So what’s the big hairy deal about COMPOST, anyway??

I confess that I wake up in the night this time of year, thinking about compost.  I do.  I’m not lying.  Call my a freak, call me a garden-crazy loon, but there it is.  I can’t sleep when I’m thinking about compost.

Compost anecdotes: 1. When my daughter Amalia and I pruned our little orchard a few weeks ago, I felt especially pleased because I knew the trimmings were going to go in the bottom layer of my new compost pile.  I don’t know. Maybe I even pruned a little more than usual because that way I’d have plenty of cuttings for my compost pile.

2. Whenever I see paper bags of leaves or grass alongside the curb for trash pick-up, I have to fight within myself the longing to stop and shove them all into the back of the Suburban, to take home and dump into my compost pile.  What a wealth of nutrients those folks are tossing into the (already-over-burdened!) landfill. It seems such a waste.  (By the way, I have stopped and asked if I could take away the bags of leaves, but it is usually a time issue, and since I am nearly always running 5 minutes late, I don’t always have the luxury to stop–plus, usually my vehicle is loaded with kids!)

3. My dad makes absolutely beautiful compost.  He gets everything right and is patient and wise about it.  He guards over his two very large and perfectly-cured compost piles in his back yard with a gun at nights (not really, but I wouldn’t be surprised . . . ) I want to be my dad.

A couple of months ago I (unwittingly) burned down my compost pile (sadly) and my beautiful garden table (wretchedly) that my adorable dad had made me for my birthday (generously) a few years ago. (Okay, enough with the adverbs already!) My lip is still sticking out in a pout over this.  It’s kind of a long story how it happened, so suffice it to say that I’m still feeling quite sorry (and pretty stupid, too) about it.  And no, I’m not going to tell you the story.  Well, maybe I will. Someday.  But not until I’ve really gotten over the sadness of losing that beautiful table and a year’s worth of beautiful compost! Sob. So I’m in the process of building a brand-new compost pile and that keeps the subject of compost upper-most in my busy head.  I don’t know what I’ll do about replacing that garden table.  My birthday is coming up, Dad . . . (Dadpleasereadmyblogtodaypleasereadmyblogtoday)

Ahem.  Whiff, whiiffff.  (That was the sound of my brushing off my dignity.  There.  I’m okay now,  so I’ll proceed.)

I like the look of these old pieces of tools on the weathered end of my compost bin.

I like the look of these old pieces of tools on the weathered end of my compost bin.*

So by now you are probably wondering (if your compost awareness is not as, say, keen as mine) what the big deal about compost is, anyway.  So WHAT–you may be muttering–if you burned down your dumb pile.  What’s the difference if you have a compost pile or not?

Here’s where I heave a gentle sigh in your direction, dear and apparently-naive-to-important-garden-matters reader, and shake my head very sadly.  I am here to help you and make you more aware of the wonders and the miracle of compost, Gentle Reader.  I am.  If I could just educate one of you–okay, half a dozen–okay, maybe, like, twenty of you–to the point where you’ll make a compost pile in your backyard and enjoy the fruits of your labors, I’ll consider this hour that I’m spending writing this article time well-spent.  If I can keep a few (hundred) of those lovely paper bags full of grass clippings and leaves out of the landfills, I’ll consider that I’ve done a good thing, after all, in risking the jeers and the laughs at admitting that the thought of compost gets me quite thrilled.

So here we go.  A very quick Q&A on the exciting subject of compost.  Take One.

Question:  What’s the big hairy deal about compost?  Why is it so special? There are so many benefits of composting!  Truly, it boggles the imagination!  If you keep a compost pile at your place, you not only will be reducing waste in the local landfill, you will be improving the structure of your garden soil (this, providing your have a garden to use the compost in, and if you don’t have a garden, we really need to have a li’l ole’ chat) and creating an awesome, all-natural soil amendment for your plants.  It’s a very smart thing to do.  If you don’t have a vegetable garden, this miracle amendment can benefit houseplants, bushes and flowers growing alongside your house, and so on.

