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Turn trash into treasure for your garden

Those bags of leaves left beside the road could become part of a compost pile that will pave the way to a great new azalea bed, cottage garden or tropical paradise.

My children grew up learning the phrase, “the key to the green thumb is how brown it gets first, in soil preparation.”

Compost, that dark crumbly organic material, is the key ingredient to having a green thumb. Incorporating organic matter helps loosen tight, heavy soils so they will drain or improve sandy soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients. You win, no matter your soil type.

I remember well a master gardener friend in Ocean Springs, Miss., who took this to heart. The last time I was at his home I was as impressed by his compost bin as I was by his glorious plants. This was the best compost setup I have ever seen in a home garden. It was a series of three bins holding different stages of decomposition.

His system was larger than most because he would drive the neighborhood, picking up leaves, clippings and other organic treasures to place in his compost bins.

Compost piles can reach temperatures of 150 degrees inside from the heat given off by the microorganisms. I love seeing large piles of composting on a crisp morning. They will be smoking as if they are cooking. Actually, they are cooking up something good for the landscape.

At home we can do the same thing on a smaller scale by layering leaves or grass clippings in a pile 3-8 inches tall. Cover with 2-3 inches of top soil, and repeat the layers. The grass clippings provide nitrogen that aids in decomposition. It’s not a bad idea to add a half cup of ammonium nitrate for every 8 bushels of leaves.

You may be worried that compost piles will stink, but under proper conditions they do not have an unpleasant odor. Keep the pile moist, not soggy, and well ventilated for good microbial growth, heating and decomposition. Lack of moisture and air will reduce microbial activity. Too much moisture may cause undesirable decomposition, which can lead to foul odor.

With proper nitrogen and turning of grass clippings, the process can take as little as 10 to 12 weeks. Leaves take a little longer, and larger pieces of plant material, such as wood chips or limbs, may take six months to a year. You will be amazed at the potential of bark to turn into organic treasure.

You don’t have to have big bins; let the size fit your yard. One of my favorite methods of building a compost bin is to use discarded wood pallets. You can easily make a square bin from four pallets by wiring the corners together.

In the South, some of us are still raking leaves and pine straw. But even if yours are already gone, spring will be coming soon and grass clippings will either become your trash or treasure. I cast my vote for treasure.