Construct a compost pile that does wonders

The Associated Press
Friday November 10, 2000



Burning all those leaves you raked up used to be a rite of fall. But it’s against the law in many places now, and it’s also wasteful. 

Dry leaves are a key ingredient in compost – decomposed yard and kitchen waste that does wonders in the garden. Dawn Pettinelli, manager of the soil nutrient analysis lab at the University of Connecticut, says leaves combined with grass clippings, a little soil and water are the heart of a natural decomposition process that forms compost in as little as three months.  

Used as an additive, compost makes soil easier to work and provides nutrients to plants. Compost will even improve the disease resistance of plants. You can simply throw garden and kitchen waste in a pile and leave it alone.  

Eventually it will decompose. But building a hot compost pile speeds  

the process. 

“It can be as difficult or as easy as you want it to be,” says Pettinelli about making a hot compost pile. “It’s almost as much art as it is science.” 

Building a containment area for the pile is not necessary, although it will make the pile look neater and keep animals out. More important is the right proportion of materials high in carbon and those rich in nitrogen.  

Materials such as sawdust, hay and dry leaves have a lot of carbon, which supplies food for the compost.  

Grass, manure (but not dog or cat droppings) and kitchen waste all have a high nitrogen content, which gives the compost energy. Don’t use meat scraps, though. They attract animals. 

The standard recipe for a hot compost pile, according to Pettinelli, goes like this: Start with a 6- to 8-inch layer of brown stuff – leaves, wood shavings or salt marsh hay. 

Then add 2 inches of a material high in nitrogen, then a shovelful or two of good garden soil or commercial compost booster and a handful of both green sand and rock phosphate, available at garden-supply centers. 

If you’re short of grass clippings or other greens for the nitrogen, use 1 cup of fertilizer or blood meal for every 6 or 8 inches of brown material. Repeat the layers until you have a cube roughly 4 feet on a side.  

If the material is very dry, add water; make it moist but not saturated. When the pile is assembled, mix it thoroughly. If the ingredients are correct, the pile should get to 140 degrees Farneheit in about 24 hours. 

The pile should be turned at least once a month while the material decomposes, a process that takes three to 12 months. The pile does not need to be covered, although that is a good idea if the weather is unusually cold, rainy or dry.  

Commercial barrel composters, which claim to drastically shorten the time needed for decomposition, do work, Pettinelli says.  

But there’s a catch: You have to turn the barrel three to five times every day. 



l Replace standard thermostats with programmable models. They are easy to install, and pay for themselves quickly. 

l Make sure the ground slopes away from foundation walls. Proper grading will prevent puddles from forming around the foundation, keeping the basement or crawl space dry. 

l If you haven’t done so, schedule an inspection and tuneup for your furnace or boiler with a service technician.