant2005(z7 - Raleigh)

I am going to buy a weed trimmer today - would that chop the stuff up OK? If I run over it with the mower, I think it will be really hard to get off the lawn- or am I missing something?

I read somewhere about filling a garbage pail with leaves and basically turning it into a blender with the trimmer. I have a LARGE area along the road I need to clear out - weeds and vines and seedlings of trees I don't want. Can I just toss that in with the rest of the stuff, or do I need to wait for it all to turn brown first?

Thanks for all the help!


    Bookmark   November 1, 2005 at 8:05AM
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aisgecko(7b Raleigh)

I think most people who run leaves over with the lawn mower do so with a bag attachment. If you don't have the bag then you would probably be better off doing the weed trimmer idea.
As for your side area that needs to be cleared I wouldn't suggest mulching that this way. The vine pieces might root and the seedheads from other weeds could germinate. I would be concerned that you would just spread the weeds around your yard and the seedling trees might be too tough for your weed trimmer. I would suggest putting the yard waste from this area in a hidden corner if you have one and just letting it degrade naturally or compost it. You have to be careful composting that stuff too. It needs to compost really hot (from a large pile) or for a really long time to be sure the seeds and roots are fully broken down. I have had many things sprout out of my compost pile, like small tomato plants and potatos. Leaves and needles make a good mulch without the threat of anything unwanted sprouting. -Ais.

    Bookmark   November 1, 2005 at 8:26AM
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Leslie, Wake County offers composting bins periodically for minimal cost (so does Chapel Hill). The trash can makes quite a mess, since your "blender" has no lid.

You can also put down burlap in your large natural area to stop the weeds, with a thick layer of mulch on top. Rogers List has free ones in RTP - see link here in text - (this place also has free coffee chaff for composting, Theresa, although I find it a bit "fluffu" for my taste.)

Here is a link that might be useful: Compost bins

    Bookmark   November 1, 2005 at 8:41AM
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chapelhillgardener(7a NC OrangeCo)

i don't have a bagging mower, and i chop my leaves & pine needles successfully by raking them to a location where the chopped material is blown up against a wall.

    Bookmark   November 1, 2005 at 8:45AM
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I had a huge pile of leaves and pine needles last year. It took me a couple of weeks to chop it with my lawn mower. I just spread a managable amount out and mowed it and then spread more out, etc. It was not hard to get up off the lawn using a rake. What remained on the lawn was good for it anyway. I spread it about five inches thick on my beds but I was not pleased with using it as a mulch. The water just seemed to sit in that layer of mulch without ever working its way down into the sand. This year I will mow the leaves where they fall and let it benefit my sad looking centipede grass. I'll be using the pro mix of composted pine fines for top dressing on all my beds from now on. Or at least for the next couple of years. Adele

    Bookmark   November 1, 2005 at 9:34AM
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AZtransplant2005(z7 - Raleigh)

I was worried about the water issue too - the ground under the pine needles is dry and cracking. That is why I raked them all off - I want to put some beds in there in the spring. If I get them all shredded, should I try tilling them into the soil? I wanted to get some hardwood mulch to dress the top, just 'cuz I really like the look of it better At this point, I think I will try shredding them, doing the newspaper layer thing, and covering it all will either new needles or the mulch I like. Am I missing anything? Should I till the dirt first, or add fertilizer, or something?

Thanks bunches-


    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 7:43AM
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I think you'll be pleased, Leslie, with how well the newspaper and mulch will work. I have switched to hardwood mulch too - I don't know what it's like in Cary, but here in Hillsborough, I can get 6 cubic yards triple-shredded delivered for $153 - that's 94 cents per cubic foot as compared to bagged stuff at Home Depot for 1.50 per cubic foot. I also throw all my veg waste, coffee grounds, and egg shells under the newspaper. (I consider myself a haphazard-composter!) This clay soil can use all the organic matter it can get. You have Starbucks there in Cary (boohoo I don't), and they will give you grounds free. They have a metal can they put the pretty silver bags of used grounds in - you just help yourself. I've noticed that when I stop for coffee in Cary, often the can is empty and they are surprised if I ask about "grounds for the garden" - they are always happy to give me the really big trash bag from behind the counter. The newspaper will help keep weeds down too, as will unshredded leaves under it. Good luck, and just think what a great example you're setting for all those Cary folks who put bags and bags of leaves and other organic matter on their curbs!

    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 8:25AM
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