gardening dirt and tools

How to Make Dirt: Compost 101

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.

gardening dirt and tools

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 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 spring, 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.”

What is compost?

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.

How to Make Compost

Step 1: Get a container

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 rolling tumbling composter, like this Quick Curing Rolling Compost Tumbler Bin . 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 excited.

Step 2: Load it up

Chop plant debris and other organic materials into small pieces and place them inside the garbage container. Ideally, you should use 50 percent green material and 50 percent dry, but you can use shredded newspaper (not any of the colored shiny parts that might come with a newspaper) for the dry material, if necessary. You don’t need to fill the container all at one time—just put in the plant material you have on hand.

Step 3: Water it

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

Step 4: Close it

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

Step 5: Turn it

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: Keep adding to it

Add more plant and garbage material at any time. Just make sure you are not adding protein like meat or dairy. If it grows in the ground, it’s good fodder for compost. There are exceptions, see below.

Step 7: Keep it wet

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: Use it

Harvest your compost as soon as it looks like wet dirt, not the garbage that it once was (anywhere from a few to even nine months). Use a wire screen or piece of chicken wire to strain out the unfinished compost. Work it into the soil around what’s growing in your garden. Use it to partially fill the hole when planting new seedlings. Spread it on your lawn, add some to your house plants. Wow! Look at you—a very successful dirt farmer!

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!

Put-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
  • nutshells
  • sawdust
  • shredded newspaper
  •  teabags
  • wood chips wool rags
  • yard trimmings

Keep-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 twigs
  • 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


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3 replies
  1. Sharon L Helsel says:

    If you plan on canning this summer, don’t put peach pits in your compost pile-they don’t compost

  2. Ellen Johnson says:

    as a master gardener, i learned that DIRT is what you track into your house. SOIL is what your plants grow in and COMPOST helps improve the health of your soil.

  3. Joan says:

    Hi Mary,
    I have been composting for quite a few years. I use a vermicomposting system with red composting worms. It is a cool system. I let the worms do all the work for me. I add leaves, kitchen scraps, and garden debris. It takes a bit longer than hot compost, but since I toss all the items in my straw bins at the end of a season I have compost by spring. After I remove the compost I reset using straw and composted manure in layers, and add water until damp. There is no need to add more worms since they are already in the soil. They come up as the weather warms and during warmer summer days I can get more compost before fall. It does require some space, so it isn’t for everyone. Also, wood chips and egg shells don’t decompose in this system. Anyway, I thought I should just mention this in case someone might want to give it a try. Lots of information online.


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