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Tree Hugger Tuesday: Make your own dirt! Glorious dirt!

April 4, 2012

In last month’s Tree Hugger, I discussed how I’m a saint you can reduce your waste. One of the main ways to do this is also one of my favorite things (no seriously): Composting!

Yes. I adore composting. It warms my heart to throw the vast majority of my crap into a big black bin in my yard and watch it turn to dirt. Lipstick Hippie, that’s me.

So. Why compost?

Well, want to cut down on your waste? Yard trimmings and food scraps, that can be easily composted,  make up 27 percent of the US municipal solid waste. Into recycling? Then do it for your food. But Nikki, won’t it all just break down in the landfill? Not like it will if you compost it. The awesome process of decomposition that turns trash into glorious dirt requires oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and water. When composted, it can get plenty of oxygen. In a landfill, however, there is much less  oxygen (if any) and the process produces methane  –  a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2. Finally, your scraps prior to composting take up a lot of space, yet that volume will shrink 80% after composting. For that reason, you’d even do the planet a solid by composting before you throw things away.

But why throw it out? Your yard and food waste can break down right back into lovely, delicious dirt – of a quality most of us pay for at the local garden center. Why not make it yourself?

I know, I know. Composting seems daunting. I know many of you will tell me you don’t have time. Or space. Or know how. Or want to get dirty. Or have your kitchen smell like trash. Or have fruit flies. Got another excuse? Bring it.

I’m here to tell you that’s all those statements are: excuses. Composting does not have to take up time, it can be easy, it can be clean, and it shouldn’t smell. Or have more fruit flies than the bananas you leave out til they’re only good for bread. So, enough excuses.

Here’s the deal. There are ten thousand websites out there for more information on composting. They’ll give you the gritty nitty on how much carbon and nitrogen is in your food scraps, how to layer your compost, how to make a perfect blend… etc. etc. etc. So. Instead of regurgitating all that, I’m just going to tell you how I compost, then give some tips and point out some great resources if you have a different situation that I do – as successful composting does depend on  a couple things about where you live:

  1. How dry it is.
  2. How hot it is.
  3. If you live in a city or have a backyard.

So. How do I do it? Easy. No, really.

I have a small silver trashcan in my kitchen. The kind that you step on a button to open, and that have a plastic removable pail inside. When the pail is full, I take it out to the composter in the backyard – then rinse the pail out and let it dry before re-filling.

The composter in my backyard looks like this:

It sits out past my porch – on bare earth so worms and other lil buddies can get to it. And, yes, it does have those nifty doors at the bottom. The compost does not, however, pour nicely out when they’re opened, but all I have to do is dig in a bit with a spade. I take compost from the bottom via these doors, and add it to the potting soil when I start my outside flowers in the spring. I also layer it over my flower beds in the fall, or in early spring if the snow melts.

And that. is. it. Easy peasy pumpkin pieMother Nature does all the work for me.

Now. A lot of websites are going to tell you additional tips. Like you should layer your compost and turn your compost, and what you can and can’t put in your compost.

I don’t turn my compost. I don’t layer my compost. I also put whatever I damn well please in there (yes, this includes meat, bones, and fish scraps). Now, I don’t necessarily condone this. I am lucky and my compost works just fine regardless of my horribly lazy composting etiquette: I live in a humid area where there are plenty of bugs and worms. In addition, I haven’t had problem animals (read: skunks, raccoons) find my compost. Some small ones clearly have, but they seem to be doing me a favor – by turning my compost for me. And this doesn’t freak me out in the least.

Moreover, I am not putting this compost on a vegetable garden – only flowers. Although, historically, people used fish and bone byproducts to fertilize their fields, and they still use animal poop (but clearly not meat-eating animal poop).

Now. This won’t be the experience of everyone – but if you live in a place with a yard that gets wet where things decompose quicker and there are a lot of worms, etc, you can probably be just as lazy as I am. In fact, if you have enough space, you could be even lazier, and just have a compost pile. That is, a section of your yard where you just dump your compost without an actual composter. If you’re this lucky, here are some tips for an easy compost pile.

But what if you don’t? Well, first check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s searchable maps for tips on composting in your area. Additionally, you may have a legit concern (that is not an excuse).

