Composting 101, Part 2



Melanie helped me turn 60 in California…and then she sent me back to Utah.

Leaving Malibu California

Leaving Malibu

Hi, everyone!

Did you go out and buy and drill holes into your compost trash cans while I was in California last week with Melanie and celebrating turning (yikes!)…60?

Yes, it’s true.  But when it happened, I chose to ponder more about what aspect of THIS adventure was going to be elevated to a level worthy of a “Field Trips” blog post than the fact that I was entering a new realm: the years of “Not Quite Senior Enough to Get Cheaper Show Tickets or Medicare,” during which I’m supposed to act like I still remember how to drive a car, start trying on (but not yet buying) purple hats, remaining fully functional in all aspects of my life as if I were still young, and trying out different ways to cup my ears and ask, “Huh?”

Anyway, I’m pleased to announce I did learn something kind of cool out at Circle X Ranch that I will be writing about next, so be sure to check my Field Trips tabs in a week or so and see what secrets these pictures hold!


Do you remember the pictures in my last compost article that showed piles of a lot of nasty‑looking stuff?  Some of it was recognizable, like banana peels, popcorn kernels, a few twigs, dead leaves and some other plant matter.  And it wasn’t pretty.

Well, the microscopic kids were busy while I was out of town turning old.  We had some cool, wet days in June here in Draper when much didn’t happen in my garbage can; but then suddenly, out of nowhere came the sun that dried up all the rain…and the itsy‑bitsy microbes went at the stuff again.  I came back from California to deal with the aftermath of what happened in that can while I was gone.

Compost 2a1

Stinky Slop


I should take a moment here to just explain that, while I know there are many different ways for home gardeners to make their own compost using any of a wide variety of methods‑‑open piles, fancy purchased bins, wooden compost “corrals”‑‑I have had huge success (that sound you hear is my fists beating against my chest) from simply using a 20‑gallon black Rubbermaid garbage can, so that’s the method I’m going to focus on here.  I’m just one person with usually only one mouth to peel vegetables for, and 20 gallons is my magic number.

Compost 2b3


You must realize that to fill that can with FINISHED compost, you really need to collect probably three times its volume as it decomposes and shrinks down into the finished product.  That’s a LOT of food prep, grass mowing, manure collecting, leaf raking…you get the point.  I tried a 32‑gallon can once but ended up giving it away‑‑it was just too big for one person.  But families, go for the big ones if you have what it takes to fill them!


Microbes-636x600Just a bit of science here about what’s going on in these piles of (eventual) goodness.  In a nutshell, teeny little organisms love to feed on rotting things that used to be alive.

For these critters to thrive and be happy, they need a good diet of, in compost lingo, “brown” (carbon‑rich) and “green” (nitrogen‑rich) materials, a warm place to live, some moisture, and oxygen.  Give them what they want, and nobody gets hurt.  In return, they will chew up, digest, break down, and just plain kick the pants off of all that nasty matter until it turns into a rich, dark, fluffy, earthy‑smelling, nutrient‑rich organic matter…and it really doesn’t take as long as you might think.


So I came home from California and headed to the compost bin to give it sort of a microbe “spa treatment,” a.k.a. letting it stretch out a bit and take in some fresh oxygen.

The method I use to “turn” my garbage can compost to aerate it is tried and true…and I’m telling you, it’s the only way to go!  In my learning curve I tried rolling the can (but the lid popped off and the contents ended up having to get scraped out of the grass) and shovel‑stirring, but that wasn’t going to happen.  Try it if you don’t believe me.

The right and only way, after all my experimenting, is to yank down the old plastic shower curtain (you get to go buy a new one!), lay it out on the ground, dump the goodies out (see the yucky photo above), and get to work.  I couldn’t wait for the fun to start!

First, I took my shovel and spread out the slop that was so wet and gooey on the bottom that it came out with the wavy circles of the can embedded in it.  It was so compacted that it went anaerobic (no oxygen) on me, and it was stinky.  While I was scowling at it, I went ahead and dumped out the contents of my kitchen Folgers coffee container right on top.  Colorful!   

Snack time for the pile!

Snack time for the pile!

