Preparing Garden Soil

How to Make a Compost Pile

Yard scraps are a perfect addition to your compost pile.

Making your own compost pile is a good way to create inexpensive, nutrient-rich organic material for your garden. To begin a compost heap, dump yard scraps in a far corner of the yard. An ideal blend would be equal amounts of soft or green material (manure and fresh leaves) and brown or hard material (dead leaves and chopped twigs); see the list above. Or, if you prefer, keep the compost materials neatly contained in a wooden slat or wire-mesh bin. If you put an access door on the bottom of the bin, you can scoop out the finished compost at the bottom while the rest is still decaying.

Add compost starter or good garden soil to a new compost pile to help jump-start the decay of organic materials. Compost starter, available in garden centers or from mail-order garden catalogs, contains decay-causing microorganisms. Some brands also contain nutrients, enzymes, hormones, and other stimulants that help decomposers work as fast as possible. Special formulations can be particularly helpful for hard-to-compost material such as wood chips and sawdust or for quick decay of brown leaves.

Good garden or woodland soil, though not as high-tech or as expensive as compost starter, contains native decomposers well able to tackle a compost pile. Sprinkle it among the yard scraps as you are building the pile. You can speed up the compost-making process by chopping up leaves and twigs before putting them on the compost pile. The smaller the pieces are, the faster they will decay. Chopping can be done easily with a chipper-shredder or a mulching mower.

Use perforated PVC pipes to aerate compost piles. An ideal compost pile will reach three to four feet high, big enough to get warm from the heat of decay. High temperatures -- when a pile is warm enough to steam on a cool morning -- semisterilize the developing compost, killing disease spores, hibernating pests, and weed seeds. But for decomposers to work efficiently enough to create heat, they need plenty of air -- and not just at the surface of the pile. Aeration is traditionally provided by fluffing or turning the pile with a pitchfork, which can be hard work. But with a little advance planning and a perforated pipe, this can be avoided. Start a compost pile on a bed of branched sticks that will allow air to rise from below. Add a perforated pipe in the center, building layers of old leaves, grass clippings, and other garden leftovers around it. The air will flow through the pipe into the pile.

Making your own compost takes several months, so many gardeners find it easier to purchase bagged compost. Either way, compost is a good additive for soils low in organic materials. Added to clay soil, compost lightens the soil and improves aeration; added to sandy soil, compost improves water-holding capacity.

Adding compost is just one way to improve your garden soil. On the next page, learn about using mulch to beef up your soil.

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