Make Your Own Dirt From Scratch: Guest Post

I’ve decided to take a little break from blogging (read more about the reasons why), but wanted to continue to provide interesting and insightful content on my blog in the meantime. For a while I will have guest posts from various bloggers interspersed with posts by me when I am moved to write. Thank you for your understanding. — Amy (CDG)

This guest post comes from Julie who blogs at Terminal Verbosity.

Make Your Own Dirt From Scratch

I was hoping to start my own carnival of sorts with “Make Your Own Monday,” but it looks like the folks over at Stop the Ride have beaten me to it with their Make it from Scratch Carnival. So OK, I’ll play and cross-post at BlogHer

I’m starting with something that I’ve been doing for some time, which I know, strictly speaking, is not playing by the MIFS rules (sorry). But I’ve had a lot of questions recently about compost, about how to fertilize without chemicals, and I’ve seen a lot of comments posted on green blogs that indicate that people are confused and bewildered by trying to compost. So my first installment in the Make it from Scratch carnival is making your own dirt, i.e. composting!

What is compost?

Compost is, literally, fertile dirt. That is to say, not the barren gray top soil you’ll find on a building site or in a conventional farmer’s field. This is the good black stuff that smells sweet and makes nice little crumbly clumps. It contains the perfect balance of nutrients that your plants need to be healthy and that the microorganisms and beneficial insects like earth worms–key components of healthy soil–need to thrive.

You can make it yourself using common kitchen and yard wastes that would otherwise go in the landfill using a process Mother Nature has used to recycle things in the natural world since time began. Want a list of things you can put in the compost bin? Plantea lists 163 of them! Then you can use it in place of expensive mulches and chemical fertilizers. As a mulch, compost helps retain moisture and shade a plant’s roots. As a soil amendment, compost breaks up heavy clay soils, allowing more water and air to penetrate to the root zone of garden plants and, if added in high enough quantities over time to keep the organic matter of the garden soil at 4-5%, can provide sufficient nutrients for even nitrogen-hungry vegetable growth.

I love Journey To Forever’s thoughts on Nature’s conspiracy to make more soil:

If you watch carefully to see what nature does as she goes about her daily round of chores, it’s quite easy to start believing that the whole thing is a complicated, secretive conspiracy by soil micro-organisms to beget more soil micro-organisms. Nature’s first concern is always to build more topsoil, and to protect it. It’s easy to see why: no topsoil, not much nature either. The Earth’s green carpet of living things is really just the Soil Creature’s skin.

OK, how do I start?

Now is a great time to start because it’s the beginning of the season and building a pile now will keep the growing season’s clippings and cuttings out of the trash. If you are cramped for space, live in an apartment, or are particularly interested in vermiculture, worm composting might be for you. I’ve never tried this before myself, but it can be effective if you have a smaller quantity of waste (like only kitchen scraps because you live in an apartment) because there is a limit to how much the worms can eat. Check out the great resources at WormCompostingTips:

Worm composting (also known as vermicomposting) is the art of using worms to help you break down the organic waste you produce at home to create fertilizer for your garden. The worms will produce both a liquid fertilizer, and worm castings. Worm castings are a solid, odor free byproduct of worm digestion. You can collect your worm castings periodically and use them as a soil addition, soil conditioner, or even light mulch.

If you have more space, even a patio space for a small compost tumbler, this method will allow you to process a lot more waste. I’m really a fan of worm composting, but our family of four needs between 3-4 5 cubic foot compost bins to make sure we always have space for both food scraps and yard waste, so that quantity would not be feasible for worms.

To make a successful compost pile you need a balance of green materials like grass clippings and food scraps or brown materials like shredded paper, dried leaves, or sawdust. You simply make a bin, either in one of the many commercially available compost bins, in a wooden or chicken wire box somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-6? wide and no more than 3 feet high, or in a pit dug into the ground. If you need more space, build two bins, don’t make one big one or it will be harder to manage and ultimately take too long to break down. We’ve used a combination of these different pile-types all with fairly good success. The most important thing is keeping your bin close enough to the kitchen & yard that are producing the inputs that you’ll actually use the bin as much as possible.

Adding material to your new bin

Here’s where the science behind composting can turn people off. Some books and articles provide diagrams with detailed information on how thick each layer of green and brown material should be, suggest alternating the layers with dirt to speed the process along, and recommend near-daily turning. This can be labor-intensive and frustrating, especially to the beginner. And it’s just not necessary. That’s not to say that those who follow the labor-intensive processes don’t get good compost–they do, and they probably get it quicker than I do, but I spend much less time on my piles and always have plenty of compost for my garden each spring despite my lazy and unscientific methods. ;)

Now, you’re supposed to add two parts green material to one part brown material. However, the fact of the matter is if you are trying to compost all of your yard and kitchen scraps, you will almost always have more nitrogen (green materials) and not enough carbon (brown materials). Then, if you get really excited about the prospects of reducing waste, you’ll start composting things like office paper (shredded works best), junk mail (no glossy colored paper, please, it can contain heavy metal inks), tissues, cotton balls, paper towels, and just about anything else you can get your hands on (paper plates after a picnic, egg cartons, drier lint). In fact, you can compost just about anything with the exception of what VegWeb lists here. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

A site in part shade conserves moisture while lending a bit of the sun’s warmth in cooler weather, which helps the pile continue to cook down. This is necessary here in Colorado, but if you’re in a really wet, warm climate, you may actually want a lid to keep water out.

Water, heat, and oxygen are the other essentials for composting. Compost should maintain the dampness of a wrung-out sponge, which in dry areas means supplemental water at least during the hot summer months. Consider running a drip irrigation line straight into the bin, but don’t forget to move it aside before stirring or emptying the bin!

