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Gold Discovered in West Fargo

A maple tree in a West Fargo yard.

Fall presents us with a golden opportunity to improve our gardens. All those lovely leaves falling to the ground must be picked up, but we don't need to send them to the crowded landfill. Use them to make 'gardeners gold', otherwise known as compost.

You could choose to till the leaves into a garden and by next spring they will have partially broken down. Or you may spread three to four inches over flower beds as a winter mulch after the ground freezes. Use loose or bagged leaves to protect roses from the winter. Next spring all these leaves may be used to start your compost pile, however fall is a great time to get the compost started.

According to Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, composting is the art and science of combining organic materials under controlled conditions so that the raw materials are turned into humus. It goes on to say that inside a compost pile billions of decay organisms feed, grow, reproduce and die, recycling household and garden wastes into an excellent soil conditioner.

These organisms need a balanced diet, water, air and warmth. They are naturally occurring and 'just come'. The balanced diet consists of layers of brown matter (Carbon) and green stuff (Nitrogen). Enough moisture is required so that the mixture is like a wrung out wet sponge. Too much water drives out air, drowns the pile and washes out nutrients. Air is needed to insure aerobic decomposition. Without air anaerobic breakdown occurs resulting in a strong manure-like odor.

Pick a well-drained flat spot that is convenient to you and possibly near a water source. Sun or shade is fine, but it takes longer to breakdown materials in shade. The most simple system is just a free standing pile and next easiest is a circle of wire fencing. Bins may be constructed of wood, wood pallets, plastic, concrete blocks or bricks. Compost tumblers are available, at a price, for those who want quick results.

To set up begin with a 3-4-inch layer of leaves directly on the ground. The microorganisms in the soil will provide a head start. Then layer grass clippings or other greens like garden and kitchen wastes. Continue layering until the pile is at least three feet high. Occasionally add a scoop of garden soil if it is available. It is best if all the ingredients are shredded, but eventually all will decompose.

There are two methods of composting, the hot method and the cold system. With hot composting the temperature in the pile should get up to 113 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit and you can have finished compost in six to eight weeks. This is very labor intensive as it entails turning the pile at least once a week to aerate it. Backbreaking work! The pile also must be built all at once to a minimum of three feet. Hot composting kills weed seeds.

The cold system is much easier, but takes a long time to produce compost. Being senior citizens we opt for this method. We layer mainly leaves and grass clippings, all of our coffee grounds and only occasionally add kitchen scraps. We have two piles contained in approximately five foot circles of wire fencing. They are held in place with metal rods with a front opening for access. My husband turns the piles about twice a year. Since no activity happens during winter it takes at least a year for the materials to break down to a usable product. Therefore we start one pile the first year and a second pile the following year.

When a heavy layer of fresh grass clippings are added it must be mixed with leaves. Otherwise it forms a tight mass and anaerobic rotting takes place. The bad odor will not please your neighbors. I save bags of leaves from the fall before to mix in with the grass when we mow. Do not use grass clippings after the lawn has been treated with weed killers until the lawn has been mowed at least two times.

Things that should not be added to the compost pile include meat scraps, bones, fats, oils, salad dressings, used kitty litter, and other animal droppings. Diseased plants and weeds with seed heads should not go on the pile. Don't add wood ashes or lime as they are too alkaline for our soil. Egg shells provide Calcium, but it is not needed in our soil and the shells take a long time to break down.

Use your compost to incorporate into or top dress your garden. It may be applied as a mulch or a side dressing. Top dress around trees or spread over lawns. I pile it around my roses in the fall as it is purported to have an anti-fungal property.