Manure works wonders on gardens. Since you can't always get it, there's an alternative -- compost or artificial manure, made from tree leaves, straw, weeds, cornstalks and other plant waste.

Testing has proved this artificial manure to be as effective in improving quality of soil as the best grade of the real thing: They both increase the soil's aeration and water-holding capacity and provide nutrients for plants.

Fall is the perfect time to start a compost pile: Now that most communities don't allow open burning, there are tons of leaves around. Compost burning, there are tons of leaves around. Compost started now will be ready in early spring, even though decomposition slows over winter, and applied to the garden before spring planting.

On level, well-drained ground, the compost won't become soggy, according to Dr. Raymond E. Poincelot, a University of Connecticut professor of bio-chemistry, who has done research on composting. It will be warmer on a southern exposure, he says. It will be warmer on a southern exposure, he says. Chicken-wire, cinder blocks or slat fencing can be put around the pile to conceal it and protect it from drying winds.

The mixture will compost more rapidly if shredded: Make several passes with a rotary mower over small amounts of it.

The compost pile should be about seven feet wide at the base, five feet high and seven feet or longer in length. Taper the sides so that the top is two feet narrower in length and width than the base.

To start the compost pile, put a two-foot layer of loose leaves and garden waste on top of the ground: A pit or trench will have poor water drainage and impede aeration. If mostly leaves are used, sprinkle 5 to 10 pounds of 10-6-4 fertilizer over them. Wet thoroughly with a fine spray: Many fresh dry plant resideus are hard to wet.

On top of the layer of leaves put a two-inch layer of soil. It isn't a must, but it speeds decay and prevents leaching of nitrogen.

Add a second layer of leaves, two feet deep, and tramp thoroughly. Add 5 to 10 pounds of 10-6-4 as before. Wet and add two more inches of soil.

Then add the last layer of leaves. Sprinkle with fertilizer, drench with water and top with two inches of soil. Some gardeners add lime, not a good practice because it increases nitrogen loss.

The moisture content of the pile is important. Below 40 percent (wet weight), organic material will not decompose rapidly. Above 60 percent, the pile has a putrid odor: Turn the pile to supply oxygen and restore normal decay.