After a few weeks (or more) of maintaining your controlled rotting process, you'll start to notice that the pile is shrinking. By the time it's finished, it will be around half the size of the original pile. When it smells earthy and looks more like really dark soil than like all the scraps and stuff you've put into it, you've got yourself some compost. You can now add it to your garden or compostplants as needed.

Compost is as easy-going a phenomenon in its application as it is in its making. No hard and fast rules -- this stuff is magic. It'll help sandy soils retain water and clay soils to drain it. It'll add and distribute nutrients to your plant roots. You can even be a little slack about how you apply the stuff; lay it on top of the existing soil and all those crazy worms and natural occurrences like rain and erosion will work it down to the roots. Here are some tips for how to use compost:

  • If you're planting a new growth, then go ahead and mix the compost right into the soil so it can work immediately. The best ratio is about 1/3 or 1/4 compost to soil.

  • For trees, spread an inch-thick blanket one foot from the trunk to beyond where the branches spread.

  • For lawns, gardens, and other plants, a quarter-inch to a half-inch of compost will do.

  • You can use mostly-finished but not-quite done compost as mulch to hold back erosion, keep in moisture, and keep the soil from baking in the Summer. Put the mulch around the plants but not right up against the stems, as unfinished compost might feed on the green that is your plant. Dosages are two to six inches for trees, a half to three inches for flowers and other outdoor plants, and a half to one inch for gardens.

  • Finished compost can also be made into "compost tea" to act like chicken soup for sick plants or seedlings that need a quick fix of pick-me-up. To make the tea, mix equal parts compost with water and let it settle. The tea will be amber, and the compost dregs at the bottom can be used later as mulch. You can pour the tea directly over the root area of adult plants but water it down a little before you give it to seedlings. Please, just be sure not to drink the tea. (You laugh now, but we've heard stories)

And now when you neighbors tell you that you have a dungheap in your yard, you can merely tell them that you're being environmental. And if they keep bothering you, just sic Greenpeace on their ass.