THE CAREYS | On the House Compost turns waste into garden fertilizer

It's also a money-saver.
One Carey brother began his career in home improvement at age 9 -- working as a gardener-handyman for an aunt and uncle who had a large home and garden. The job required his presence on parts of three weekdays and all day Saturday.
The projects ranged from cleaning wood floors, painting wood windows and repairing fencing to pulling weeds, mowing lawns, trimming hedges, pruning roses and fertilizing plants. Scheduled to last for a summer, the job became a nine-year odyssey and the beginning of a lifelong interest in gardening and home improvement.
The landscape maintenance part of the job generated much material that was hauled off by the local garbage company. The leaves, lawn clippings, weeds, shrub- and hedge trimmings would fill a dozen garbage cans in a week. That was before America's landfills began to overflow and recycling became an environmentally friendly alternative. At the same time, our aunt and uncle were spending a lot for fertilizer to keep the garden green and filled with colorful flowers.
It wasn't until adulthood that we learned that they could have saved a lot in garbage fees and commercial fertilizer by manufacturing their own fertilizer through the process of composting. The very materials that the garbage company was hauling away -- grass clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps, weeds, etc. -- were ideal ingredients for a compost pile. If you combine these with air, moisture and manure, and properly layer and cover them, in a few weeks you'll have a batch of compost. Compost can be used to amend soil for lawns, gardens, ornamental plants, trees and potted plants.
One of the most appealing aspects of a compost pile is that it can be located virtually anywhere in your yard except up against your house or a structure that you value -- such as a fence or arbor. The same macro organisms (bugs, etc.) that aid in the composting process can become a pest control problem. Thus, it is recommended that a compost pile or bin be kept at least 2 feet from any structure.
All you need to build and maintain a compost heap is a pitchfork, shovel, water hose, ax, string trimmer, wheelbarrow, garden gloves and one or more compost bins.
Although a bin is not strictly necessary, it is useful in keeping your pile looking neat. And it helps retain moisture and heat, both of which are integral to the process. A bin will also protect the material from being disturbed or scattered by wind or foul weather. A bin can also prevent wayward animals and pests from making a meal of your compost.
The bin
A compost bin can be built from scratch or you can buy various styles of ready-made models. A 9-foot length of welded-wire fabric (3 feet high) will make a good bin when formed into a circle and wired together at the ends. Another popular design consists of chicken wire nailed to a frame made of 2 by 4s. Use redwood or cedar to improve lasting-quality, and avoid pressure-treated material to prevent toxicity in the compost -- especially if it is to be used in a vegetable garden.
An inexpensive bin can be made using four wooden pallets to create a box. These bins cost almost nothing, and most of the construction work is already done. A bonus is that you are diverting pallets that might otherwise end up in landfill sites. It doesn't get much more environmentally friendly than that.
Assembling the pallet bin is easy; screw or wire three of the pallets together to create three sides of a box. Attach bolt latches to the front edge of the bin and to the remaining pallet to make a removable door.
No matter what materials are used to construct your compost bin, it needs to be open-sided to allow for good air circulation -- a must for composting. The size of the bin should range from 3 feet to 5 feet across, and should be no more than 5 feet high.
The secret to a successful compost pile is much like making good lasagna -- it's all about layers. The classic organic gardener's recipe for compost calls for a layer of vegetable matter about 6 inches thick, a layer of manure about 2 inches thick -- no pet manure, please -- and a thin layer of soil with ground limestone added. This layering sequence is repeated until the pile is 3 feet to 5 feet high. A small depression or well should be made at the top for watering.
After about two weeks, bacteria will have converted much of the material in the pile to compost and caused it to heat up. By this time, the bacteria will probably have run out of oxygen and the pile therefore must be turned to be aerated. In another week or two the compost can be worked into your soil. Large clumps that remain can be composted in the next batch.
A compost pile thrives on kitchen waste such as coffee grounds and egg shells. Even feathers, wood ashes, ground stone and shells can be composted along with yard wastes. Avoid meat and bones, large amounts of sawdust, pet manure and metallic or plastic objects.
Composting is one of the most direct and beneficial forms of recycling in existence.
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