Question:  Okay. So what is compost, exactly? Composting is the natural process of decomposition and recycling of organic materials into a rich soil amendment known as “compost” (uh, obviously).  It is a natural and beautiful way that nature has of recycling nutrients and organic matter back into the soil for the new plants to use.  Isn’t that awesome?  God has all this figured out for us, and it works beautifully when we let it.  The dead materials feed the living, growing plants.  It’s a beneficial cycle, never-ending.  Composting occurs naturally over time in forests, where dead trees die and topple to the ground, eventually decomposing and feeding the new growth.  Soil fertility is maintained, and plants are nourished.  Nobody ever has to buy a bag of fertilizer to nourish the forest.  Neither will you ever have to buy a bag of fertilizer for your garden, if you keep a compost pile.

I am modest about the glorious compost bin that I made for myself, so I'll only show the tiny bit of it but you'll see that I've got the first layer of brush in the bottom.  On top of this I'll make many layers, including dry materials such as leaves and straw, and dirt, and wet layers of grass clippings and garden weeds and whatnot.

I am modest about the glorious compost bin* that I made for myself, so I’ll only show the tiny bit of it so you won’t be jealous, but you’ll see that I’ve got the first layer of brush in the bottom. On top of this I’ll make many layers, including dry materials such as leaves and straw, and dirt, and wet layers of grass clippings and garden weeds and whatnot.  When it’s full, I’ll do a happy dance and then I’ll let it sit for about a year, spraying it with water now and then.  If I want it to be ready faster and have the time, I’ll scoop it all out and turn it, and it will cure faster.  But probably I won’t do that.

Question:  But aren’t compost piles nasty, ugly, and stinky?  And full of aggressive rats? Um, Reader, I don’t know where you get this stuff.  A quick Google search will give you hundreds of ideas for how to build lovely compost bins if you’re handy with a drill and a saw, or you can even buy them already-made.  A nice one will look just lovely at the back of your garden, and your neighbors will be converted in a very short time, when they see the superiority of your garden over theirs, due to your lovely compost. (Does that not pique your interest, now?)  If you layer the pile correctly, it won’t stink, and in all my years of composting, I’ve never seen a single rat or any other vermin, either.  Compost piles are smart and everybody ought to have one.

Question:  Okay.  Maybe I’ll try it. How do I start?  Well.  I thought you’d never ask.  I’ve attached an article written by Sharon Sweeny, a popular garden writer on Ezines, about the “Lazy-Man’s (or Woman’s) Type of Composting” i.e., the way I do it. this easy method is also referred to as “Lasagna Composting.”  You don’t have to have a bin or an enclosure, though it’s pretty easy to make a really simple bin out of t-posts and pallets like mine, or even easier to take a piece of garden fencing and make a circle as big as you like, anchor it to a couple of t-posts, and voila!  You’re set! You can also use cement blocks, if you have a plethora of them. Enjoy the article and eventually–enjoy your compost!

*Disclaimer:  Okay, I’ll come clean and those of you who read this far will get rewarded with the Unvarnished Truth.  After my original compost pile burned down, I was in such a state and I knew that my dear patient hubster didn’t have time to make me a new one (or maybe I didn’t want to tell him that I burned down my old one–that might have been it) so I drug a bunch of assorted pallets and t-posts and baling wire (yes, baling wire is nearly as handy out here on the prairie as duct tape) and I just made my own compost bin.  It is really big, really spacious, and really, really, ugly.  Ever since I built it, I’ve been shaking my head at myself, and (true story) I have even planted some vines in my flats inside to plant near it so hopefully the vines will cover its ugliness with beauty.  There.  That’s my true compost pile story.  Little Mack came out after I put it together and he shook his head, too, at me.  “Mom, you should have asked Timothy and me.  We would have made you a better one,” he said.  Then he asked me if I’d make him a rhubarb pie if he got Timothy to help him put a few screws in it so it would be sturdier.  Baling wire aside, it was wobbly and pitiful.

