Kelly Benjamin didn't want to compost.

"I thought it would be nasty, stinky and attract bugs," says the Ridgeville mom. "But I also think it's important to learn about recycling, and composting is nature's way of recycling."

Benjamin and her preschoolers did a lot of research before starting their pile a few months ago.

Composting is a technique that is used to accelerate the natural decaying process, according to the S.C. Smart Gardener Program, a South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control program to help people learn to be green in their backyard.

A compost pile is a collection of organic materials such as leaves, yard trimmings and food scraps that will decompose over time to create compost, a dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling form of organic matter that improves soil quality and reduces the need for water, fertilizer and pesticides.

"I really didn't know anything about it," she says. "I had no idea where to start or what to do, but I found that it's really not that hard and it's been very educational for my kids. As reluctant as I was at first, it has been a good experience."

Her children have not only helped her learn about how to compost, but they also participate, saving food scraps to put on the pile, turning the pile regularly and monitoring its progress.

While most farmers and gardeners are familiar with the benefits of composting, many folks think it is hard to do, says Theresa Martin, marketing specialist with Charleston County Environmental Management and Recycling. She leads composting information sessions for area groups, including the Island School.

"Gardening is very popular and composting goes with it," Martin says. "I wish more people did it at home, but people think it is more complicated than it is."

Now, with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day approaching this week, many folks are thinking green. "It seems like everywhere you turn these days, that's the hot topic," says Benjamin, who also started a vegetable garden in her backyard this year.

At The Island School on Johns Island, the 4-year-old class recently learned about composting and started two piles, a classic bin and a solar cone, that will eventually be used to feed a garden the three-year-old class is planting. The students save scraps from their lunches and bring in leftovers from home to contribute to the piles.

Statistics show that yard and food wastes make up about 30 percent of the waste stream in the United States, so composting can be one of the most environmentally beneficial activities of modern society, according to composters.com. Compost piles speed up the natural process.

Composting is becoming more popular. Between 2003 and 2005 (the last time national recycling figures were compiled), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the number of composting programs had risen from 3,227 to 3,470.

Even so, it takes some research to do it right.

"It's really pretty easy," says Joel Thompson of Walterboro, who maintains two compost piles with his wife, Karen. "There is a lot of great technology out there now. I have done a lot of research. I have a moderately sized organic gardening library and I use the Internet a lot to look up information."

Thompson, who works professionally in landscape maintenance and organic gardening, says he uses scraps from fruits and vegetables, egg shells and other such materials in his pile. "All the vegetables that I buy, I use the scraps to fertilize my garden," he says. "I figure it's not free but it's already paid for."

The Thompsons use the finished compost in their garden, where they grow vegetables, herbs and native plants. Their yard has also been certified by the National Wildlife Foundation as a wildlife habitat.

The trick to composting is to get a pile to decompose as fast as you can fill it.

Finished compost is dark, fine, crumbly and odorless, like good soil. It takes at least eight weeks, but can take as long as six or eight months. Several factors, such as the composition, the materials, aeration, moisture, particle size and temperatures, affect the rate at which materials become compost.

The end product can be used to enrich the garden, to improve the soil around trees and shrubs, to amend the soil for house plants and seed-starting mixes (when screened) or to top-dress lawns.

Compost piles need "greens" (vegetable scraps or grass clippings), "browns" (hay, twigs, dried leaves), sunlight, water and oxygen. Because smaller items decompose faster, it's better to shred waste.

They can be housed in wire "coops" or in store-bought bins costing up to $1,000. Mostly, experts say, it's a personal choice.

"You can just get $10 chicken wire and get a pile going," Martin says. "It's pretty simple. That's what we encourage people to do when they are just starting out."

Some people don't like that compost piles have bacteria, fungi, insects and worms, but they help with the decomposition process, she says.

They also worry that their pile will have an odor, but stinky compost piles are indicative of a problem.

"If you do it properly, if you've got the right ratio of browns and greens, it never smells bad," Thompson says.

Thompson has a bin that allows for easy turning and a second pile where he does vermiculture, which uses worms to digest organic waste.

"Sometimes, the vermiculture smells even better than regular compost, and it produces higher quality in less space," he says.

He has been doing it for about seven years.

"I started recycling and it grew from there," he says. "Now it has just become part of my life."

Compost FYI

Things to use

Greens

--Fruit and vegetable scraps

--Coffee grounds

--Egg shells

--Fresh garden trimmings

--Flowers

--Plants and leaves

--Garden vegetable leaves and stalks, fallen fruit

--Weed leaves and stems

--House plants and potting mix

Browns

--Autumn leaves

--Twigs and stalks

--Coarse sawdust or shavings

--Shredded paper, cardboard, paper towels

Do not use

Greens

--Clippings treated with herbicide

--Insect-infested or diseased plants

--Pet or human feces

--Meat, fish, poultry, dairy products

--Weed seed heads and roots of spreading weeds

--Bones or fat

Browns

--Large amounts of evergreen leaves, needles or cones

--Branches over 1/2 inch in diameter, rose stems, holly

--Sawdust from plywood, treated or painted wood

--Coated photo or copy paper, colored paper, waxed cardboard

Brenda Rindge can be reached at 937-5713.