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Turning Yard Waste Into Garden Gold Apex NC

Composting crusaders have just about given up on persuading the rest of us that when we get to heaven, there'll be a compost pile just inside the Pearly Gates. These days they're preaching a less evangelistic message.

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Turning Yard Waste Into Garden Gold

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Composting crusaders have just about given up on persuading the rest of us that when we get to heaven, there'll be a compost pile just inside the Pearly Gates. These days they're preaching a less evangelistic message. "I just want people to know two things," says Rachel Solomon, who runs the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Urban Composting program. "It's easy, and it doesn't stink." And the rewards can be gratifying. For a minimum of work and a little patience, you'll get beautiful, brown organic mulch that will make your flowers grow with gratitude. Do it right, and your neighbors won't see unsightly piles - just the attractive results. In parts of the country where trash haulers charge by the bag to collect leaves, grass clippings and the trimmings from shrubbery, piling it all up and waiting for nature to do its thing can even be a money saver. If you're thinking about giving composting a try, here's a primer.

Choose the Container That Suits You Municipal waste management authorities love composting because nearly one-third of the junk that fills up our landfills is lawn waste. To persuade us to go the natural route, many have tried giving away (or selling for a song) no-frills, plastic composting bins. It doesn't often work. "People get the bins, and they don't know how to use them. After a while, they just turn them into ordinary trash cans,"

says Jean Bonhotal, compost specialist at the Cornell Waste Management Institute. There are dozens of compost containers on the market. Consider your situation, then study the options before you buy one. Here are some things to think about. €. How much raw material do you have? A suburban homeowner on an acre lot with lots of lawn, a couple of oak trees and some shrubbery obviously needs a bigger container than a city dweller with a patch of grass, a few leaves and some tomatoes in pots. €.Rural homeowners brag about how they've lashed together scrap lumber to make a fine composting container. In some neighborhoods, that would be enough for the lawn beautification committee to write you up. €. How much space do you have for storage? Sometimes it is easier to find space for three small compost containers than for one big one. €. What's the rodent factor? Compost piles can make an attractive nesting place for critters. Giving field mice a warm place to live at the back of your suburban lot is tolerable. Inviting rats to move in next to the house is quite another. Metal units do a better job of discouraging this potential problem. Home Depot, Lowe's and other garden centers often sell a few of these products, but for a wider variety, check out Composters.com (www.composters.com). "We satisfy every individual interest,€

boasts Karl Warkomski, site director. Warkomski, a microbiologist, says the PVC Estate Bin is the best-looking one he sells. "Martha Stewart would buy that one.€

But there are many models out there to suit a homeowner's needs beyond aesthetics. The Brave New Composter, for example, expands so you can make it bigger in the fall to accommodate leaves and smaller in the winter when you may be composting very little. The Green Cone Solar Digester seals completely and is primarily for composting food scraps. Tumbleweed Tumblers make turning the stuff easier, neater and can shorten the process.

How It All Happens The workers in the composting business are one-celled organisms - bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes already living in the raw material feed on its organic content. In doing so, they can heat up to as high as 200° F. The faster they eat, the hotter they get. The hotter they are, the faster decomposition happens. When actinomycetes get good and hot, the result is a rich, sweet smell. That's when you know things are happening. The factors affecting how fast the critters eat are: €. Oxygenation: Oxygen is required for respiration by the aerobic creatures responsible for decomposition. Providing air and turning the mixture so all parts get a share will not only hasten progress, but also reduce any unpleasant odors. €. Temperature: If it's very cold, bacteria aren't active and decomposition slows. Putting the bin where it gets sun helps. Choosing a dark-colored bin in cool climates works too. €. Water: The moisture content of an efficient decomposition system is about 50 percent. Any drier than that and things slow down, wetter and the mess will stink. Don't water with chlorinated water; it will kill the organisms - use rainwater. €. Exposure: The smaller the pieces, the faster microorganisms work. Run a mulching mower over leaves. Run sticks bigger than your little finger through a chipper. Ashton Ritchie, a lawn expert for Scotts Lawn Products, just north of Columbus, Ohio, composts all his lawn waste and everything but meat and dairy from the kitchen. He built his own compost container from wooden pallets and hardware cloth, a wire screen with 1-inch squares. When he first started, Ritchie says he read everything he could find about the science behind composting. In retrospect, he thinks he might have over-reacted. According to him, this is really all you need to know: "If the grass clippings are green, that's the nitrogen. The brown leaves are the carbon. You have to have the right ratio of nitrogen and carbon. If the pile smells like ammonia, then you aren't putting in enough brown. If it's not getting hot or decomposing, then you're not putting in enough green. "It works best if you layer the brown and green, and if you turn it once in a while. Plus you have to keep it wet - about as wet as a wrung-out sponge. That's it. Do that, and pretty soon you'll have compost you can use.€

How long does it take? Like other things in nature, there are no guarantees, but Kim Cochran, environmental engineer with R.W. Beck consulting and engineering firm in Orlando, Fla., works with waste management companies to answer that question. And he composts his own kitchen and lawn leftovers. He estimates that a well-balanced, enclosed compost pile - one that has 50 percent brown matter and 50 percent green - will turn into humus in six to eight months. An enclosed turning unit will take much less time - as little as a month. An open holding unit made of wire mesh will take as long as 18 months - but eventually nature wins out. As the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Solomon says, "Ultimately, you just can't fail.€

Jennie L. Phipps is a freelance writer based in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

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