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Compost turns fallen leaves into gardening gold

November 20, 2007|By ANNETTE IPSAN

What's the upside of raking all those fall leaves? Compost, gardener's gold.

Dark, crumbly compost enriches the soil and grows healthier plants. Made from decayed leaves, grass clippings, kitchen scraps and more, compost is simply natural materials broken down into amazing soil food.

Sure, Mother Nature breaks down natural stuff like leaves and twigs. But, she takes a long time. Composting speeds up the process to create a nutritious soil amendment in as little as two months.

How? An army of decomposers - bacteria, fungi, worms and more - chews up composts' raw materials. The ideal environment you create in your backyard helps them work better and faster.

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How does compost help your garden? It gives plants important nutrients and improves the soil structure. It also helps soil hold water, a good thing in these drought-ridden times. In addition, compost stimulates plants' health and disease resistance.

Compost isn't just a great soil builder. It also keeps landfills from getting clogged. Up to 75 percent of the materials in landfills could be composted. Compost also saves you money on fertilizers and expensive soil conditioners since it improves the soil naturally.

How do you start a compost pile? First you gather the raw materials: natural materials rich in carbon or nitrogen. Leaves, straw, sawdust, plant trimmings and newspapers add carbon. Grass clippings, fruit and vegetable leftovers and coffee grounds add nitrogen.

Next, you need to build your compost pile. It doesn't need to be fancy. Just a pile of stuff about 3 feet tall and wide is fine. You can put fencing around it or build a three-sided box with wood pallets or lumber. Working compost isn't very attractive, so tucking it into a corner of your property out of your neighbors' view is a good thing.

What's next? Layering. Pile on layers of the materials you've gathered. You want a nice blend of materials high in carbon and nitrogen, so mix it up. Just keep adding more layers until you are at the ideal size.

What you don't want in your compost pile is meat, fat, bones, dairy products and anything synthetic. Think natural.

Once your compost pile is built, you need to keep it active by turning it often. The more you turn it, the faster you get the goods. So, grab that pitchfork and get busy. It's good exercise.

If you hate turning compost, try these alternatives. Buy a compost tumbler, a bin you fill and turn with a crank. Or, let everything lie in a pile to break down in about a year. Or, try sheet composting. Simply layer a foot of organic materials into a new bed area and let it simmer for a year before planting directly into it. (Yes, this is that "lasagna gardening" you've heard about.)

Good compost piles are slightly moist, so you might need to add a bit of water now and then. Ideally, the pile should have the consistency of a damp sponge. So, add water if it seems dry.

Don't worry if your compost pile starts to steam on a cool day. That means it is working. The microorganisms that break down the compost generate heat to the tune of 130 to 170 degrees in an active pile. Cooking compost is good compost.

When is compost done? When it stops cooking and rests for a few weeks. Finished compost is dry, black crumbly stuff that looks like really good soil. If you start a compost pile now, it won't cook much this winter, but will take off in the spring.

There are a dozen ways to use compost. Put a layer on top of your existing garden beds. Mix it into new beds. Add it to planting holes. Create a potting mix for containers by mixing it half and half with regular potting soil. Sprinkle some on your houseplants' soil. Steep it in water to create healthful compost tea to spray on plants' leaves. The list goes on and on.

Compost is a wonderful soil amendment, alive with nutrients and soil-boosting power. Why wouldn't you compost? To learn more about composting, call or e-mail me with your name and address to ask me for a copy of our "Backyard Composting" fact sheet. Happy composting!

Annette Ipsan is the Extension editor for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. She can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1604, or by e-mail at aipsan@umd.edu.

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