“Heck, yes,” I said and so they did and I did and that’s that.  Now you’d better read the article below so you know what’s what.

p.s. The author of the article below does not start her compost pile with trimmings from her orchard, like I do.  That’s okay.  It’s a free country. I prefer to start my pile that way, to ensure plenty of air circulation at the bottom of the pile.  Do whatever you like.  (But I think my way is smarter.)

Make Compost “Lasagna Style”

 Pile it Up and Let it Rot


Expert Author Sharon Sweeny

You’re a lazy gardener and you want to make compost, but you don’t want to do a lot of work.

You can make compost that way, but you’ll have to build the pile correctly. The ingredients need to be layered in a certain order, like making a lasagna, so the pile decomposes without any help from you. In a year it will be ready to use in your garden.

Here’s how to make lasagna compost:

Prepare the site. Ideally you want your compost pile to be convenient to your garden but not out in the open for everyone to see. Find a place for it that also gets sun for a few hours a day. The sunlight helps to heat up the pile, which is essential for the compost-making process.

A good size for a compost pile is 3 feet by 3 feet. You don’t have to enclose it, but if you choose to, provide a way to remove one of the sides. This will make it easy to remove the finished compost. The enclosure should be make of mesh or fencing to allow air to get into the pile. Wood slats can be used if space is left between them for air circulation.

Collect the materials. You’ll need green organic waste like grass clippings, pulled weeds and other garden waste, along with kitchen scraps including fruit and vegetable peelings and trimmings, tea bags, eggshells, coffee grounds and coffee filers. Do not include fats or oils, meat or poultry.

In addition to green organic waste you’ll need dried brown organic waste. These include autumn leaves, garden plants that are dried up at the end of the growing season, small twigs, wood chips, and/or shredded bark. You can also use shredded white office paper or newspapers.

Finally you’ll need some garden soil and a small amount of finished compost.

Layer the materials. Begin by placing an even, 3 inch layer of green organic waste at the bottom of the compost bin or pile area.

Next shovel a thin, even layer of garden soil over the layer of green organic waste. Sprinkle the soil with finished compost. You don’t need to sprinkle on a lot of compost, just enough to “seed” your pile. Sprinkle it on as though you were adding a healthy amount of parmesan cheese on top of lasagna and didn’t have to worry about counting calories.

Add a layer of brown organic waste on top of the soil and compost. Spread it evenly into about a one inch layer.

Wet down the brown organic waste with your hose sprayer. Don’t soak it, but make sure the mixture is moist.

Shovel a thin layer of garden soil on top of the moistened brown organic waste. Sprinkle with compost as before.

Continue layering until you run out of materials. Alternate green materials with brown materials and put a layer of soil sprinkled with compost on top of every layer. End with garden soil at the top of the pile.

Wait. The compost will take a year or longer to fully break down, depending on the size of the materials you added.

In the meantime, spray the top of the pile periodically if rainfall is scarce. Cover the pile with a plastic tarp if rainfall is plentiful as it can leach all of the nutrients out of the compost and into the ground. That would be a waste.

A few weeks after building your compost pile, test out whether or not it is decomposing. Drive your large garden fork into the middle of the top of the pile. After a couple of hours, touch the metal on the garden fork. If it is hot or even lukewarm, it means that your compost pile is successfully “cooking” the ingredients into black gold.

It should be ready in about a year.

Copyright Sharon Sweeny, 2009. All rights reserved.

Sharon Sweeny is a creative copywriter, specializing in gardening and self-sufficient do-it-yourself lifestyles. She divides her free time among her garden in Minneapolis, alternately juggling half a dozen creative projects and blogging on gardening at while pondering the exact location of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota.

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28 thoughts on “So what’s the big hairy deal about COMPOST, anyway??

  1. Roy A. Ackerman, PhD, EA

    Actually, there are all sorts of elaborate methods of developing compost piles (including the preclusion of their ability to “burn down”…)
    Wonderful advise here- and no chicken would vomit at the aroma of a well-maintained compost pile- or facility.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Thanks Roy. I agree that there are lots of elaborate methods, but me and “elaborate” don’t mesh. I like things simple! Thanks for your comment!

