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Compost Your Way to a Fertile Garden

Put trash to good use and make your soil fertile at the same time by starting a compost pile in your yard.

Put trash to good use and make your soil fertile at the same time by starting a compost pile in your yard. Composting allows microbial life, such as fungi and bacteria, to do what they do best--decompose plant matter. All you need to do is create the right conditions for decomposition to occur.

The warmer the weather the more quickly composting will occur, but it will happen as long as the temperature in the pile is at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The compost pile should be at least three feet wide, by three feet high, by three feet deep to provide adequate insulation to keep the pile warm. Choose a well-drained spot. Moisture is essential to the process, but too much will leave you with a rotten, soggy mess. 

A wire, wood or plastic container is helpful for composting, but not essential. A container keeps animals from scrounging around the pile and scattering its contents. The most important feature to look for in selecting a container is that it allows air to flow through the contents. 

To start your compost pile, lay down four to six inches of "brown material," which includes dried grass, peat moss, straw, shredded leaves. Brown materials are high in carbon, an important element in decomposition and they are dry, allowing the free flow of air in the pile by creating gaps and air pockets. 

Next, place two to four inches of "green materials" on the pile. Nitrogen-rich items such as fresh grass clippings, livestock manure and kitchen scraps of fruit and vegetable rinds, tea bags, coffee grounds, and eggshells are good green materials. 

Next, add two to three inches of garden soil, then moisten the pile, and repeat the layering process until the container is full, or the pile is three to five feet high. The pile should be moist, having the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. 

You should allow the pile to "heat up" or begin decomposing, and then turn the pile with a garden fork. The amount of time it takes to heat up will depend on the outside temperature and the size of the pile. The pile will begin to heat up in the center first, so move the materials in the center of the pile to the outside of the pile, and vice versa. Compost will be ready when it turns to a dark and crumbly substance, generally in one to two months. 

Do not compost human waste, diseased plants, chemically treated wood products, meat, bones or pet waste as these can be harmful to your garden and, consequently to you, if they are absorbed by your plants. 

Source: The National Gardening Association, www.garden.org; Rot Web by Eric S. Johnson, www.a-horizon.com/compost/compost_menu.html