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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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Christine

    I just attended a Coyote Awareness Program put on by State Game Commission and local Police Dept.

    It was stated that coyote go after what’s readily available for food – so if bird feeders attract birds and squirrels, they will attract coyote. If compost piles attract groundhogs and such, they will attract coyote as well.

    So be careful…

  • Debi B

    A good resource for composting information is your local agricultural extension service. Here are links to a few example of what’s available from the Alabama Cooperative Extension (which is free and available for anyone to use):

    http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0638/ANR-0638.pdf
    http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0794/ANR-0794.pdf

    Happy Composting!

    • Mary Hunt

      Thanks for this great info

      • Debi B

        No problem! There is an amazing amount of good, quality information readily available from the extension system in the US. It could be a good blog post one day when you decide to talk about gardening again.

        And as you can tell, there are as many ideas about composting as there are people who compost. 🙂

  • Sue in MN

    We have composted in our yard for over 30 years – here are a few tips for those in Northern climates:
    – The fancy containers may look nice, but for serious use are WAY too small – wooden bins (plans all over the Web) or wire container (made easily with rabbit fencing or concrete reinforcing wire – again plans…) set up on a concrete slab or pavers (keeps the mess contained) is better-sized. Remember that from raw material to finished compost the volume reduces by 60-80% – those black containers yield about 1 bag of soil.
    – It takes longer when the air is cooler. Compost is created by “cooking” so the cooler the weather the longer it takes. Speed this up by adding a catalyst – a handful half-finished compost or a cup of cheap fertilizer on each layer will amp up the decomp action.
    – When making a significant amount of compost a 2-container method is better. Fill one over a couple of weeks, then stop adding new material & just stir/water/monitor until finished. Then start filling a second or just stockpile the ingredients there.
    – If you are a quilter or knitter, natural-fiber fabric & yarn scraps compost too. Wood workers can add sawdust (from untreated wood) as their “brown” material. Just sprinkle it in to avoid clumps.
    – If you get critters in your compost stop adding egg shells, grains and fruit scraps. Also, never throw your pets’ uneaten meals into the compost – you’ll get company for sure.
    – Final tip – IF IT STINKS YOU ARE DOING SOMETHING WRONG. Compost, even while working, should smell “earthy” – any other odor is a sign you have the wrong ingredients or it is too wet or compacted and either rotting or getting moldy.

    • Ann

      I have also composted for over 30 years and my Mother for many years before me. We’ve lived all over the northeast and northern midwest. I use a 2 bin method, with 4’x4′ wire cages for the bins. My bins are directly on the ground, but I do have some trex on 2 sides for easier access and clean up. Having the bins directly on the ground allows soil microbes and bugs/worms to contact the composting material. When you garden, you generate quite a bit of plant matter, and the 2 bin method works great.

      Also, I’m a fan of passive composting. It’s a lot less work! I simply add to the bins all year, and in the spring I dig out the finished compost. This year I ended up with 3 wheelbarrow loads that I spread in my gardens, containers, and even sprinkled a little in my indoor plant pots. Some years I have spread it thinly on my lawn. People always ask me for advice on making their gardens look like mine. I always tell them – Compost!

      • Mary Hunt

        I like that “passive” part! Ha.

    • Mary Hunt

      Great insight. Sue. How do you turn the compost? Doesn’t that need to be a regular and ongoing operation, like three days? Cotton, wool, silk, bamboo yarn. Are you kidding me? That is amazing and I do have a bit 🙂 Thanks!

      • Janie

        Use a potato rake to stir and turn it. If you can find fresh horse or cow manure, it’s great to heat up the pile.

  • Susan Wardell

    If you buy a composter make sure that it is easy to remove the contents. I bought one several years ago and it is almost impossible to remove the composted materials! I may have to switch to a handmade one!

    • Mary Hunt

      The one in the post above is pretty cool. You turn it every three days with a handle and when you want the contents, roll that thing to the spot where you want to unload, pull it up closely and open the door, and out comes the compost—no lifting required, supposedly.

      • Harlean

        They are great for as long as they last. I have had two over the years, but they rust through within the year from the moisture that the composting cycle creates. I now use an old mobile home bathtub to create my compost. I just shovel it back and forth from end to end, and keep it covered with a waterproof cover. I am fortunate enough to have found a piece of lightweight metal that fits over the tub. The drain hole allows the entrance of earthworms which also hastens the decomposition of the waste.
        When it turns into the dark black and drier end product, I shovel it into a dry container with a lid, and, from there, put it wherever I need it in the garden or around trees and in flower beds.

  • Linda

    I have resorted to driving around on trash day in the fall and picking up other people’s bags of leaves they have placed at the curb to increase the amount of compost I can produce. It truly is “black gold”.

    • PamS

      We have done this too. We started with a thin soil over solid chalk. My husband had to make holes with a pick-ax for planting fruit trees. We heavily mulched the area with bags of leaves from neighbors – they even brought them over. Now, after 30 years, there is a foot or more of rich soil there with lots of earthworms. We ask permission if we can to take the bags since there is competition in some areas. One elderly lady would call us when she had bags of leaves and would leave them away from the garbage pick-up area. Always check that there is only leaves and that there is no black walnut leaves. Some sites say black walnut is okay but we don’t use it.

      • Mary Hunt

        You guys are killing me! A whole new area of gardening I’d never thought about—leaf poaching! Really, this is great information!

  • Jacqueline Tobbe

    Composting is great and your garden will love you, but you are NOT making dirt! Only Mother Nature can make dirt (breaking down rocks, etc.). You are making compost or humus, a rich soil additive.

    • Mary Hunt

      Maybe it just looks like dirt to me 🙂 Thanks for the clarification.

  • Cally

    i intend to use this for both composting and gardening. check it out sometime. the initial investment is big but over the long run will be worth it.
    http://www.gardentowerproject.com/

    • Bookworm

      Wow, I had never seen that before. It looks ideal, so easy for composting!

    • Mary Hunt

      Now that is ingenius! Move next door to me so we can share 🙂 I have plenty of garbage to throw in there.