  2. Sara

    Wow. You even exceed MY love for compost – didn’t think possible. Of course, living on a farm trumps my tiny backyard for compost space, but I still look for better methods every year. Thanks for your post!!!!!


    1. dramamamafive Post author

      I agree that on an acreage like ours you’re far more likely to “get away” with a big ugly old compost bin, than if you lived in town. But it’s fairly simple and cheap to come up with an attractive town option, too!

  3. Chef William

    And now you know why your dad always told you to never play with matches. Of the few compost filling I’ve seen, it usually contains worms, which is another good thing for the garden…. I think anyway. I like good old long worms tilling my soil for me.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      It’s very true that worms are really great for the soil, Chef, and the addition of good compost really increases the amount of worms. 😉

  4. Francene Stanley

    Oh, the joys of compost making. I remember it well. But now I can’t bend, so its no use making one. I need a gardener. To employ one, I need money to spare. But thanks for refreshing my memory. The giant trees on the opposite side of the road have sprouted leaves today in the mild weather and–sunshine. I smell spring’s promise.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Isn’t it wonderful? Spring it just itching to explode here, too, Francene (finally!) and I think we’re going to have a few warmish days coming up and I can’t wait!

  5. Jeff Schipper

    We are getting ready for the fifth year of the Good Soil Community Garden. We are going to implement the non-tilling approach this year. I haven’t had the energy or the interest or the know how to start a compost pile. After reading your article, you have increased my interest and my know how :)><

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      It’s really easy, Jeff, it just takes a bit of time and a pile of raw ingredients. I hope you give it a try! It’s fun, really, it is!! Blessings!

  6. Lena

    Loved your post, really funny 🙂 I liked the idea of the compost, but I got discouraged when I read it takes a year to be ready, is there a quicker way?

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Lena, actually, YES, there’s a quicker way–go ahead a layer your pile, and then have an empty bin next to it (or just an empty space). Take a pitchfork once every month or two (or whenever you have the time) and flip the pile into the open space. Then flip it back. Wet it down occasionally. This will speed up the decomposition process. Also (just a hint) some organic fertilizer (or human urine–honestly) will speed it up nicely. Have fun! 😉

  7. Jocelyn

    Amazing post, Amy! You’re so gifted in wit as well as being incredibly informative. I love this line: “Nobody ever has to buy a bag of fertilizer to nourish the forest.” Made me giggle over the truth in it!

    Thanks for bringing to light all the benefits of composting. I’ll pass this along.

  8. skybluepinkish

    I love compost. I have two piles maturing nicely made up using old palletts. It helps that we keep chickens and geese.
    I made my first no-dig/lasagne garden this year. Waiting for the frosts to go before I risk my precious seedlings in it though. Two really good no dig gardening books are Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Course and Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      I had this FEELING that you were a fellow devotee of compost! Thanks so much for the book recommendations. I’ll check them out!!

  9. Suerae Stein

    Hmmm…. I am not a successful gardener and our ground here is granite and clay – very tough to grow things (or that is just my excuse for being a pitiful gardener). Perhaps compost would help things and even give me hope as a gardener. It still doesn’t sound easy to me, but you have made it less daunting! 🙂

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      With your ground, it sounds as if having a compost pile would be a necessity if you were to be able to make a successful garden! Blessings and I hope you give it a try!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Anita-Clare, my worms have made some lovely compost in the bin in my basement–I’m just waiting for the weather to warm up a bit so I can use some of it! Thanks for your comment, sweetie!

  10. Shelli Johnson, Author

    Hi Amy!

    I don’t compost, but seeing how much you LOVE it, maybe it’s something to look into. 🙂 Thank you very much for the instructions (the lasagna part made me laugh). This made me laugh too: “Whenever I see paper bags of leaves or grass alongside the curb for trash pick-up, I have to fight within myself the longing to stop and shove them all into the back of the Suburban, to take home and dump into my compost pile.”

    And I love adverbs so keep them coming! 🙂

    Have a great day. Cheers, darlin.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Thanks, sweetie. I’m glad I made you laugh, and I hope I did inspire you to start a li’l ole’ bitty compost pile of your own!

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