high-speed, hit-and-run composting

Shredded, composted leaves partially decomposedFOR YEARS MY FRIEND ANDREW, a better gardener than I by far, has been telling me the secret, but I just wouldn’t listen. Like I do, Andrew creates a lot of debris from his giant garden and nursery. “Run it over,” he said, whenever I’d complain about the daunting size of my heap. “Just run it over with your mower to pre-shred the stuff.” Well, I finally did.

Facing the overstuffed, impossible-to-manage reality of my 40-by-6-by-8-foot heap, I raked the top 2-foot layer (the still-whole stuff, like last fall’s leaves, in the photo below) onto the ground beside the pile, removed any enormous or woody pieces, got out the tractor, and performed my first act of hit-and-run composting. Wow. What a difference a drive-by makes.


In no time I had reduced the dry stuff formerly on top by probably 75 percent in volume, creating what will make a great (free) mulch (bottom photo) for rough areas like the vegetable and cutting rows. And I had gained access to the enormous volume of finished compost beneath it. (Next step: to screen that for use.)

shredded-debrisDrive-by composting is my new favorite task, and next time I won’t wait: I’ll pre-shred the stuff when I collect it in fall, just like Andrew told me to, helping get the decomposition process off to a faster start.

  1. Cindy says:

    I love your site! As an person that is in the office and car 10 hours a day and can’t wait to get home to get dirt under my nails, feverishly working till dark, your site helps me feel that AM in my garden while at my job. Keep typing, PLEASE!!

  2. cindee says:

    I know this is a great idea because i did this last fall when I was picking up leaves. I ran the mower first then dumped those leaves from the bag into a pile. It worked great! I plan to get a shredder sometime in the future but the lawnmower works for now!

  3. Kathy says:

    My husband and son have both been doing this for years. It does work and they like doing it….maybe it is a guy thing.

  4. margaret says:

    Welcome, Cindy. Thanks for the encouragement. I am at the computer more than I’d like, but promise to keep at it (and also to steal outside and get dirty a bit).

    @ Cindee and Kathy (or Kathy’s men): I should have listened to you or Andrew all these years!

  5. MulchMaid says:

    In our last garden we had a big liriodendron with huge leaves. Using a bag mower, we saved on raking time in the fall and made the mulch so much easier to turn in the spring.
    In our new home now, we’re waiting for the trees we’ve planted to get large enought to use the technique again!

  6. Erin says:

    What a fantastic idea. I desperately want a mulching mower with a bag attachment or a mulcher/shredder thing, but just running over the stuff with the mower sure helps a lot too.

  7. Tammy says:

    Gosh, what I wouldn’t give for so much compost. Got me thinking about the land we have 2 hrs. away. Lots of brown, but not so much green for composting. Any ideas about how to have long distance composting?

  8. chris says:

    just a little different take, i first rake and pile into a large compost pile by the garden, then i shred using my mackissic shredder/chipper. my simplicity tractor/mower is tough, but not as tough as my mighty mac.

  9. Brian G. says:

    I never rake leaves in the fall (too daunting). I wait till the majority are on the ground and run the mower over the whole place one last time. Looks a little funny mowing in November but the result is in-place compost. All of the shredded material has worked its way to the soil by spring.

  10. squirrelgardens says:

    Love this site. Wish composting was more appreciated. Just ordered 3 yards from an organic farmer and had to explain to a neighbor why compost is the most important ammendment. Sometimes life would be easier if one could happy with the white rock, yews, and resin fountain landscape. Is there rehab for those addicted to perfect PH soil?

  11. woody plant girl says:

    I have eliminated grass but use a leaf vacuum system in my fall clean up and yes shredded material goes down faster. My winter trick for kitchen stuff is to freeze it and when we get enough warm days so the ground is softer I just dig it in. This works now because I am preparing beds to be planted. When everything is planted, I’ll go back to my composter. Shredded material + frozen stuff and watered in: yummy soil lasagne.

  12. Patricia says:

    Do any of you have a favorite tool to lift leaves, mulch, etc. – a favorite mulch/compost rake? The few I’ve looked at at the garden stores are SO HEAVY.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Patricia: I would say the same about most all tools these days…what happened to well-made ones that didn’t weigh a ton? (I broke my favorite long-handled shovel a few years ago and now have 5 “new” ones lined up in the barn, each having proven useless for their weight, and keep searching). I’d call Lee Valley Tools and ask them how much this one weighs, or AM Leonard about this one that they call lightweight. Now if you need a heavy shovel, just let me know; that I can provide. :)

  13. Patricia says:

    The one AM Leonard makes looks very promising! If I go ahead and buy it, I’ll let you know. Thanks so much Margaret!

  14. Patricia says:

    Just wanted to tell all that I bought the AM Leonard mulching fork that you referenced and it is wonderful! Light but sturdy and looks like it will provide many seasons of lifting mulch and distributing. Thanks so much for the suggestion! Patricia

    1. Margaret says:

      @Patricia: Wow, that’s great news. I love AM Leonard, and now I know what my next purchase will be there…. :)

  15. Gloria says:

    Hello Margaret,
    What to do with a pine needles season after season? Can I shred them in a chipper and spread them back on the ground for mulch? I live in California and I worry about our dry hot season for forest fires. Yet I have lots of pine trees, and their needles need to be raked away from my home very spring. Thank you for your site and a way to learn to garden better. Gloria

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Gloria. I had to look this up as I am not expert on flammability of mulch materials by type, but I did find some research in a pdf from the Un. of Arizona Extension:


      Seems like your hunch to pre-compost any mulch material is a good one, and not to use pine needles in an area right near buildings. Have a look at that link.

  16. Derek a Ferguson says:

    There is a British tv program called Gardeners World, the presenter Monty Don mows his compost as well, he did so in his last program. And if Monty does it, it must work. However I would kill myself if I tried it as I have a Barrel compost bin.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Derek. I just spit my tea out. (Fortunately, I didn’t damage the laptop, or you would have been in deep trouble.) Yes, be sure to steer around the bin, mind you. And thanks for the good chuckle; much appreciated. See you soon!

  17. JWLW says:

    Margret it does work have been doing that for years. This year I purchased a Leaf blower that also sucks them up and chops them to little pieces. Great tool for cleaning up gardens and getting under shrubs.

    Have a great day,

    1. Margaret says:

      Thank you, John. I covet my neighbor’s big leaf “rake” with a bag-like thing that fits on his tractor — I have to find out what it is called. He makes tons of leaf mold by shredding it first, then works it into the garden the next spring.

  18. Fran hamburg says:

    I garden in western ma. and would love to compost but we have a number of bears we come calling and I don’t want to encourage them. I have composted by digging holes and then covering them with soil, but I often forget where the holes are!
    I would love to be in touch with gardeners in the berkshires, so anyone in my neck of the woods would love to hear fromyou

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Fran. I suggest bamboo stakes should be used to mark each burial site. :) I assume you have made contact with the Berkshire Botanical Garden folks in Stockbridge area — lots going on there to connect to.

  19. cara says:

    What if you don’t have a tractor, or even a power mower, or one of those noisy leaf-shredder things that people say always got clogged? I’ve got a lot of dead leaves, though. Can you suggest a way to shred leaves with some kind of hand tool?

  20. Linda Mauro says:

    I so enjoy your garden site.I noticed big black spots on my maple leaves this fall,my local cooperative ext said its a virus and not to put it in the compost pile.Too late,I had already added them,now what,am I ruined?

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