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Take advantage of the falling leaves to turn your yard wastes into rich compost. Most every type of soil will benefit from the addition of organic material.

Materials like leaves, grass clippings and vegetable wastes that were once alive and growing, decompose readily by microbial action. Compost is the resulting rich ‘black gold’ that gardener’s often call their best friend in the garden.

Compost provides so many benefits that every gardener should consider taking advantage of this easy-to-make soil conditioner. Compost increases the nutrient content of soils and promotes higher yields of crops. It makes soil easier to work, increases soil porosity and moisture retention. Compost suppresses plant diseases and pests reducing the need for fungicides and pesticides. Compost encourages healthy root systems, helps regenerate poor soils and reduces water demands of plants and trees. When mixed in heavy clay soil compost helps to break up clay particles increasing drainage. In sandy soils, compost increases moisture retention and fertility.

Compost piles can be freestanding or built in enclosures made from wire, wood or masonry. The enclosure or the pile, should occupy at least one cubic yard (3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet). This volume maintains enough heat in the center for rapid decomposition.

Decomposition is a fascinating natural process that occurs when high carbon (brown) materials are mixed with fresh (green) materials containing high nitrogen. The ratio should be three parts dry materials to one part fresh material with the addition of air and water. The additional of garden soil to the pile increases the numbers of microorganisms. Layering is a common method of building a compost pile.

Decomposers like bacteria and fungi get their food, nutrients, air and water from the plant matter. Heat is produced as organisms break down organic material. Other microbes that prefer even warmer temperatures take over and thrive increasing the temperature of the compost pile. The center of a well-functioning pile will heat quickly to between 90 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. As the different decomposers die, the nutrients they ingested are made available to the plants.

Keep the materials turned or mixed to dramatically increase the rate of decomposition. Turning enables all parts of the pile to benefit from the rapid decomposition taking place in the hot center. A pile with the right balance of materials and moisture, if turned every day, will compost completely in just a few weeks. A pile left without turning could take months to decompose. Turning the pile even once or twice greatly increases the decomposition rate. Compost is finished when the temperature drops and the volume decreases to about a third of its original size.

Compost transforms poor soil into productive ground and insulates the soil from extreme heat and extreme cold. Compost also reduces waste and slows the filling up of our landfills.

Read more about backyard composting.