Good things for the garden: Composting 101

This post has nothing to do with  pretty homes or lampshades or great kitchen design's a pretty important subject if you like to garden
The composter is a gardeners best friend!!!
Lets just get to the facts...rotten yard waste and the adventures of vermi the worm equals great compost!

  It's a spot to dump the grass clippings, a huge bag of dried leaves, last nights salad greens and this morning coffee grounds and orange rinds.
  You can throw in  just about anything that gets pruned or clipped, mowed or arranged in a vase.  Many gardeners chuck in the morning newspaper too.

So here is our set up in Ojai:  and while this doesn't even begin to take care of the stuff we churn out of the garden every week, it's a nice place to start and the benefits for the garden are huge and better than any bagged product I can buy at the nursery...and its free!

We opted for this traditional 3 bin system, which allows you to move the compost along as the material begins to break down.  Our fence/deck contractor built this for us out of redwood.  Ours is 12 feet long and 3 feet deep.  
The bin sits directly on the ground with the back and interior sides secured and separated with chicken wire.
The advantage of having the bin sit directly on soil is that the material can get really hot which speeds up the whole decomposing process.  
  This bin system is also nice looking and it sits adjacent to the orchard and is relatively close to most of the large perennial beds and grassy areas

The slats along the front pull out for easy access.   
This stuff can get really heavy when its soggy and can be tough to turn, so pulling the fronts off the bins is really helpful. 

 The tops are done in galvanized metal and each bin has its own lid.  
Having the  lids secure is a must, because we have so many little critters (rats, possums, racoons etc)  and they look at last nights salad and a few rotten strawberries like a reservation at a four star restaurant....Best seat in the house no less!
So here is the big dilemma for most gardeners...  
How do you really get the compost going and rotting quickly so you haven't waited an entire year to add some good nutritious mother earth back into your garden?

The key is to use a compost starter layered in with your first batch of yard clippings.  I've read many articles that say a starter isn't necessary but it works!
  It is also important to get the ratio of Carbon(the brown stuff) to Nitrogen(the green stuff)  correct.  
Most manuals on composting will tell you a ratio of 25-30:1 is best.  
Depending on what else you choose to add i.e.:chicken poop, horse manure , etc., the ratio can change, usually allowing you to add more Carbon to the mix.

Our experience has been to add a bit more green and a few shovels full of garden soil at the start because that seems to speed things up too.  
When the compost finally reaches the third bin you will have a bout 2/3 less material than you started with.  

About three weeks before your batch looks like it might be can throw in  some worms.
Worm composting is called vermicomposting.

When its done in conjunction with the regular process at the end you get some added benefits and super rich black compost.
Most garden centers now carry worms or you can get them shipped directly to your home from sites like this one here.

There are literally hundreds of good books about composting, but I like this book called Let it Rot by Stu Campbell.
It is pretty simplistic and clear and actually fun to read.  
I think this is now the 4th edition, so that's a lot of books sold to novices like me!

Most urban gardens are probably to small to warrant the 3 bin system but there are so many great alternatives out there right now. 
Here is an example of a tumbler that looks pretty easy to use and takes up very little space. 

 Wouldn't it be great if every new home sold in the US came with a compost tumbler....

 You will also need are a good pitch fork to turn the compost.   
Garden suppliers offer up other little gadgets like thermometers and auger turners,  but you really don't need either.  

You can tell how hot the compost is just by sticking you hand near the compost mix and it also gets really steamy. 

So there are the facts about some really good stuff for the garden.  
I would love to hear your own composting ideas and things that work in your garden!


  1. great post with a lot of helpful information!

  2. hi kellie,

    we started composting last year and we are both so into it, it's crazy! i'll show this post to my husband when i'm done.

    right now we just have 3 separate piles that we cover with a black tarp. it's working pretty well but we've been thinking about building something so this post will be handy. we can already see a big difference in the plants as everything looks so much stronger this year.


  3. Hi Kelley,

    I have been thinking about the quality of my soil (which I know is quite good, meaning it's not so clayey that it doesn't absorb moisture and not so sandy that nothing but beach grass grows.....but looking at some gardens where the plants seem so healthy and lush, that's what I'm looking for...I don't want spindly plants that look like they are at death's I know this is something I have to think about. I found this to be a really informative post and certainly gives me compost for thought!!!!! Hope you are having a great week.
    Take care.
    Tasmania, Australia

  4. really great info!

    my mom in NH does some informal composting - just a square caged area that she dumps everything in. (direct on the ground) She moves it seasonally (spring/fall) and turns it to reveal some "yum yum" for the plants as she likes to call it!

  5. this is something we'd love to start doing one day.....informative article.
    thanks Kelley!

  6. Well Kelley...I must admit to know virtually nothing about composting...thanks for a very fun lesson!!!

  7. Great article. I might add that for those that are limited by space, vermicomposting is a great solution. You can check out my site ( to learn a bit more about worm composting or shop for a worm bin suitable for even small city apartments. Happy composting!


  8. Hi David...what a great name, the urban worm man!


  9. Hi Kelley, My web travels have found a commune living off the grid that weaves a hose through the steamy compost pile and attaches it to an outdoor shower! Who wud'a thought?

  10. Just curious Ivey never done this before but my question is am I suppose to cut all my vegetables in small pieces first? Or is it suppose to fall apart within time? Any feedback would be great!


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