Turn Your Garbage into Gold

Compost is a garden's best friend
by Cathe Gordon

Composting is #2 on my list of the top five life changing things I have done after becoming a full-time homemaker. I started composting mainly because we were throwing away more trash than the garbage collectors would pick up and the situation got pretty gross last summer. Thankfully, we now have a great community recycling program which takes care of about a trash can worth of recycled waste every week. We also have "green" recycling but after watching a Home and Garden Television (HGTV) program on composting I decided to see if I could make a home composting effort worthwhile. What I found was amazing. My children (6 and 7) love being involved, I love the results, and I feel so superior now that I can make "dirt"!

What is Composting?

Composting is simply taking common garden and kitchen waste, piling it up, and letting it rot until it turns into the best stuff for your garden ... also known as black gold!

Composters don't have to be fancy; you can make your own or get a ready-made one like this:
Why Should You Compost?
  1. It's good for the environment.
  2. It's easier than you think.
  3. It saves you money.
  4. It's educational.
  5. It's fun and good exercise.
  6. It'll make you feel connected to the earth. Trust me on this one, it was not a feeling I expected either.

How Do You Get Started?

Talk to your family first! Find out what would make it work for your family. The $30-50 method below is what works best for our family. My husband loves gadgets and my kids are more inclined to help if they get to use adult tools like shovels or pitchforks. For me, the black box was chosen because it provides for faster decomposition, confines the pile neatly, and isn't an eyesore.

Composting Containers Compared
Find 2-3 4'x4' dirt or grass spots in your yard or garden away from critters, smelling distance, and out of view. Just build your pile right there.
Buy or find some chicken wire, wood, bricks, or hay bales, and build a 3'x3' container. Make sure it has a lid to keep rain and snow out and heat in. Make sure you can either move the container to rotate the contents or can toss it thru the side or from the top.
Buy one of those prefab composting boxes like the one at right, often found in catalogs and home improvement centers.
There are entire company catalogs devoted to composting, using all sorts of spinning gadgets, natural compost elements to speed up composting, special thermometers, microbes, all of which are unnecessary if you have just a small amount of patience. If you're an apartment dweller, or just want to compost indoors, you may be better off spending a bit to get a composting bin or barrel which meets your specific needs. For example, here's what's available at Amazon.

Collect your kitchen scraps in a sealable container, like a cardboard milk or gallon ice cream container. Take the container out every 2 days or when it fills up, whichever is sooner. Make a hole in your compost pile and throw it in, covering it up (I like to use dried brown leaves) to keep pests away from the fresh garbage. All other items can be kept in a container or thrown into the compost pile right away, whatever is easier.

How does it turn into "gold?"

Billions of tiny microbes will live in your compost pile, they will digest the garbage, and with a little assistance will turn your garbage into black gold, in as little as 3 weeks to as long as 3 months or more, depending on your composting ingredients and method.

The basic compost ingredients are:

  1. Greens (items such as fresh plant clippings, kitchen
    veggie and fruit scraps, non-pet manures, and tea bags and coffee
  2. Browns (items such as sawdust, wood chips, dried leaves, straw, and dry (dead) plants)
  3. Air (toss your pile as much as possible, at least weekly)
  4. Water (keep the pile damp, like a wrung out sponge)
  5. Temperature (aim for 150+ degrees F or watch for steaming)
  6. Time (3 weeks - 3 months)
  7. Microbes
  8. Worms and insects will show up (as it cools) to help the microbes if you're lucky!

How long before you have compost depends on many factors. Even if you're the laziest person on the planet, you will eventually get compost by doing nothing but letting browns and greens sit and rot. But, if you help the little microbes along with air circulation and water, you will get your results much faster. If you keep your ratios of browns and greens accurate, water exactly, toss twice a week or more, you can have compost in less than a month. Most of us won't do that. I don't.

A good mix is 1 part browns to one part greens. The browns help provide air circulation and the greens provide a higher water content. What I do is add the ingredients as a I get them and eyeball what I need to add next. I usually add well chopped up layers of about 3" each if I have enough to make layers. If the pile isn't steaming, I'll toss it around a bit and add ingredients. If it's drying out, I'll add water. I usually get a nice compost every 9-10 weeks which isn't too bad. I have two composting bins because I usually fill one container a month. I also have an open pile of grass clippings because I usually have more greens than browns. The first compost wait is the hardest, it seems to take forever. But if you do one pile a month, rotating between 2 or 3 spots, you'll have a continual source of compost and you'll have soon forgotten about that first 2-3 month

What can you compost?

You can add nearly everything to your compost pile. The chart below should help with what can and cannot be composted. I also prefer to exclude anything that has weed seeds. Since I'm not exact about getting the pile to a weed killing temperature, it's just easier to put the weed material in the "green" recycling or regular garbage. Let them deal with the weeds.

DO Compost (unless chemically treated)



Coffee grounds and filters

Tea bags

Lawn clippings

Garden debris



Shellfish shells, broken up*

Cow, horse, sheep, or poultry manures
Straw or Hay

Leaves and twigs





Newspaper shredded (black & white only)

DON'T Compost
Meats or bones

Fats or oils

Salad dressings

Dairy products

Plastics, metals, or glass

Ceramics, cardboard, or rubber

Pet or human wastes

Diseased plants

Charcoal or wood ashes

Large branches or logs

Anything chemically treated

*Some people do not compost these items, but I've had no trouble with them yet.

Composting FAQ

Ants in your pile.

Turn your pile, ants don't like to be disturbed.

Some pieces left in the compost are too big.

Break up your compost additions better before leaving them to rot.

It's taking over 3 months to decompose.

Turn your pile more often, twice a week if you can. Break up your compost additions better. Try making your pile smaller, a maximum of 3'x3'.

It stinks!

It shouldn't if you tend your pile properly. Turn your pile more often. Also, your pile may be too wet, try adding some dry brown material.

Pile isn't heating up.

Turn your pile more often. Add "green" items such as lawn trimmings

Now that I've got it, what do I do with it?

Add it to your garden wherever you need a soil conditioner or fertilizer. You can also use it as a mulch or as a "fertilizer" tea for young seedlings. Container gardening is improved by adding an inch of compost to the top of your containers every 6 months or so. If you've done everything right (it's hard to do it wrong), you won't need any fertilizers or additives for your lawn and garden ever again.

Related items:

  • Organic Gardening Magazine--A great reference for all kinds of organic gardening methods, and frequently runs articles on composting techniques. [MAG]
  • Let It Rot!--A classic book on backyard composting technique. [BOOK]
  • Easy Composters You Can Build--If a pile on the ground isn't your style, and a $300 mega-stupendous prefab bin isn't your budget, try this book. [BOOK]
  • Worms Eat My Garbage--Worm composting is a terrific family project. It's educational, thrifty, good for the environment, and just plain weird fun! [BOOK]
  • The Compost Resource Page--You want composting information, these guys got it. Everything from home composting to composting toilets. [REMOTE]

© 1999-2005 Cathe Gordon. Used by permission.

Add new comment