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SOMETHING ROTTEN IN THE BACK YARD

The leaves continue to fall and fall. At this time of year it seems like there is no end in sight. They are almost as bad as snow, and in a perverse sort of way, leaves are a bit of practice for the upcoming winter shoveling.

If only the gardener could turn all of these leaves into something useful. The answer, of course, is that he can -- compost. Leaves are probably not the best material for the compost pile, but at this time of year they are certainly the most readily available.

A compost pile is very easy to start. It need not have a confining structure such as a barrel or a bin, but a bin will help it look a bit better kept. If such a bin is not available, simply build a pile.

The pile needs several ingredients -- organic matter, microbes (bacteria and fungi) to break down the organic matter and nitrogen to feed the microbes. Don't get discouraged by these unfamiliar names -- you already have them, you just don't know it yet.

Start the pile with a six- to eight-inch layer of organic matter. This can include leaves, dead garden plants, kitchen scraps, weeds, grass clippings, coffee grounds, egg shells and a number of other items. Avoid woody items unless they are small, such a twigs. Also avoid any meat, bones or other animal products.

It is also best to add each type of organic material in moderation. In other words, do not add only coffee grounds or only leaves or only grass clippings. Try to mix many different sources.

The reason for this is the carbon-nitrogen ratio. Too much carbon in the "woodier" materials like leaves, coffee grounds and garden refuse will slow the decay process. By mixing in ample amounts of weeds and grass clippings (they contain a relatively high level of nitrogen), the pile will break down in a more speedy fashion.

This is why leaves are not the best material for the compost pile. They are relatively high in carbon and will break down slower than other materials. Be sure to supplement them with a good source of nitrogen like grass clippings, fertilizer and/or manure.

These nitrogen sources feed the microbes and speed the decay process. They must be added to the pile. Manure is added in a layer about two inches thick, the fertilizer is sprinkled and grass clippings are interspersed as they are available. Gardeners who can should add all three. Compost piles will still work without one or two of these, but they won't work as well.

Last comes a two-inch layer of microbes. Gardeners need look no further than their garden for the best source of these decay-speeding critters, because garden soil is laden with them. That's it, a two-inch layer of soil will add all the microbes a gardener will need. There is no need to buy the special compost makers available at garden supply stores.

Here's a review -- a six-inch layer of organic matter with fertilizer and grass clippings mixed in, a two-inch layer of manure and a two-inch layer of soil. Repeat the layers, six-two-two, six-two-two, six-two-two until the pile reaches a convenient height.

Although gardeners will read of gimmicks and doodads to get compost in as few as two weeks, they should expect to wait at least one season. Compost started this fall will be ready next fall or the following spring. The speeding up gizmos may help, but an ample amount of compost in two weeks is just not going to happen. Be patient, it's worth the wait.

A recent issue of the Tomato Club newsletter featured some excellent question and answers on compost. A sampling of that information follows. A very nice newsletter for those into vegetables, especially tomatoes, the Tomato Club comes bimonthly at a cost of $15.95. Write The Tomato Club, P.O. Box 418, Bogata, N.J. 07603 or call (201) 488-2231.

Q -- I love compost and all the benefits it provides, but I hate turning the pile to improve aeration. Any solutions?

A -- Good aeration will ensure the quick breakdown of materials. Gardeners are best advised to turn the pile on at least monthly. If space permits, move the material from one bin to another for thorough aeration.

The lazy gardener can try the following. Take several one inch pieces of PVC pipe three to four feet long and drill a bunch of reasonably large holes in it. Place the pipes in the pile and build around them. With a little luck air will filter through the pipes and into the pile. Special compost tumbler types of contraptions are also available to attach to a large barrel that is easily turned.

For answers to your gardening questions, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Ken Brown, in care of the Features Department, Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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