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COLUMN: Take the time to compost, as it will pay off in the future

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By Jeneen Wiche

Today, most gardeners do understand the process of composting organic matter and the value of adding this material to their gardens. However, there are still many who don’t do it because they think it is hard to get started.
Well, fall garden clean-up, leaf raking and a little kitchen debris may be all you need to get a healthy compost pile started this season. Mother Nature will provide the material if you provide the management.
What is compost anyway? Good compost is comprised of leaves, grass clippings, twigs, manure, and kitchen waste like eggshells, banana peels, potato skin, apple cores and fruit rind (never use meat or dairy products). As the organic matter breaks down, it turns into nutrient rich food for your garden.
Remember the four components of a healthy compost pile: equal amounts of green matter and brown matter, oxygen and water. Your green ingredients include things like live plant and grass clippings (nitrogen source); your brown ingredients include woody plants, dead twigs and fallen leaves (carbon source).  
Debris should be small so it will break down quickly and consider adding the green and brown in about 4-inch layers so you can monitor your balance of green and brown in the beginning.  Once you have composted for a while you will no longer have to follow the “recipe,” just like an experienced cook. If you need to supply more green than you have available, you can substitute with some fresh farm manure.
In order to have a healthy compost pile, you must create an environment that encourages mycorrhizal fungal and bacterial activity. The activity will occur once you add water to the green and brown ingredients and turn the mixture about once every week or two. Oxygen and water encourage the correct type of bacterial growth. This activity, along with earthworms and other insects, breaks down the organic material into compost.
Turn your compost with a shovel or pitch fork every week or so during rainy periods to get oxygen to the microbes. Without oxygen anaerobic bacterial growth is encouraged and you may end up with a rotting pile of debris instead of valuable compost. Also, if you use compost that is rancid smelling you could burn your plant material when it is applied in the garden.     
There are pre-manufactured compost bins, but it is also really easy to construct your own compost bin. I have one that is made out of old railroad ties that are stacked like “Lincoln Logs” about four high. This method allows air circulation between the railroad ties. You can add a level of railroad ties as your amount of compost increases. I just have a pile in the corner.
Another easy method involves driving four stakes into the ground to anchor a wrapping of chicken wire. Clasp one end with hooks so you can open it for easier accessibility when you need to turn the compost.
If you are worried about making frequent enough trips between the kitchen and the compost pile just collect your kitchen waste in a small container or plastic bag and store it in the refrigerator.
Your efforts in turning and watering your stew of kitchen waste, yard waste and manure (if you have it) will be well worth it because you’ll have the best fertilizer money can buy right in your own back yard.