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Make nature work for you

How many of you will spend time over the next few months raking leaves, gathering them into piles, stuffing them into bags and dragging them to the curb? How many of you then will hop in the car and drive to the nearest garden center to load up on heavy bags of soil amendments with added fertilizer and “moisture loc” beads, make the trip back home, unload the bags and distribute the load around your favorite plants?

There's a simpler and less expensive way to go about this. Instead of putting those leaves on the curb, put them in a compost pile and make nature work for you.

Composting is decomposition managed by people. It can be as simple as raking leaves into a corner of your property and leaving them alone for two years. At the end of that time, scrape away the top layer of leaves to reveal a crumbly, brown, earthy material all your plants will love.

If you don't have a spot suitable for such a leaf pile or you want finished compost faster than two years, you can play a more active part in decomposition management. Mecklenburg County offers informative four-hour workshops called PLANT – Piedmont Landscape and Naturescape Training – that teach how to set up a simple wire composting bin.

Using the “hot batch” method taught in the PLANT classes, you can have compost ready to use in six months or less. In April, when you're ready to plant your spring flowers and garden, you won't have to schlepp to the store for soil amendments – they'll be ready in your backyard.

Other than saving a trip to the store, why bother? Compost, known to gardeners as “black gold,” has a number of uses. It improves circulation in our thick, clay soil by adding tiny spaces that make it easier for roots to grow. Compost also holds on to water, keeping it close to plants until they're ready to use it. Add it to the planting hole before you settle a new shrub or tree and that plant will be more drought-tolerant and need less artificial fertilizer.

The same goes for flowers and vegetables. Established plantings benefit from compost placed at their base. A little on the soil of houseplants will keep them healthy in their pots. And since you're not going to the garden store, you can make your own plant food by putting a couple scoopfuls of compost in a mesh bag and soaking it in a pitcher of water. The resulting liquid, known as compost tea, puts Miracle Gro to shame.

Another plus of making your own compost is that you know what goes into it. Some commercial manufacturers add byproducts like sewage sludge. I'd rather not have that feeding my veggies. That said, Mecklenburg County's excellent facility, Compost Central, is certified by the US Compost Council. Their compost bears the Council's Seal of Testing Assurance. Compost Central, an expansive site near the airport, is where those leaves you put on the curb end up. They compost on a large scale – 50,000 tons of material a year – using bulldozers. If you're not able to manage your own bin, Compost Central is a fine resource for safe compost.

At my house, food scraps and vegetable trimmings also get tossed in the compost bin. In go banana peels, coffee grounds, sandwich crusts, paper napkins, carrot tops. But we leave out meat, bones, and fats like cheeses – they attract pests. We cover the scraps with extra leaves and, in time, that trash is converted to free plant food. According to USDA figures, 14 percent of the food we buy ends up in the trash. Why send it to the landfill when it can feed your roses?

If you're interested in learning more, register for one of the upcoming PLANT classes or visit www.charmeck.org and search “home composting.”

Composting is a great way to make the most of our leafy abundance. Just don't forget to let your kids jump in the piles of leaves first.

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