Rhododendrons are popular for use in landscaping, appearing as trees or ground-hugging shrubs with colorful blooms in various colors. Rhododendrons will lose their leaves for a variety of reasons. You may wonder if these leaves can be composted as you rake the yard.
Rhododendron leaves take longer than other leaves to break down, but they make an excellent mulch-like material. Composting rhododendron leaves offers many benefits, such as improving soil health and keeping organic waste material out of landfills.
This article will discuss how and why you can compost rhododendron leaves, explaining which nutrients are left in the leaves when the rhododendron sheds them and how you can make the most of them in your garden.
Is It Safe to Compost Rhododendron Leaves?
The Rhododendron is toxic if consumed but suitable for composting purposes. This is because the leaves will break down into forms that other plants can use.
It may help to understand the reasons why leaves fall from the rhododendron plant in the first place, noting which nutrients are left in the leaves and whether they’ve dropped from the plant due to natural causes or due to disease.
Reasons Why Leaves Fall From the Rhododendron
Rhododendron leaves drop from the plant for several reasons. Let’s look at the reasons why:
- Normal life cycle: Some plants will hold young leaves and drop the older ones in the spring and the fall. Some varieties of Rhododendron will retain their leaves for up to four seasons before dropping them.
- Phytophthora root rot: This is a fungal disease, also known as Rhododendron wilt, found in too wet soil. Leaves will fall, but the plant will recover if the drainage is improved.
- Excessive sun exposure: Too much sun can cause the Rhododendron’s leaves to be yellow, and you’ll notice it on only the leaves with too much sun. Consider transplanting the plant to a new location in your yard, or find a way to give it some shade.
- Chlorosis: Again, if the leaves turn yellow, this could be a sign of trouble for the plant. This condition shows that the plant cannot absorb iron from the soil, which indicates an issue with the pH of the soil. Rhododendrons like and grow well in acidic soil and can be treated with chelated iron fertilizer sprayed on the leaves and a soil acidifier.
In summary, if the leaves from the plant are yellow or are dropping outside of the natural fall or spring growth cycle, there’s a chance that the plant is unhealthy. If the plant is dried out from too much sun or malnourished, it should still be safe to compost, but you might see less benefit from using those leaves.
If the plant is rotted or infected, however, you should avoid composting those leaves. Signs of infection or rot include wilting and patterns of discoloration.
Why Do Rhododendron Leaves Take So Long to Break Down?
Rhododendron leaves take a long time to break down relative to other organic waste because they are thick and waxy. You can shred or mow them before adding them to the compost pile to help break them down faster.
Generally speaking, composted or mulched organic waste improves the health of the soil while preventing erosion and holding moisture and nutrients in the soil. Mulched rhododendron leaves are no exception. Besides that, their toughness makes them an excellent option for mulching and protecting other plants from frost.
Composted materials that are sent to a landfill can be detrimental. Without a garden to break down into, the organic materials that are decaying will create and release explosive methane gas. This gas can react with other materials at the landfill and potentially make toxic leachate, which can contaminate groundwater.
Why Should You Compost Rhododendron Leaves?
Composting rhododendron leaves is an easy technique to decay organic materials to supplement the soil for other growing plants. Composting occurs naturally in nature when vegetation decays, creating organic matter similar to soil.
However, we can speed up the process to mimic nature. Composted material holds water and nutrients in the soil for the benefit of plants and is suitable for the environment since it recycles waste.
The Benefits of Composting at Home
There are many valuable benefits to creating your own compost. These are:
- It’s cost-effective, replacing the need for store-bought supplements.
- Garden beds and house plants will thrive in healthy soil and become fertile.
- Composting keeps moisture in place and reduces run-off water, meaning you don’t have to water your plants as frequently.
- It creates a positive environmental impact by keeping waste out of landfills and recycling organic materials.
How To Use Rhododendron Leaves in Compost
There are three main composting methods – slow, hot, or leaf mold; depending on your available time and needs will determine which way is best for you.
For slow and hot composting, you’ll need energy materials, such as manure, fruit and vegetable waste, untreated trimmings from your garden, such as your rhododendron leaves, and coffee grounds. These materials provide nitrogen and carbon compounds for microbial growth needed to break down waste.
You’ll also need bulking agents such as wood chips, grass hay, and corn stalks. Combining these materials creates an optimal environment and food source for decomposers. These dry and porous materials help aerate the mixture, preventing the waste from rotting too quickly and creating an unpleasant smell.
Your overall composting pile will need a ratio of 2:1 – two parts bulking agent to one part energy material. A pitchfork is a good tool for mixing your pile.
Leaf Mold requires fewer materials overall and will be described below.
Slow Composting is a simple and convenient option for people that prefer to let nature do most of the work. Add fresh organic wastes to a divet in the middle of your pile of energy and bulking materials. Cover the divet by turning the added material into the mixture to aerate the bank and keep pests away from it.
To make usable compost, decomposers such as microorganisms, insects, and earthworms will slowly break down the wastes in a pile. The result of composted material will look dark and crumbly. This can take up to 3 years to become usable, so it’s essential to be patient!
If you have more time to attend to your composting pile, you can maintain a balance of air, energy, and moisture. This balance will naturally heat up to produce a hot compost that quickly breaks down, killing weed seeds and disease-spreading organisms, resulting in an excellent compost mixture.
Use your pitchfork to turn the pile weekly or bi-weekly, bringing the outside of the pile to the inside and vice versa to aerate it and speed up the decay. Add water as needed. Cover the pile with a tarp for rainy days.
Frequently turning the pile will help it stay hot at 120-150°F (48.89-65.66°C) for up to a month. You’ll notice the pile will shrink in half of its size during this time. Let the pile sit for an additional 1-2 months to cure. At this time, temperatures in the pile are a bit lower. It’ll be ready for use once the pile doesn’t heat when turned and the resulting material appears dark and crumbly.
If you can’t get your pile to heat up naturally, it’ll still break down but at a slower pace.
Leaf mold is naturally found in forest areas and makes up the soft cushion-like area on top of the soil. This material decomposes slowly, adding nutrients to the soil, improving its structure, and feeding plants.
Shredded Rhododendron leaves can be used for this purpose in your landscaping, but keep in mind that it may not have all of the nutrients for overall health like a mixture of composted material will have. Leaf mold can be slightly acidic, so you may need to add ground limestone for plants sensitive to acidity.
Leaf mold is faster and easier to make and can help to retain water in your gardens and landscaping. Construct a circular bin made from snow fencing or chicken wire. Add leaves and dampen them with water. Leaf mold generally will be ready for use in the following Spring or Summer but can be kept in the bin for several years for use as needed.
The GEOBIN Compost Bin (available on Amazon.com) would work well for composting leaves for Leaf Mold. The expandable bin is easy to assemble and offers maximum ventilation for accelerated decomposition.