  1. Legit Problem One: It’s dry here. My parents have a composter, but they live in a really arid location. Their compost can just sit there, doing nothing. If the compost dries out too much, decomp will happen slower, and you won’t attract the crawlers and worms you need to help you. My advice? Add water: dump your compost bucket out, then go rinse it, and dump the rinse water in too. Depending on how often you add food waste, you may need to add more water – but don’t overdo it. Also, keep in mind the summer may dry it out and slow down the decomp process.
  2. Legit Problem Two: I don’t have a yard. So you live in a city and you don’t have a yard in which to place a composter or compost pile. Well, great news! You can still compost! Hoorah! If you have a fire escape or a small outside area, here are some quick tips for an urban compost. No outside area at all? Try worm composting under your sink or in your basement (for serious!) – some tips can be found here and here. I know, I know – worms in your house?? But, c’mon… who doesn’t love worms?? Like, for realz yo!
  3. Legit Problem Three: I don’t have a yard part two. You’re still in the city, still with no yard. You’ve got a compost going. But now – what to do with all this lovely dirt? There are still options: check out Craig’s list or a local or community garden – they’ll never turn down free compost. You can also add finished compost to your houseplants, or take it outside to the tree or other plants in your neighborhood. I promise they can use the great added nutrients you’re giving them – it’s a little thanks for the air they clean for you!
  4. Legit Problem Four: I really for serious don’t want compost in my house/yard. Ummm… get over it and get used to your own waste? You made it you deal with it? No? Ok. Well, even if you’re still not convinced that composting is no worse than dealing your normal trash (in fact better when it turns to glorious dirt!) there are other options – such as composting pick-up or places to drop-off – but they may not be everywhere. For me, I dropped off my compost to a local organic garden near my work for over two years. You can ask around at local or community gardens – I’ll be shocked if they turn down free compost. In some areas, composting pick-up is also getting started. Sure, few and far between, but it is out there. Check out the interwebs to see if either of these options are available in yoru area!
  5. Legit Problem Five: I don’t have time. Oh, I’m sorry. Did I say this is a legit problem? Cuz it’s not. Composting takes as about as much time as you spend taking out your trash. So, no. “I don’t have time” is not a legit excuse. Next!

And now, let me answer some questions I assume you might have:

  1. Does it smell? Well, maybe a lil bit in the summer, but if your compost smells enough to be noticeable, you’re doing something wrong.
  2. But what about in your house? Doesn’t it smell there? I’ve found the key to smell is the metal trashcan I use. It has a pretty good seal on it, and that alone keeps smell to a minimum. I also use a rather small can so I’m forced to take it out regularly. Another option is putting your compost in the fridge or freezer until you have enough to take out.
  3. Aren’t there bugs? YES the composter in the yard gets a bunch of bugs in the summer – but that’s the point. One thing your compost should not have is a lot of flies – but there will be a lil micro ecosystem goin’ on in there if you do things right (which I, of course, find wicked cool). But, yeah, you do have to get over your ickiness about/fear of bugs if you’re going to have compost. Hey – if you’re not going to do the work, but you want that shiz to break down, someone has to do it.If you are getting a whole lot of flies, probably dial back the meat scraps and forget I ever said that was ok.
  4. What about in the winter when it gets cold? No problem. I still compost. In fact, my compost generates its own heat at the bottom due to the combustion of decomposition. I actually get a lot of sink over the winter months. That said, a lot of it pretty much freezes in the winter, only to start fresh in the summer again.
  5. What about fruit flies? I hate fruit flies! The key to fruit flies is the same as with smell: the metal trashcan and the seal on it. I rarely notice fruit flies in it during the summer, even when I have them on fruit on my counter. I do have friends with more open compost containers for their kitchens, and they do get fruit flies. Again, keeping it in the fridge or freezer can help with that.
  6. My compost is getting full, can I squish it down? No. Please don’t. You need the air and the space in there for oxygen and for the microbes that are doing all that work. If you need to wait to add to your pile, than just give it some time, and try again. If you have a composter like mine, try pulling some dirt from the bottom.
  7. What should I not add? Even though I’m lazy, this is still a good question. First, while I add some meat byproducts to mine and don’t notice a smell, almost every other source says not to do this – for the smell and the probability of attracting animals. I do add a lot more yard and vegetable byproducts than animal-oriented ones. Second, don’t add weeds unless you are absolutely sure they are nowhere near seeding. Not even green seeds. If you do add them with any chance of seed germination, you’ll just spread the weeds. This is particularly important for invasive species.

So that’s it! Really. It’s about finding space, setting up a composter or bin, and just going for it! Nature takes care of the rest. And, yeah, if you’re a city-dweller, it will be more difficult, but it’s still important and there are options!

