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Adding compost to any garden bed will dramatically enhance the fertility, texture and aeration of the soil and feed the billions of critters living in it whose activities create plant nutrients. The process of composting is achieved by combining organic waste such as dead leaves, grass clippings and vegetable scraps which are then broken down by microorganisms, forming a rich substance called compost. It is an all-natural and extremely eco-friendly method which can be done two ways: actively and passively.

Composting Basics
The first thing to consider when composting is a site for the compost pile. It is always a good idea to place the pile downwind from a house because the decomposition can cause unpleasant odors. A structure or enclosure is another thing to consider. Some may simply designate a spot in the yard to freely pile compost while others may be inclined to build a bin out of wood or chicken wire or buy a pre-made one. The following materials are most effectively used for composting:

Kitchen Materials – Fruit and vegetable wastes (peels, skins, seeds, leaves), egg shells, coffee grounds (including paper filters), tea bags, used paper napkins, corncobs (should be shredded first)

Yard Waste – Grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, weeds, wood materials (branches and twigs), straw or hay

Other – newspaper, seaweed, kelp, marsh grass hay, sawdust

Active Composting
Active (or hot) composting produces a more rapid result than passive and is often the choice of industry and home gardeners who wish to make a significant impact on their gardens with compost. It requires some planning to yield desired amounts of the finished product, as the main materials involved are only available at certain times of year (leaves in fall, grass clippings in summer, etc.). The beginning of fall is the optimal time to start an active pile, as dead leaves will provide a sound carbon base on which to build. The desired carbon (brown – leaves, sticks, sawdust) to nitrogen (green – grass, kitchen waste) ratio in a pile is 6 to 1. Too much nitrogen may lead to undesired odors. Products such as Espoma Organic Compost Bio-Excelerator and Ringer Organic Compost Starter can help the decomposition process along. These are the basic steps involved in the construction of an active pile:

1) Build layers – Start with lots of leaves on the bottom, followed by a nitrogen layer, then more leaves and continue to repeat.

2) Moisten – Wet down each layer with a hose as you go. Keep the pile damp but not soaking wet.

3) Toss gently – After every two or three layers of green and brown, use a pitchfork or compost fork to stir the ingredients together

4) Keep piling and cover – Add layers until the pile is about four feet deep. Finish with a layer of leaves and give the pile a stir and a sprinkling of water. A cover such as plywood or a tarp helps to hold in heat and keep out rain.

5) Check the temperature – After about twelve hours, use a long-stemmed compost thermometer or check the pile with your hand to ensure that it is heating up. If the pile has not heated up over 24 hours, it is either too dry (needs to be moistened and stirred) or doesn’t have enough nitrogen (add a little and mix it in). It will continue to alternately heat and cool as it breaks down and should be turned when cool.

6) Do a maturity test – You do not want to spread compost in your garden that has not fully decomposed because it will continue to decompose in your garden soil and damage your plants. One quick measure of maturity is when a well-turned and properly managed pile cools down for the last time and has sat for about a month, fluffed up and protected from rain. Another is to use a laboratory-style test kit. The kit will test will test for carbon dioxide and ammonia, which at high levels indicates that a pile is not mature and that nitrogen has not stabilized.

Passive Composting
Exactly as it sounds, passive (or cold) composting simply involves piling materials in a designated area and letting nature take its course. Unlike the active process, which kills most pathogens and seeds, passive composting leaves them dormant in the pile. This method may take one to two years to yield a mature finished product.