No-Frills Composting

Master gardener Paul James shows how to turn garden waste into gold.

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Finished compost is the best soil enricher — and it's easy to make.

When you pile organic material and let it sit for a little while, the rotting process turns those scraps into compost. Finished compost is the best thing in the world for anything that grows. When you lay it on the soil surface, you're feeding the soil (rather than the plant). The soil will drain better, and the compost will attract earthworms and microbial activity in the soil. And with the wealth of nutrients in compost, you can skip using fertilizers altogether if you routinely apply compost.

Maria originally placed her compost pile under a shady tree. Unfortunately, the roots will suck the nutrients right out of her pile, so Paul suggests moving it out into the sun, several yards from vegetation.

To contain the pile requires nothing more than a wire cage with enough area to generate sufficient heat — at least a 3' x 3' cage.

Broken twigs make for a good base. The coarse material allows air flow and drainage at the bottom of the pile.

Next come the leaves. Over time they produce what's called leaf mold, which helps break down plant tissue into compost. A mix of green and brown materials is best. Brown is dry, carbon-rich trimmings like old leaves and twigs. Greens is nitrogen-rich debris like grass clippings and annuals.

This lump of new, coarse material will take a while to decompose, but there's a trick to speeding the process — blood meal. A cup or so accelerates decomposition. An alternative to blood meal is finished compost, which already has the bacteria and micro-organisms that help a compost pile get started.

It's also important to sprinkle water onto the pile, enabling microorganisms to do their thing. Not too much, though: The pile should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge.

Building the compost over time means repeating the whole process — add material, then a little blood meal, then water.

A step above the wire cage is the self-contained compost bin. A lid helps contain the materials, and a door on the bottom of the bin comes in handy when the compost is ready to be used. Expect usable compost from a bin like this in two to three months.

Another high-end compost option is the tumbler. It's designed in such a way that you turn it every day, which helps generate compost more quickly.

Arguably the best thing in the world for compost piles are kitchen scraps. They contain all kinds of great nutrients that will break down. The only things you want to keep out of the pile are fatty foods and meats, which attract rodents.

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