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Build your own compost pile

Mulching is one way to use nature's leafy gift. Another is to use the leaves as organic matter in compost piles. It's free, nutrient-rich, made on the premises and good for the environment.

To start your own compost pile now with fall debris, follow these simple steps:

-- Build your pile in loose layers. First a thick layer of old hay, straw or leaves (browns), then grass clippings and kitchen waste (greens), then manure, then repeat. If you don't have a source for manure, add alfalfa hay or pellets or a handful of nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

-- Don't spend money on compost additives. All the microbes necessary to break down organic materials are already present on the surface of the plants.

-- Keep the pile moist but not sopping wet. The microbes breaking down the organic materials are living organisms and need moisture.

-- They also need oxygen. Fluff up the pile frequently with a pitchfork or physically move it from one spot to another.

-- If nothing seems to be happening, dig into the center. Dry, white fungal threads means the pile is thirsty. If it smells like manure or rotten eggs, it's too wet and you need to add more dry materials.

-- It'll be ready to use by late spring. Sprinkle it around established plants and work it into the soil. For container plants, swish a handful of compost in a bucket of water, strain and water as usual.