Monday, December 13, 2010

Making Dirt is Easy ...

Our current challenge is about composting, specifically the "how-to" of composting, so I thought I'd share my experiences and thoughts on the process with you. As some of you know, I live in an apartment and have a small patio where I grow herbs and vegetables each summer. After several years of spending money on potting soil, seeds and plant food ... and not really getting a bumper crop ... I decided it was time to try my hand at composting. I was hesitant because I thought that composting was messy and smelled ... two things which wouldn't be convenient during the summer when the patio door is left open. But ... I write a blog about green living so ... how could I NOT give it a try.

As with everything I try out, I started with a bit of research. That, in itself, was daunting because the information I found suggested that creating the perfect balance of dry matter to wet matter, and providing the perfect environment for microbial activity, took careful planning and precise action. Some articles said that I'd need to sprinkle certain compounds on the pile ... some said that I'd need to carefully measure the temperature so as not to cook the microbial "critters". The more that I read, the more disheartened I became ... it seemed that composting was a lot of work!

In reality, composting is easy! I started with a 10-gallon plastic planter ... you know the ones ... they are the containers which trees and bushes are planted in at nurseries. I tossed in a few inches of soil. The veggie bits and scraps came next covered by a couple of inches of dry matter (dried leaves, shredded newspaper, etc.). Another couple of inches of soil on top finished the bin. I covered the bin with a plastic bag (Eco-friendly, of course) and let it sit. When I had a container full of veggie scraps to take out, I stirred the bin, layered the scraps, dry matter and another couple of inches of soil ... and, again, let it sit. When one bin was full, we started another.

In the spring, a rather amazing thing happened ... all of the veggie scraps had disappeared and in their place ... rich, dark soil. I didn't need to buy soil ... didn't need to buy fertilizer ... and that year, we had the best tomatoes ever.

I've been composting ever since. Here are a few tips and thoughts:

  • Covering the compost bin is important if it is near your patio or an area which is frequently used. Composting materials do smell and bugs, an important element to decomposition, can be annoying.

  • Shredded toilet paper rolls make excellent dry material. They are made from trees (carbohydrates) and microbial critters, bugs, etc. love them.

  • During rainy days, worms find their way to our patio and walkway. Typically, they crawl to a dry space and die. So ... we save their lives. We wrangle them up and place them in the compost bin. They get a dry environment with three "squares" a day ... and we get compost. By the way, when I recently opened my original bin, nice fat worms were munching on a sweet potato.

  • It isn't necessary to sort out any "left-over" veggie matter when using the newly composted soil ... think of it as added nutrition for your plants. They will continue to benefit as the items decompose.

  • While composting in the winter is a slower process (those critters prefer to be warm and cozy), it does continue. So compost all year long.

  • When planting, add some dry matter to the planter. I add a layer of leaves to the bottom half of the planting area, top with soil and then add seeds or plants. The dry matter keeps young plants warm and, once they are established, provides nutrients.

  • Many things are compostable. We prefer plant matter and never compost cooked items. In my opinion, composting animal products and/or cooked foods invites bad smells and undesirable animals.

  • Composted soil can be used for planting container gardens, mixing into larger, outdoor gardens, sprinkling around existing plants and trees, planting indoor plants and sprinkling over lawns.

Composting is truly turning trash into treasure. It doesn't take precise actions or day-to-day monitoring ... it basically works on it's own. The results are Eco-friendly, frugal and ensure that you'll grow healthy, happy plants. Who knew we could make our own dirt? I hope you'll give it a try!

As always, I would love to hear from you!


  1. I love this post! I compost on my small patio and have a vermicompost unit set up inside my house (If you're curious, I blogged about it here --> )

    I'm curious, did you add any holes into your 10 gallon bucket to help with air flow? I'm thinking of starting a few more compost bins without holes, but I don't know if that will be a disaster or not.

  2. Hi Jenni,

    The 10 gallon buckets that I use have holes around the bottom. We didn't add any ventilation around the sides. I know that compost needs air to work so you might try filling a bucket loosely and giving it a good toss once in awhile. Hopefully that will work. It might be a good idea to also watch the moisture content of the bucket and not let it get too wet since the water can't escape.

    If you try it, let us know how it works ... and thanks for your question!

    Has anyone else tried this out or have thoughts on it?


  3. i got a composter for $35 from metro here in portland when i bought my house and love it! simple and with 'trap door' at the bottom for me to scoop the finished stuff from. i also learned the paper wrapping on butter cubes can be shredded and composted as well. cool huh :)

  4. When I planted my tomatoes in my garden this year, I put a scoop of compost in each hole. No bloom rot!

    Not sure what is in the compost that prevents that but I intend to do this with all of my garden next year.

  5. Excellent tips! After working on a farm last summer, I plan on having my own garden this upcoming summer and I was looking for an easy way to compost on our small porch. Thanks for the tips!

  6. You make it sound so easy! Unfortunately, I really don't have any outdoor space (unless you count the closet with the water heater or a very small covered parking car, usually inhabited by the car), so I haven't found a good solution yet. Maybe I'll use that patch of overgrown land in the back of the condo to experiment...