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Compost, also known as humus and affectionately known as “black gold” by gardeners, is a substance that is quite simply rotten. Perhaps the term decayed is better but the truth of the matter is that compost is just decaying natural materials.

Now the primary materials used in composting are the ingredients used to make this black gold. Other materials can vary by choice or by cost. It can be as simple as a heap in the back corner of the yard to a bin that holds all materials above ground to units that rotate and spin, mixing materials with just a crank of a handle. Deciding which style unit will be right for you will probably require a trip to your local home center.

So many things to consider…what kind? Does it fit into the budget? What is it made of? The biggest question is probably the materials it’s made of. If its wood, it will need to be redwood or pressure treated lumber. Something that is not going to rot as well, or rust like metal will. But by far the most durable units are made of plastic resins. They won’t rot or rust and with the proper care, will long be a part of your gardening equipment.

Now, the unit itself will have to provide a certain amount of ventilation and will have to be accessible enough to allow the addition of water when necessary. A variety of designs exist and you can even select a model or build one to match existing structures on the property.

Back to the primary ingredients. What will be important to remember is that only natural biodegradable ingredients should be used. Grass clippings, leaves, any other yard trimmings and even certain kitchen scraps can be added. Coffee grounds, egg shells (if they are rinsed off) and vegetable scraps are good. Even newspapers if they are printed with soy or other natural ink can be used.

One point should be made about what NOT to put in the compost pile. Do not add any kind of animal products to your compost like bacon or cooking grease, scraps or anything of the sort. Fats and meats will attract vermin and create more of a problem; also they host bacteria that are not good for your garden or you, if you consume the vegetables grown in it.

Now, to the compilation of the compost. In starting, you will need to add the ingredients in layers; it’s the simplest way to start. For example, you finished mowing the lawn, and rather than throwing the clippings in the garbage, spread them evenly across the bottom of your “heap”. You can add leaves as you rake them from your yard or if you can add wood chips (the smaller the better), spread them all out and keep adding the natural debris until you have a sizable amount. Be wary of adding certain types of weeds to the compost though, if they flowered and have seeds they may end up in this fertile soil in your garden.

In adding kitchen scraps, add them as they are collected. Don’t worry about getting enough scraps to get an even layer. That can be an odorous proposition! If you are going to add newspaper, shred them first so they will break down faster. You can do this by hand or use a simple leaf shredder as well. Layering gives the pile texture, allows a certain amount of airflow and as contents decay, it will leave portions of nutrients, which later will be mixed throughout.

After several weeks of layering and adding water every couple of days, depending upon where your “heap” is located (full sun, partial sun, shade) the bottom layers will have begun the process of breaking down. Now it's time to “toss the salad”.

Turning the compost pile is a required action. This will aerate the heap and mix in the organisms that aid in the breakdown process. Just mix it all in from top to bottom. Now is the time you can add certain items, if you so desire, like lime, or perhaps cow manure or other fertile organic matter. You can even add sand if your garden has a clay-like consistency or vice versa. Since you need to mix it in anyway, why not add it now, its called amending the soil or giving it the correct items it needs for change.

Now after a time most debris will be broken down and you will be able to “amend” your garden soil with your own homemade compost. Some people use two smaller compost pile rather than one big one so they can alternate… load up one pile while using the other so they will always have a fresh supply of “black gold”.