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Compost piles should be turned every few weeks. (Cyndi Murray photo)

Composting is one of the simplest, most effective ways to help the environment from home. An all-natural process, compost is known as “black gold” for its ability to add nutrients to the soil and reduce the amount of solid waste in landfills.

The best part is anyone can do it, Cornell Cooperative Extension Vegetable and Potato Specialist Sandra Menasha said during a presentation at the Peconic Land Trust’s Agricultural Center in Southold on Saturday.

And living on the North Fork provides even a novice with plenty of materials — such as straw, seaweed and horse manure — to get started composting in your own backyard with minimal effort.

Here’s your guide to composting in four easy steps:

This compost piles is only a few weeks old. (Cyndi Murray photo)
This compost piles is only a few weeks old. (Cyndi Murray photo)

 1. Find the right materials  

“Almost anything can be added to compost,” Ms. Menasha said.

Soil, leaves, food scraps, sawdust, hair, manure, and eggs shells are great materials to start with, she said. Each of those materials will add microorganisms to the compost pile — allowing the natural process of decay to change organic waste into valuable agricultural to begin.

In the world of compost you should be as aware of your browns as your greens. Browns include materials such as leaves, straw and paper. They should be layered in equal parts with your greens, which include manure, grass clipping, coffee grinds and vegetable scraps.

There are a few things you want to avoid.  Oil, fats, grease, meats, limestone, dairy products, cat and dog waste and disease plants are all a no go when it comes to compost.

2. Pick a place and lay the groundwork

Now that you have your materials, you need to find a place to put them. Choosing a shaded area will help prevent your compost pile from drying out in summer. You should also look for spots with good drainage and where the finished product will be used.

Avoid areas near wells or that will interfere with your lawn and garden activities.

If you don’t want to pile your compost on the ground there are a variety of bins and containers available for purchase.

Lay twigs or straw first, a few inches deep to aid drainage and help aerate the pile. Then layer on compost alternating moist and dry. It’s important to keep compost moist. Water occasionally, or let rain do the job.

3. Monitor the temperature

Once you pick a place to layer your browns and greens, you must control the environment. Temperature plays an essential role in composting. Active composting occurs within the range of 55 degrees and 155 degrees. Ms. Menasha recommends buying a thermometer to monitor your pile. Most are available for less than $10. If it gets too hot, turn the materials in the pile.

There are two types of composting: hot and cold. Hot composting is quicker, but can require more effort. Piles must be large enough to maintain heat — 3’x3’x3’ is the minimum. Although a pile’s temperature may increase above 140 degrees it is much too hot for most bacteria and decomposition will slow until temperature decreases. The process will yield the final product within a few months.

However, good compost can be made in a pile that doesn’t get hot. Decay will be slower when cold composting. It may take several months to a year to end up with the final product, but the process requires very little effort and is ideal if you don’t have a lot of yard waste or food scraps.

This compost pile at the Peconic Land Trust's Ag Center in Southold took about a year to make. (Cyndi Murray photo)
This compost pile at the Peconic Land Trust’s Agricultural Center in Southold took about a year to make. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)

4. Is it done yet?

Making compost doesn’t happen overnight. The process can take several months. Keep adding materials and give the pile a turn with a pitchfork or shovel every few weeks.

You’ll know its finished when the compost is a dark brown color, is crumbly and humus-like, has an earthy smell and none of the original material is recognizable.

You can test if the compost is done by sealing it in a plastic bag for several days. If it doesn’t produce an odor, it’s ready.

For more information on composting check out the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Peconic Land Trust.