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         After my January 13 article What Does Being Organic Mean, quite a few people e-mailed, asking how to build their first compost pile. Should it be open to the elements, covered or totally contained?  What should or should not go into it?
        Seeing that learning the art of composting is the number one building block to having healthy soil (one that is alive with natural organisms), creating healthy soil is the first step in gardening organically, here are some easy instructions and facts to help you make the switch from chemicals to natural gardening.
        Here’s a list of what you’ll need;
1.    Pick out a site that’s at least 3 feet long by 3 feet wide
2.    Nitrogen-rich “green” materials like vegetable peeling, fruit rinds, grass clippings, left over garden produce (if you don’t have enough of your own, pick up discarded green from your local supermarket), animal manure, (rabbit, pig, cow, sheep, horse or goat are all excellent sources of nitrogen, chicken manure can be used but only when it is going to be composted for at least a year). Dog, cat and human manure should never be added to compost that is going on a vegetable garden, there are way to many diseases that can be spread this way.
3.    Carbon-rich material such as straw, shredded newspapers and leaves.
4.    A few shovels full of garden soil
Whether you use a sealed compost container, a covered box or a pile that is open to the elements, the basic instructions are the same;
1.    Begin by spreading several inches of thick coarse dry carbon-rich material, like, leaves, straw or cornstalks where you want to build your pile.
2.    Top with several inches of green stuff from your nitrogen rich section.
3.     Add a shovel load of soil
4.    Spring with water
5.     Start over again with the carbon-rich material and continue until you have exhausted your supply of compostable material. Remember to add moister after each shovel load of dirt.
6.     When your pile is 3 to 4 feet high, it is time to start another pile.
7.     Every couple of weeks, take a garden fork or shovel and turn the pile, moving what’s in the center to the outside and working the outside stuff into the center. Always keep the compost pile moist, but never soggy.
As organic material decomposes, your compost pile should be heating up. When you turn it for the first time, steam should be seen escaping. A healthy compost pile, one that is kept turned and moist will have an abundance of earthworms throughout and the matter in the center should give off a sweet smell as it turns into rich, black flaky soil.
        If your compost pile doesn’t contain enough nitrogen-rich material and isn’t turned often enough, it will not generate enough heat to kill  weed seeds and plant diseases. The more heat, the faster material composts, but piles that are allowed to compost slower do wind up with more nutrients.
       You don’t have to wait for every bit of matter to compost before you begin using your new soil. Some composters are designed so that the soil falls down and can be shoveled out at an opening located at the bottom. Or, using a pitch-fork, you can remove the stuff that has not finished composting, sift out and use the ready compost.
        When you are finished removing what you need, use the matter left to begin your new pile. If your pile is 3 by 3 by 3 feet it will have enough area to decompose without having to place it into a composter. But there is one draw back, many of us feel that when a compost pile is open to the elements, many of it’s nutrients are washed away in heavy rains.
        If you do not wish to build a composter, placing a sheet of plastic over the pile and watering it yourself will help prevent the loss of nutrients. Another alternative is a pre-made heavy duty plastic compost container, many towns have offered these at wholesale prices to encourage people to compost their waste.
        While the open variety is great for garden waste etc. I prefer the tightly closed variety for kitchen scraps. Here in the country, placing kitchen scraps in an open container only encourages an abundance of wildlife to hang around the compost pile. When purchasing a pre-made variety make sure you get one with extremely tiny holes if you don’t want your compost to be a feeding station for rats and mice.
        Another interesting and extremely easy way to make compost is the bag method.  In the fall, when there is an abundance of leaves, gather up as many bags of leaves as possible. Most people will gladly give you their bagged leaves, don’t be afraid to ask them.
        Line up your filled bags, poke holes near the top and bottom to let water and oxygen in, and to drain out excessive moisture and carbon dioxide.
        To each bag add a shovel or two of soil, and some grass clippings or other green matter. Moisten and tie each bag closed.
        Mix everything by shaking or rolling the bags. Set in full sun if possible and every few weeks check to see if you need to add a little water, you don’t want the leaves to dry out, retie and mix thoroughly.
        In only 2 to 3 months, you should be able to pour out a pile of leaf mold, that is perfect when used as a fertilizer or mulch.  Place a half-inch of this mixture around your plants, it will give them a high nutrient feeding while suppressing weeds, preventing disease and keeping them moist in dry conditions.