Finally, some great additional resources, especially if you are looking to start a compost pile, use worms, or really want to get into it:

Environmental Protection Agency – Composting Info

Earth Easy

How To Compost.Org

Attainable Sustainable: Composting For the Lazy Person

More specifically:

Info on composting piles or composting bins.

Make your own bin.

What to compost

And, of course, more info on composting in the city can be found here, with motivation to do so and additional tips here.

Happy composting!

19 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2012 11:25 am

    Lately I’ve been thinking of trying this. I would go the super lazy route of no bin and no layering or turning because I hate dirt. And bugs.

    • April 4, 2012 1:50 pm

      Go for it! Depending on where you live, you might not even need to use the dirt. As long as you have space to place your composter on bare earth (which you must do anyway), the compost itself will “sink” as it decomposes and decreases in volume – and get incorporate into the earth below it. At least, this has been my experience – as I have had the same composter for three years, and only pull dirt from it once or twice a year. I’ve never had it overflow. If it does seem to get close, just let it rest a bit.

      If you do any gardening or have any plants, definitely try to get over the dirt hatred – you’ll end up with some awesome stuff to feed your plants!

      Also – the bugs can be tough if you don’t like bugs. But look at it this way: it really is a little microecosystem in there. It is really freakin’ cool if you ask me – and those bugs are very happy where they are, they don’t want to leave and go crawling somewhere else. Just think of it that way, as opposed to creepy crawlies…

      DO IT!!!

  2. April 4, 2012 12:11 pm

    Dar and I have been thinking about composting for some time now. We do have a vegetable garden that loves fresh soil. The city of Winnipeg also sells a great composter to help keep all of that lovely garbage out of the landfill.

    • April 4, 2012 1:51 pm

      Yes! It is SO easy. Might be more difficult because it’s so cold where you are… but I promise it’ll thaw out in the spring, and you can layer it over the garden in the fall, let it sit and do its thang all winter. Your plants will be so happy in the spring! Really, it’s SO easy!

      Gooooo Winnipeg! Another reason Canada wins the cool country contest! 😀

      • April 7, 2012 10:46 am

        I think the pile can survive the winter if you keep it going, and warm. The compost actually generates a fair amount of heat when the components are breaking down. So in an inclosed space the heat generated should be enough to keep the action going on all but the coldest days.

  3. KrisBordessa permalink
    April 4, 2012 1:01 pm

    Thanks for the link – and for encouraging people to compost! Such an easy way to reduce the amount of crap in the landfills.

    • April 4, 2012 1:52 pm

      Yay! Thanks for stopping by – I really enjoy your website, and you had great advice over there!

      Composting really is easy, you just have to get started!

  4. April 4, 2012 1:47 pm

    Yeah ok… I have a bad conscience now… no composting in my place. And I have no excuse…we even have a designated bin for each household with waste that goes to a massive city composting area. Need to become better at that.

    • April 4, 2012 1:53 pm

      O. M. G. Ivy! Get ON that girl! Honestly, get one of those little trashcans with the pail that comes out. Makes it SO easy!

      • April 5, 2012 7:16 am

        Yes boss 🙂 Scouts honor, I will start doing it. Good thing I have a cat that likes to chase flies and bugs… just in case.

  5. April 5, 2012 2:33 pm

    Thanks for all of this info. I really should do this. We have a huge yard. My husband plants a vegetable garden each year. If I did it I’d just have to have it away from where the dogs could get to it. They are crafty buggers and I have a feeling they’d topple that thing when I wasn’t looking.

    • April 6, 2012 9:07 am

      The dogs are difficult, although if you stick with veggie and yard waste that might help… I’d say either get a composter (they aren’t going anywhere) or simply put a chickenwire fence around it? With some good sized stakes?

  6. April 10, 2012 12:10 am

    I am all about throwing things in my compost bin (which is similar to yours in the picture), but I don’t actually turn it. I just throw it in there and run away, because usually the weather here (northern Virginia) is either too hot or too cold to be out turning compost. It somehow manages to turn somewhat soily anyway, despite my neglect.

    And in the end I AM amazed at how much organic waste I produce that would otherwise rot in the dump (and you KNOW it’s not getting turned there = ) ).


  7. September 20, 2012 1:26 pm

    I freaking love this. Thank you! Oh! And thank Thoughtsy cause I totally followed the link and promptly shared this with everyone I know.


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