To help absorb excess moisture and fluff the mess up so it could breathe a bit, I mixed in some shredded brown paper bags (dried leaves would have been better, but this got me by).  Then I figured I’d give it a boost with a little already‑made organic mix that I had left over from topping off my planter boxes.  Why not?  It was headed for the garden anyway, so I gave it a job to do before it ends up there in the fall.  (When just starting out, you can also help get it going with a shovelful of good garden soil which already contains helpful microbes.)

Compost 2a3

Compost 2a4


I used the shovel to mix the stuff around a bit, lifting the corners of the plastic to help it along.  When I had worked it into a fairly homogeneous mixture, I shoveled it back into the can, put the lid on and put the can back into its happy, sunny place where things will be heating up.  Other than peeking every couple of days and sprinkling the top a bit so it doesn’t dry out, I leave it alone for a week or two, then I repeat the mixing.

Compost 2b2

Compost 2b4


Will it help if told you what kinds of things to put into this concoction?  I used to obsess a bit over whether I had the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen in my compost, but I’ve found that it really doesn’t have to be that exact.  What is important is that you follow a few basic principles when filling and adding to the bin.


The smaller the pieces are, the faster they decompose.  Cut large vegetable stems into smaller pieces.  Don’t just throw banana peels in whole; chop off the hard stem and cut them into several pieces.  Shred paper.  Rip up paper egg cartons.  Run a lawn mower over dry leaves in the fall to help them along ‑‑ or, better, yet, run them through a wood chipper if you’re that lucky.


Remember that “greens” are high in nitrogen, which is where microbes get their proteins.  (Yes, they need it too, and they get plenty as vegans!) “Browns” are high in carbon and provide them with energy.  Different compost experts offer conflicting information on the proper ratios of carbon to nitrogen, but it seems to work out as a rule of thumb that if you are adding by VOLUME about the same amount of greens to browns, or even 2/3 one and 1/3 the other, it should be just fine.


Think of a damp sponge, not a sopping wet one, and that is how moist you want your compost pile to be.  It will heat up, which is what you want, but you need to check it in hot weather to make sure it doesn’t get so hot and dry that it’s smoking.  (Don’t laugh; more than once I have found that parts of my pile have somehow turned to a grayish ash color, as in this photo.  Yikes!)



Green materials, such as vegetable scraps and grass clippings, are generally wetter and mushier than the carbons, such as dead leaves and shredded newspaper or small wood chips. If too many green grass clippings are added at once without layering with dry materials (or letting the grass dry first), it could result in a slimy, smelly mess.  If there is far more brown than green, it may not break down as fast and may need more water.  It’s actually easy to keep an eye on it and monitor the moisture.


Of course, you’ll want to be aerating (shower curtain time!) every week or so.  Hey, it’s fun.  Buy some of those nitrile gloves at Costco and get the kids in there to help break up any clumps as they wonder where the broccoli stems went.


At some point you’ll stop adding new materials and let the compost finish decomposing.  (Many people start collecting in a second bin.)  I actually add to mine until about the middle of August, then I let it finish until the garden is through in the fall, when I turn the compost into the garden.  And it looks like this!

New Compost

New Compost


Lists abound out there on what to put into your compost bin.  I don’t go so far as to put my toenail clippings or dryer lint in.  I mean, who really does that?  But here is a very simple, quick list to get you going:

(Note: Paper, cardboard, etc. do not add nutrients per se, but the microbes don’t care; they just need the carbon in their diets so they can break stuff down.)

  • Dead leaves.  (Probably the best brown, but they break down better if you can chop them up.)
  • Shredded paper (I like brown paper shopping bags)
  • Small wood chips
  • Peanut shells
  • Paper egg cartons, torn up
  • Dry grass clippings
  • Wood ashes
  • Sawdust
  • Straw
  • Eggshells, crushed (neither green nor brown, but adds calcium)


  • Horse manure (Not fresh‑‑use dry or partially decomposed so it won’t create too much heat)
  • Chicken manure and bedding
  • Vegetable and fruit trimmings, including banana peels
  • Coffee grounds (high in nitrogen)
  • Fresh grass clippings, layered with dry materials
  • Seaweed
  • Weeds that have not gone to seed

NEVER ADD:  Meat, oils or fats, manure from meat‑eating animals, dairy, kitty litter, thorny or waxy plants, anything treated with chemicals, soaps, etc.

ENJOY!  Feel free to contact me with questions or to let me know how your compost is turning out!

Other Resource Links

Brooklyn Botanic Garden: has a great general guide to composting:

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