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How to make compost

I like the idea of transforming garbage into free mulch and fertilizer. It's a win-win situation when I can save money and keep my eggshells, coffee grinds and weeds out of landfills. Compost is the single best additive available for improving any soil. Soil too sandy? Add compost. Too much clay? Add compost. Lacking nutrients? Compost. No wonder gardeners call it black gold.

Decide on a container

If you have the means and if aesthetics
Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

If you have the means and if aesthetics are important, you can buy a compost bin or tumbler for $50 to $300. On the other end of the spectrum, you can start piling up your compost ingredients in a designated section of the yard. It might be unsightly, but if that doesn't bother you or if you have an out-of-the-way spot, it's an option. Or you can make your own compost holder by forming a 10- foot length of chicken wire into a circle, attaching the ends with wire and inserting 4 wooden or metal posts around the inside of the perimeter, staking them into the ground.

Add 50 percent (or more) of browns

Brown materials are rich in carbon, and many
Photo Credit: Newsday/Ken Spencer

Brown materials are rich in carbon, and many are in fact brown. They include dried, spent perennials, autumn leaves, leather, twigs, paper and hay. Browns help keep the heap from becoming an olfactory nightmare.

Add 50 percent (or less) of greens

Green materials are rich in nitrogen, and likewise,
Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Green materials are rich in nitrogen, and likewise, are mostly green, or at least fresher than browns. Greens include grass clippings, fruit and veggie scraps and freshly picked weeds. Cornstarch packing peanuts and coffee grinds, though not green, also are rich in nitrogen. So even though they defy the color-coding principles set forth here, they are greens. Greens help speed the decomposition of your rotting garbage.

Keep it moist

Sprinkle the pile lightly with a hose whenever
Photo Credit: Jason Andrew

Sprinkle the pile lightly with a hose whenever you add a new layer or notice the pile drying out. It should be moist, not soggy.

Get cookin'

As ingredients break down, bacteria heats the center
Photo Credit: Newsday/Ken Spencer

As ingredients break down, bacteria heats the center of the pile, so it's important to turn the heap regularly to ensure even decomposition. This can be done with a pitchfork or garden spade on an open pile or holder. Compost tumblers have a crank or weighted design that requires less exertion, but depending on the size and design of the unit, it still might require some muscle.

In the spring, about a month before planting, incorporate compost into new garden beds. Sprinkle some on your lawn and gently rake in, and add a few handfuls to planting holes. You can even top dress your beds with compost for a super-nutritious mulch.

You should never include fats (meat or fish table scraps, dairy products, oils, etc.), diseased plants or weeds that have gone to seed in your pile. And never add materials that don't decompose, such as plastic or glass. Bird and rabbit droppings, and horse manure are OK, but kitty litter and dog poop are not. As a rule of thumb, excrement from carnivores is off limits.

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