How to Make Your Own Dirt

There is no doubt that this whole “cheapskate” thing can be taken too far. There are matters of time, if not personal dignity, that dictate for each of us to what extent we are willing to go to maximize our resources.

That can change from time to time given the personal challenges that we face. Take dumpster diving, for example. I draw the line at any activity that requires me to climb into and root around containers filled with trash that is destined for the landfill. I just don’t go there. However, if my children were starving, I have no doubt that I would experience a miraculous change of heart. All that to say that, generally, I am not one who could easily be convinced to make dirt. The earth seems to be well endowed.

Prior to last weekend, I would have suggested that if you ever run out of dirt, you can buy the stuff by the bag at any garden center. I did that. I bought a bag of dirt for planting vegetables. Ten dollars later (dirt is no longer dirt-cheap), I am becoming a much bigger fan of making it myself—otherwise known as “composting.”

THE BASICS

There is a law of nature that dictates all organic matter eventually dies, decomposes and returns to the earth in the form of dirt. It is a fascinating process—one that generates its own heat and can be controlled almost to the point of perfection.

You know all those grass clippings, leaves and other kinds of yard waste that you put in the trash? How about the potato peelings, coffee grounds and other kitchen refuse you pay to have hauled away? With little effort, you could benefit from those items decomposing and in the end produce rich, nutritious, odor-free soil that will regenerate and enrich your garden and other landscape—for free.

Step 1. To get started, you need a container or an open area in your yard to begin a compost pile. A small rubber garbage can works well, but you will need to punch holes in it, as the microbes that actually do the composting need oxygen to do their work. Or consider as I am, investing in a “composter,” like the super highly rated The Most Beautiful Composter in the World. Just the idea of  turning compostable household garbage into the nutritious soil and fertilizer I keep buying in order to make stuff grow makes me very excited.

Step 2. Chop plant debris and other materials into small pieces and place them inside the garbage can. Ideally, you should use 50 percent green material and 50 percent dry, but you can use shredded newspaper for the dry material, if necessary. You don’t need to fill the can all at one time—just put in the plant material you have on hand.

Step 3. Spray water over the chopped plant material inside the can, until the material is damp but not soggy.

Step 4. Put the lid loosely on the can and place in a sunny area.

Step 5. Turn the can as often as daily, or at least once a week. Lay the can on its side and roll it around to mix the plant material inside. Or you can simply stir the contents with a stick, shovel or cultivator.

Step 6. Add more plant material at any time.

Step 7. Keep the compost about as moist as a wrung-out sponge by spraying it with water when the plant material begins to feel dry.

Step 8. Harvest your compost after one month. Use a wire screen or piece of chicken wire to strain out the unfinished compost.

GET HELP

A great resource for composting novices is this handy eBook How To Compost: Everything You Need To Know To Start Composting, And Nothing You Don’t! (Kindle edition, $2.99.)

THE IN LIST

The following are items that will decompose easily and quickly:

  • cardboard rolls
  • clean paper
  • coffee grounds and filters
  • cotton rags
  • dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
  • eggshells
  • fireplace ashes
  • fruits and vegetables
  • grass clippings
  • hair and fur
  • hay and straw
  • houseplants
  • leaves
  • nut shells
  • sawdust
  • shredded newspaper
  •  tea bags
  • wood chips wool rags
  • yard trimmings

THE OUT LIST

Do not add these items to your compost pile as they will either contaminate your compost or create such a stench and attraction for rodents, you won’t think it was such a great idea after all:

  • black walnut tree leaves or twig
  • coal or charcoal ash
  • dairy products (e.g., butter, egg yolks, milk, sour cream, yogurt)
  • diseased or insect-ridden plants
  • fats, grease, lard, or oils
  • meat or fish bones and scraps
  • pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)
  • yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides

Question: Do you compost? Share your best tips, tricks and ideas for success in the comments below. 

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