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The Art and Science of Composting

Use unwanted organic material as a superrich soil additive for your garden


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En español | My favorite T-shirt for working around the yard bears the phrase, "A Rind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste." On the back it reads: "I ♥ Composting." You gotta love a little gardening humor (or is that gardening humus?).

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Composting — turning unwanted organic material into a superrich soil additive for the garden — is the ultimate act of frugality. You're not only saving money by using would-be organic throwaways but also keeping your discarded orange peel, dry eggshells and coffee grounds from spending eternity entombed in a plastic garbage bag, taking up space in a landfill.

If you've priced commercially produced compost at the garden center, you know why it's sometimes called "the black gold of the garden." But it's more than the expense that makes it a treasure. Packed with carbon, nitrogen and other nutrients, compost mixed into the soil promotes healthy plant growth. When it's spread over planting beds, it helps to retain moisture, reducing the need for watering. In the end, you'll save both money and labor.

Composting is easy. Everyone can join in the rot-fest — even urban pioneers; if done properly, the mixture is odorless and of little interest to pests. Here's how:

Vegetable peelings and food bits in a recycling compost bin.

The compost mixture is odorless and of little interest to pests. — Allan Baxter/Getty Images

  • Build or buy a compost bin: Square or round, your bin should be roughly equal in height, width and depth (typically three or four feet). You can make one by shaping wire fencing into a cylinder. Or, use lumber to construct a sturdier bin. I built my compost bin, home to my beloved "Gomer the Compost Pile," out of leftover lumber from a deck building project — recycling times two! Urban gardeners might consider buying a compact plastic "rolling" compost bin from a garden center for use on decks or patios. If possible, place your bin in a shady location.

Next: Making "soil lasagna". >>

  • Add brown and green: I like to think of composting as making a "soil lasagna" since layering is the secret to a successful recipe. Rotate layers of brown material, including dried leaves, twigs, straw, pine needles and wood chips, with thinner layers of green organic materials like grass clippings and leaves, fruit and vegetable trimmings and weeds. Never compost meat products, pet/human waste, diseased plant materials or those treated with herbicides or that have already gone to seed. Water each layer thoroughly as you go.

  • Stir, cover and let cook: After a week or two, mix together the layers using a pitchfork or other tool. Then cover with a tarp to retain moisture and heat and to fast-track the decomposition process. Time and nature do the work. Your compost should be richly decayed and ready to use in two to three months. In general, the larger the pile the faster it will break down and keeping it moist by occasionally adding water will also expedite the process. Compost is ready to use when the source material is thoroughly decomposed — looking more like soil than its original ingredients. The source of the particles should be all but indistinguishable.

Once your compost heap is under way, think twice before you toss scraps into the trash can. Many throwaways may be compostable. For example, you can compost pet and human hair, dryer lint, rope and twine made from natural fibers, nail clippings, tea bags, shredded paper and cardboard, spoiled milk and dairy products, stale beer and wine and even the corks from the wine bottles. Now that's something to toast! 

Jeff Yeager is the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is and you can friend him on Facebook at JeffYeagerUltimateCheapskate or follow him on Twitter.

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