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Getting ready to rake up the leaves?

A Few Simple Steps for Composting
Washington Post
Eviana Hartman
Sunday, September 30, 2007; N06

Fallen leaves may be a nuisance to collect, but they're far too valuable to throw away. With the arrival of autumn, go green by composting, nature's way of recycling nutrients.

In composting, a pile of organic matter decomposes into fertilizer. Because leaves are rich in minerals, they make particularly good raw material for enriching garden soil, conditioning lawns and nourishing tree roots. Composting is relatively easy to do and sensible in more ways than one: Yard waste accounts for 17 percent of the material U.S. households send to landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Composting of any organic material is preferable to the alternatives of open burning, landfilling or incineration," says Leslie Hoffman, the director of Earth Pledge, a New York-based nonprofit environmental advocacy organization. "When you compost, you are not only preventing the pollution associated with these practices, but you are producing nutrient-rich material that can also amend your soil structure."

Here are a few tips on how to turn fall's foliage into spring's bounty:

Pick a spot. Simply set aside a hidden three-foot area of your yard for a pile, which will need to be covered with a plastic sheet to seal in moisture. Many composters opt to buy a compost bin. A quality bin can be found for less than $100; try a hardware or garden store, or Web sites such as GreenCulture.

Collect leaves. Running a rotary mower over the pile to shred leaves into smaller bits will speed their decomposition and make the compost light, fluffy and easy to work with. (If you want, use some of the shredded leaves immediately as mulch to prevent weed growth.)

Layer it on. Because leaves are low in nitrogen, which is essential to decomposition, they need to be mixed with nitrogen-rich material. Kitchen waste -- vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grinds -- is one good source. Start by placing the nitrogen-containing material between several-inch-thick layers of leaves.

If you have a lot of leaves and not a lot of food scraps, and the pile doesn't seem to be making any progress after a month or so, you might need a boost in the form of manure or nitrogen supplements, sold at garden-supply stores. Talk to a garden-supply employee for advice.

Add and aerate. Toss in kitchen scraps every day, if possible; there are no hard-and-fast rules. "I am pretty loose about my composting methods," Hoffman says. "Keep it aerated, add diversity of material and the rest, nature will take care of." As you add scraps, check to make sure the material stays moist; if it dries out, add water, but not enough to make it soggy. And every three weeks, turn the pile with a large gardening fork to ensure an even decomposition and to minimize odor. (The pile shouldn't smell bad; if it does, it needs to be turned.)

The amount of time required to produce usable fertilizer will vary, but Hoffman says six months is average. The finished product will be dark, finely textured and slightly sweet in odor. "I ad d material all year," Hoffman says. "When you see material that is broken down, you know that it is ready to use."

Not quite ready to make the effort? Many communities -- including the District and numerous surrounding cities and counties -- offer curbside leaf collection for composting, making it even easier to do your part for the planet. Check for updates in your mailbox or visit your municipal government Web site for details.

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