Compost 101

As we get into fall, and we have leaves to rake, lawns to mow (still), and gardens to trim up for winter, it’s the perfect time to be thinking about compost.  If you’re new to compost, you’re probably thinking, “Disgusting!  Who wants a stinking pile of garbage in their yard?”

Well, don’t worry.  Compost doesn’t stink, (unless you have your face all up in it!) and if it does stink noticeably, you can fix it.

When making compost, the thing to remember is to mix “browns” with “greens”.  Leaves are “browns” and grass clippings are “greens” …so in the fall, we automatically have the right stuff to get a nice pile going.

I know there’s some recommended mixing ratio, like 2 to 1 or some such, but in general, if you mix the pile with a little more browns than greens, you’ll be fine.

Alright, now that you know you’ll have everything you need to get a pile going this fall, let’s go back to the beginning.


You don’t need a compost bin.  They’re handy, but not necessary.  You can easily make a (literal) pile in some corner of your yard and it will work just fine too.
…Or you can dig a hole in the ground and fill it up with your scraps, layering browns with greens as you go.
 …Or you can buy a cheap plastic garbage can with a lid and drill some holes in the sides.
…Or you can use some old fencing to make a “pen” for your pile to collect in.

I do have a compost bin that I got from our recycling center at a big discount from its retail price.  It’s a pretty simple black plastic box that heats up in the sun and helps everything to rot faster.


You can buy fancier ones that are round and can be rolled around your yard or rotated on their base (to mix your contents), but if you’re on a budget, they’re not necessary.


You can put SO MUCH STUFF into compost, it’s not even funny!  We have the smallest trash bin our city offers, and we rarely have more than one kitchen trash bag in it.  Sometimes we don’t have a full bag, so we don’t even put the bin on the curb.  (This is also because we have a really big recycling program in our city and we can recycle tons of stuff.)

You already can guess the basics that go into compost: grass clippings, yard trimmings (but not weeds with seeds on them), leaves, and veggie trimmings, eggshells, or produce that’s gone bad.  Avoid any meats or items with meat juices on them, or you’ll attract critters.  We have a special container that holds our kitchen trimmings until we have enough to run out to the bin.  It also keeps the trimmings from smelling up the kitchen.


Things you might not know you can throw in there:  coffee AND coffee filters, empty toilet paper rolls, used paper towels, paper from your shredder, and droppings from anything that doesn’t eat meat (ie chickens, bunnies, cows and horses if ya have em! – but NOT dogs or cats!).


Toss it in, mix it up with a pitchfork/shovel/garden spade/whatever, let it sit.  Keep in mind – the smaller the pieces you put in, the faster you’ll have compost.  This also goes for leaves – make a  pile and run your mower over the pile a few times to chop them up.

If you really want to hurry it up you can use compost accelerator (buy it at the store) or you can have your male family members um…pee on the pile.  Truly, I’ve heard this works really really well, if you can convince them to do it.   🙂

Now what?

Just leave it alone and have fun checking on it once a week or so to see how it’s doing.  To speed things up, mix the contents once a week or so (helps the internal temperature of the pile stay hot).  If it’s not doing much and looks dry, douse it with the hose.  If it stinks, it’s too wet, and you should let it dry out a little.  After maybe a month or two in warm weather you’ll start to notice a distinct shrinking of your pile and  you’ll wonder how it was chock-full of leaves + grass + etc just a few weeks ago and is now only half full.


Then you’ll notice it’s getting darker in color and easier to stir because the particles are breaking up.  Then you’ll decide it’s ready to use 🙂  If you’re really impatient like me, you might want to build a screen to sift out the nice, fine compost from the “unfinished” chunks.  I used a wood frame that came with our new dishwasher and stapled some hardware cloth to it.  (Hardware cloth is a roll of fence-like material found in the fencing aisle at the hardware store.  It’s easily cut with wire cutters.)

Super duper simple.  One of these days I might build up the edges of the frame so I can sift a larger quantity without it spilling over the sides, but for now it works.


I set the frame on top of my little garden wagon, shovel compost into it, sift, and toss the chunks back in the bin.

Then I have great “black gold” compost to use!



Compost is like a slow-release fertilizer for plants – they love it, and they’ll grow big and healthy if you mulch the base of your plants with it.  Be careful not to get the compost directly up against the plant’s stem though or the stem could rot.
I also use compost as a mulch even where there are no plants, since my whole yard is nasty clay soil, and I like how it’s nice and dark and covers up our sandy colored (ugly) soil.  The “compost tea” that results when you water will attract worms to your soil and help loosen it up.  Also, the “mulch compost” will get mixed into your soil as you plant/weed/etc, amending it as you go.  Another use is to mix compost in with the loose dirt when you plant a new plant.  This gives the plant a lot of good food that will keep it happy while it gets established.

Some people get pretty serious about their compost, and they might have several piles going at once in various stages.  As each one gets full, they fill the next one, and they end up with fresh compost available in a nice rotation throughout the year.  For extra “ingredients”, you could also use your neighbors’ leaves and grass clippings.  I’m sure you have neighbors who would much rather dump their clippings into your compost bin than deal with bagging them.  Nick dumps a small layer of grass onto our compost pile every time he mows, and then he dumps the rest in my garden, where I use the clippings as mulch.  Works great!

And now you should try it!  Find a spot in your yard, start piling up the goodies, and before long you’ll have “black gold”!

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