January 23, 2014
Though you should exercise caution, take advantage of your municipality's free leaf compost, especially for use around trees and shrubs. Photo by Jessica Walliser (HobbyFarms.com)
Photo by Jessica Walliser

I had a lunch date with some gardening friends last week, and as it tends to do with this group, the conversation eventually turned to compost. I learned that the majority of our group (six out of eight) doesn’t take advantage of the free leaf compost given away by our municipality. I was surprised to find out that only two of us religiously shovel our own. It’s free, after all, and very good stuff.

If you have a shovel and some buckets (or better still, a pickup truck), call your own municipality and ask if a pile of leaf compost is available to residents. You’ll have to do a careful inspection to be sure it’s fully composted and perhaps ask a few questions if you are concerned about what was used to make it, but around here, it’s usually a good-quality product—and the price certainly can’t be beat.

Many municipalities make leaf compost from leaves collected off of streets each autumn. Sometimes they use chipped tree trimmings and grass clippings from local parks and other open spaces, as well. Someone in charge of municipal maintenance should be able to tell you what’s used to make the compost, so if you are concerned about it, just ask. 

While a certified organic farmer can’t use this type of compost because the sources of the ingredients and the composting process are not tracked, it’s a great deal for a home gardener. Several of my friends were rightfully concerned about the potential pesticide and/or herbicide content of city compost, as the ingredients are largely unknown. I do think this is a valid concern, but when composting on such a large scale, the temperature of the pile or windrow is sustained above 165 degrees F for long periods of time. Those temps are much higher than the average home compost pile, so it isn’t as great of a concern, but take care to ensure the pile is fully composted before using it. Even free compost isn’t a good deal if it harms your plants. That being said, I have never heard of municipally produced compost harming a garden when used appropriately. As always, wear gloves when working with any compost or manure products and wash well when you’re done.

In general, free leaf compost is perfect for perennial and shrub beds. If you’re concerned about its content, like some of my friends, skip using it in the vegetable garden or try it on only a small portion of the garden first.

And don’t forget, compost is good for the lawn, too, especially if you can screen it first. I suggest spreading 1/4 to 1/2 inch on the lawn once or twice per year. You can do this either after or before seeding (I prefer after so it helps protect the seeds from marauding birds and holds it in place until germination). The compost feeds your lawn, as well as all the beneficial soil organisms in the soil below it.

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