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Compost, often referred to as "black gold" by gardeners, is a soil enhancer that helps plants of all stripes to thrive. Better yet, compost is free and organic, and returns nutrients to the soil. It makes use of yard and food waste that would otherwise go to landfill and becomes a fertilizer that doesn't produce polluted runoff or leach beneficial organisms from the soil.

When it comes to composting, what's good for the environment is also good for your wallet. Organics "By Gosh" points to savings on expenses such as water bills and lawn maintenance. Compost aerates the soil and helps plants retain water, which means less watering with hose and sprinkler. Compost also helps suppress plant diseases, so there's less need for chemical fixes. The site estimates that all the organic and energy goodness from a cubic yard of compost would cost more than $550 to acquire through a supplier.

Indeed, many homeowners turn to composting for its aesthetic and productive value. "Compost improves the soil better than anything else," says Chris Hobby of Sanburton, N.H. "Plants and vegetables do so much better when their soil is full of the nutrients and microorganisms from compost." Hobby raises most of the vegetables she eats, which saves money at the market. And if you save seeds from one year to the next, a portion of your family's diet will be totally free.

Other composters are motivated to reduce their garbage footprint. The EPA notes that 17 percent of municipal solid waste comes from organic matter that could be turned into compost. Many towns and rural areas require residents to pay for garbage collection by buying bags to take to the dump or tags to affix to each container, by hiring a private garbage-hauling contractor, and so on. "We have to pay for garbage pickup, so we try to minimize the amount we have," says Jesse Tran of Spencertown, N.Y.

Starting and Maintaining Your Compost Pile.

The food and yard waste that goes into a compost bin or pile breaks down over time to yield a byproduct that can be used as mulch and fertilizer. Garden centers and online vendors sell compost bins, or you can build one out of wire mesh, snow fencing, or an old garbage can drilled with holes. (Note: A closed bin is an effective barricade against critters.) Alternatively, build up a free-form compost pile for nothing by creating a mound. All you need is about three square feet of yard, preferably in a shady spot so the sun doesn't dry the composting waste too quickly.

Compost is made with "green" matter -- grass clippings (only if the lawn hasn't been sprayed with insecticide), fruit and vegetable scraps, garden prunings, and the like -- and "brown" matter -- dead leaves, wood chips, twigs, and paper. The smaller the waste scraps, the faster they decompose, and the faster you get compost.

Air and water are the only other ingredients required. Air comes from turning the pile with a pitchfork, and is needed to inhibit odors and speed the process. The right amount of water is critical but hard to judge. There should be enough to prevent the pile from drying but not so much that it runs out the bottom or promotes mold. Ideally the pile should feel like a wet sponge, says South Carolina's Office of Solid Waste Reduction and Recycling.

Making good compost is a bit like making lasagna. The greens and browns need to be layered fairly evenly. Bury food scraps in the pile so rodents and raccoons won't smell them, and avoid adding meat and dairy waste. Pile the materials loosely so that air can circulate, top off with some garden soil to help things along, and sprinkle with water.

Turn the pile every month or so, making sure that the outside gets inside. You could have compost in just a few months or up to a year for a large pile or in regions with very cold winters. The University of Illinois Extension says a pile started in May should be ready by autumn if you turn and water frequently and don't add much new material.

For all the benefits of composting, there are also several downsides. Compost left in a loose pile, rather than in a bin, isn't pretty. A small suburban lot may not be suited to compost piles; they must be sited away from fences and other wooden structures that could decompose along with the organic material, and neighbors might complain. In more rural areas, critters can invade your space. Rodents usually stay away as long as the food waste is layered under the other components.

Still, beware of larger animals. "We don't do compost with food scraps because there have been bears in our yard," says Beth Slaydon of Hillsdale, N.Y. You can solve this problem by using a tightly enclosed bin, or follow Slaydon's lead and just compost with yard waste.

Either way, you'll reduce the tonnage going to landfills, enrich the environment, and protect your wallet.

Additional information or hands-on learning is available through many university extension services, botanical gardens, and nursery centers.

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