How to Compost Leaves in Bags

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 06, 2023

Dealing with the leaves that fall in your yard every year may seem like just another chore, but they're a valuable natural resource. Composting the leaves for use in your garden or landscaping is an easy and effective way to make use of the autumn nuisance. Compared to manure, leaves contain twice as many minerals. If you want to take advantage of all of the free benefits of using the leaves, but don't want to set up a full-fledged compost bin, you can use composting bags instead. 

What Are Composting Bags? 

Composting bags are used in place of traditional bins to compost leaves. Although you can find specialty composting bags, you can also use black bags sold at most grocery stores or any other heavy-duty plastic bag for bagging up landscape waste. When searching for compost bags for leaves, look for bags labeled 30 to 40 gallons and at least three mils thick — a mil is 1000th of an inch. 

Getting Started Composting Leaves in Bags

Composting leaves in bags is the simplest method for composting, but it does take longer, and the compost won't be as high quality as traditional compost. However, it will still provide many benefits to your garden or landscaping and is an ideal method for people who don't have a lot of extra yard space or want to try out composting before they commit to a more elaborate bin system. 

To get your system started, you'll just need a few supplies, including: 

  • Plastic bags, 30 to 40 gallons, three mils thick
  • Manure or fertilizer that's high in nitrogen
  • Rich garden soil 
  • Enough water to thoroughly moisten the leaves
  • Hydrated lime if you're using the anaerobic method
  • Leaves

The fertilizer or manure provides nitrogen that helps speed up the process of decomposition. The rich soil contains microbes that will multiply and break down the leaves. The water is also necessary for decomposition to occur because the microbes need water to thrive. 

There are two main methods for composting leaves in bags. Aerobic decomposition requires oxygen levels over five percent. Anaerobic decomposition doesn't require oxygen and is lower maintenance, but it takes longer. Whichever method you use, shredding your leaves before you start will speed up the process. You can run them over with a lawnmower to chop them up.

Anaerobic Leaf Composting in Bags

Anaerobic composting occurs without oxygen, which results in fermentation. This type of decomposition occurs in nature when organic matter is buried and doesn't have access to oxygen. Carbon is released from organic compounds in this process in the form of methane gas, which results in an unpleasant smell. 

The biggest advantage of anaerobic leaf composting is that once you set it up and put it aside, you can forget about it for six to 12 months. To use the anaerobic composting method, follow these steps: 

  • Fill your bags with shredded leaves
  • Add about one-half cup of high-nitrogen fertilizer or two shovel scoops of manure
  • Add two shovel scoops of rich garden soil
  • Add one to two quarts of water 
  • Add one cup of hydrated lime

The hydrated lime counteracts the acidity that naturally occurs during anaerobic composting. When you've added everything to your bag, tie it off and set aside in an out-of-the-way spot for six to 12 months. You don't need to do anything else. However, if you have other plants that need insulation from the cold, you can place the bagged leaves around the plants for protection.

Aerobic Leaf Composting in Bags

If you're willing to put in a little more work, you can speed up the decomposition process and reduce the odor in your compost bags. Prepare the bags as you would for anaerobic composting, but leave out the lime. You have two options for aerobic leaf composting. You can either poke 12 to 15 holes in the side of the bag and turn it over every few days or you can open the bags every other day to let oxygen in. You'll still need to turn the bag every few days, but you don't have to poke holes in it. If you notice the leaves are too wet, just leave the bag open for a few days. Your compost should be ready in four to six weeks with this method. 

What to Do With Leaf Compost

When your leaf compost is ready, you can use it throughout your garden and landscaping. You can add leaf compost to your soil by adding a one-half to three-fourths inch layer of leaf mold and work it into the top six to eight inches of soil. The compost adds beneficial microbes to your soil to make your garden healthier.

You can also use leaf compost as a mulch in place of wood chips or pine straw. Some of the benefits of using leaf compost as a mulch include:

  • Reduces rain runoff, so plants have more access to water
  • Decreases water evaporation from soil
  • Keeps soil warmer in cold weather and cooler in hot weather
  • Increases the beneficial activity of earthworms and other microbes
  • Helps control weeds
  • Improves the appearance of your landscape or garden

Leave the Leaves

If you don't feel like bothering with composting leaves — even bag composting — and you don't want to rake and bag them, either, you can just leave them where they fall. The leaves will eventually break down on their own and enrich your soil. In the meantime, they provide a habitat for small animals like lizards, frogs, turtles, and insects. So while you can compost them or chop them up with your lawnmower, you can also feel good about just leaving them to rot. 

Show Sources

AgriLife Extension: "Don't Bag It - Leaf Management Plan."
Iowa State University: "Fall Leaves - Put Them to Work in your Landscape with Bag Composting."
Penn State Extension: "Composting Leaves."
Rutgers Cooperative Extension: "Using Leaf Compost."
University of Georgia Extension: "Composting and Mulching."
USDA: "This Fall, Leave the Leaves!."
Washington State University: "Compost Fundamentals."

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