Speaking of stirring, while occasional stirring allows the compost to break down faster by allowing good oxygen penetration and the mixing of the carbon and nitrogen plant materials, daily or even weekly stirring is not a requirement to produce compost. A frequently-stirred pile may break down in 4-6 weeks, while an unstirred pile may have to wait until the following spring to be used. I use the no- or low-stir method and the end product is the same, it just takes longer to get there, which is fine by me. Also beware of over-stirring: in the winter months stirring compost allows heat to escape the pile and may stop the break-down if the center of the pile falls below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you need a few more scientific tips on composting, the folks at CSU’s Cooperative Extension offer this great fact sheet: Composting Your Yard Waste.

I hope I’ve demystified compost a bit for you and shown you how easy it can be! We literally spend the minute it takes us to walk out our sliding glass door and deposit the day’s food scraps into the bin and spin the tumblers (we purchased tumblers for the winter because food scraps are almost all nitrogen and can get stinky without some turning & additions of copious amounts of shredded junk mail) and each spring we’re rewarded with the best fertilizer nature can provide–no petrochemicals (yes, the stuff you buy at Home Depot, unless it says otherwise, comes from petroleum), no waste in the landfill, very little effort. So go make it from scratch!

Photo credit: Flickr suavehouse113 and normanack

Julie Artz lives in Helsinki, Finland, with her husband, two children, and geriatric cat. She endures the cold by dreaming about her garden in Lyons, Colorado, and writing about life in Finland and anything else that comes to mind on her blog Terminal Verbosity.

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16 thoughts on “Make Your Own Dirt From Scratch: Guest Post”

  1. Great post. Going to buy a tumbler composter this week at costco. Really excited. The final products must feels so rewarding.

  2. Julie, I have decided to make my own little contribution, so amongst other things, I now have two bokashi bins to ferment our household waste. (we also have a worm farm for some fruit and veges.) my quandary is that it has now come time to bury the waste but it turns out the ground where we live is on an old quarry site and we can’t dig as it’s just rock. I can’t bear to just throw it all in the rubbish having come so far. Have you any suggestions? Thx Great blog by the way!

  3. SUPER helpful. I clearly need to work on brown materials. I knew you could put egg cartons in – but I did not know paper or tissues were allowed. And, drier lint!

  4. Thanks so much for your article. I’m re-inspired. I tried composting, unsuccessfully, but I know it was more due to neglect than anything. I really want to try again. My most successful gardening venture was gardening in boxes with soil & compost, but I’m not sure I was aware of the whole petrochemicals, thing. Thanks, again!

  5. So sorry for the delayed response! My Momma was here for a visit 🙂

    @Lisa, I had never heard of Bokashi until now, so thank you for introducing me to a new compost-related item. As someone whose garden in Lyons had as much river rock as soil when I started on my gardening adventures, I feel your pain! Here are a few suggestions:

    1. You could very likely incorporate the contents of the Bokashi into the worm bin (I would start in small quantities just in case the pH isn’t to the worms’ liking or something). The worms would finnish breaking it down and then you could use the castings as normal.

    2. Find a friend with a compost bin and contribute your Bokashi to it. A community garden plot might be willing to take the contents for their compost…

    3. Create an above ground area for it. Straw bales are very good for containing the waste and keeping animals out, as are traditional compost tumblers or bins.

    4. I have a friend whose mother-in-law has never had a compost pile per se, but instead picks a corner of her garden and buries stuff in it and then moves slowly throughout her beds until everything is fertilized (you can’t actually plant anything in the area where you’re actively burying stuff because it would burn the roots).

    @wormfarming gal – I think either metal or plastic can work for a compost bin. The design is what really counts. You need it to be easy to stir and access, and it needs to have air holes. I know people who are worm composting in old refrigerators, trash cans, coolers, and all manner of other repurposed containers, so you can definitely take what you have on hand and adapt it for compost.

    With metal, I would just be extra careful to avoid sharp edges that might, over time, get sharper/rusty. With plastic, we have to be really careful in Colorado because the sun is so hot that it breaks the plastic down over time. Anything that is exposed to the elements is going to have some wear and tear. I’ve always thought straw bale composting would be excellent, because yes, the bin itself (the straw bales) breaks down over time, but then it just gets incorporated into the compost.

    Thanks for all the comments folks!

  6. I love this post! Composting is something that I have not kept up once we moved and I have never been very good at it. “Lazy and unscientific” is definitely how I approach it, to varying results. 😉

    This summer I really want to get back to it and do a better, read: more efficient, job so that it is more effective and keeps encouraging me along. Thanks for the kick!

  7. A few comments learned from my own experience and the “Master Composter” certification process:

    * 99% of home composting is “cold” composting. This method produces lovely compost, but it will not kill weed seeds. If you don’t want to turn your compost, just plan to have two bins, so you can leave one to do its thing when it’s full. Many people empty a finished bin only once or twice a year.

    * A hot compost pile must be at least 3′ x 3′ x 3′ and built all at once – that’s a lot of materials for the average homeowner to have lying around at one time. It must also be turned often to keep the heat process going. This is the method used by commercial composting facilities and small farms that make their own. It’s fairly labor intensive and you need to have the right mixture of ingredients.

    * Worm compost is great as a soil amendment, but you can’t use it as a mulch on its own. If it dries out, it makes a hard crust.

    * A single “normal” sized worm bin (like a can-o-worms) can handle food from 2 people (non -vegetarians) once the worm population is built up.

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