Just yesterday I participated in a discussion with a group of my friends who wanted to learn more about composting. I love talking about composting (yes, I really do) because it is a process that still seems magical to me. I feel like a bit of a mad scientist every time I add an apple core to the pile and expect to witness the alchemy that will turn that apple core into seemingly another substance entirely – and a useful one at that! Bwahaha! (I wish lightning would flash when I laugh like that.)

Composting is a wonderful thing. It turns your trash into a beautiful plant food that improves your soil rather than damaging it. Which is something our soil here in the front range of Colorado, sorely needs. Our soil is hard rocky clay. Trying to dig a hole in our yard is a back-breaking ordeal. I love to compost and I love the results of it: less trash and a better garden.

Despite its beneficence, I haven’t been consistent with my composting. There were years when I hardly touched the compost heap at all due to being pregnant and then having a baby around the house. I didn’t have the energy or time. All those carrot peels and orange rinds went to the landfill. (This is terrible for the environment. Plant matter is one of the largest landfill offenders, and it doesn’t decompose in a landfill like it does in a compost heap. It just rots instead, releasing massive amount of methane into the atmosphere, which is many times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide). But, last year, I got back into it again.

So, now that I’m back into the swing of composting, this means I have to make the commitment to turning and watering it every now and then. That really is the hardest part for me. But, thankfully, compost is very forgiving of my forgetfulness.

If you are interested in starting your own compost heap here is a quick lesson on how to do it yourself:

Things you can put in a compost heap:

  • yard waste (leaves, grass clippings that have not been treated with chemicals, small sticks, etc.)
  • garden waste (except diseased plants or plant parts)
  • fruit and vegetable scraps (peels, cores, cut off ends, stems, spoiled produce, etc.)
  • newsprint, cereal boxes, cardboard, used paper napkins or paper towels (as long as they aren’t soaked in grease)
  • well crushed eggshells
  • dryer lint
  • straw
  • cow, chicken, or horse manure
  • saw dust/wood shavings/wood mulch/wood ashes

Things to NOT put in a compost heap:

  • human or pet feces (no cat litter, or doggie droppings)
  • magazines
  • paper with glossy ink
  • diseased plants or plant parts
  • grass or leaves that have been treated with pesticides or herbicides
  • meat or grease or dairy

 

Now for how to make a compost pile: there are many ways to do it and many contraptions for sale to help you. If you want to save money, making your own container is the way to go. You can just dig a big hole and throw your compost materials into it. Or you can build a box-like container. There are many ways to do this. If you want options, just type “how to make compost bin” in your search engine and you’ll find more ways to do it than you could ever look at. Here is what I did: I bought some wooden boards (I originally bought plywood, but when I make my next one, I will probably use cedar because it doesn’t rot as easily and won’t decompose leaving adhesive behind in my compost!) and had the hardware store where I bought it cut it into pieces that were 8″x 4′. I think they were too long, though. If I had to do it again, I’d do 8″x 3′.

My Compost Bin

My Compost Bin

And, I also bought some 2″x 4″ wood cut into 8 inch lengths. Then I used the pieces of 2×4 as the corners for boxes made from the plywood. As you can see in the photo the 2×4 corners stick up a couple of inches above the top of each open-ended box. This way I can stack them on top of each other and they will hold together. As my pile gets deeper, I add another box so I can keep adding.

I usually just turn the pile with a small pitch fork, leaving the pile where it is, just mixing it in the box. But, when the pile gets really large, sometimes I remove a box and put it to the side of the pile, then start moving the compost from the main area into the new box that I’ve put to the side. When that gets full, I take off the next box and put it on the new pile. I keep doing this until the whole pile is turned.

Eventually, I stop adding new things to the pile because if I keep putting new things in it, it will never completely turn into compost. So, when I get to that point, I leave the main pile where it is and, as it turns to compost, it loses a lot of its volume. Then I can take off the top box, put it to the side and start a new pile there while the first one continues finishing.

The final thing to know about composting is how to care for the pile. The compost materials need 3 things to make good compost in a timely way:

  • First you need both browns and greens (or carbon sources and nitrogen sources, to think of it in a more scientific way). This means you need dead things like dry fall leaves, newsprint, cardboard, paper, etc. These are your “browns.” But you also need things like produce scraps, green grass clippings, garden trimmings, etc. These are your “greens.” In my experience about a 20:1 ratio browns to greens works well. If your pile is getting smelly or attracting lots of flies, you probably have too much “greens” and need to add more “browns.” If your pile is very dry and not decaying you may need more “greens.”
  • The second thing your pile needs is oxygen. This is why you turn the compost. It gets air into the center and bottom and helps it decompose faster.
  • And lastly, your compost pile needs water. Yes, that is right: you have to water your trash. It needs to be damp like a rung out sponge to compost best. It shouldn’t be soggy. One thing I do is I put a piece of black tarp over my pile to help keep in the moisture (and also the heat) so I don’t need to water it as often. A compost pile, if it gets big enough, can produce a lot of heat, which helps the process along.

 

However, you can completely ignore your compost pile, never turn it, never water it, and it will eventually turn into compost. It may take years rather than months, but one way or another, you will get compost!

It is healthier for the environment, healthier for your soil and plants, and healthier for you. And, its very satisfying – now that is beneficent!

Happy composting! It is time to go water the trash.