Dirt Therapy: A Beginner's Guide to Healthier Soil

With autumn settling in and the leaves starting to fill your yard, this is the perfect time to begin composting. Composting is great for all gardeners because it improves soil, which in turn prevents plant diseases. And it can even reduce harmful greenhouse gases. I often call composting the lazy person’s guide to gardening. You don’t really have to think about it once you get going. With the right compost bin and evenly mixed greens and browns, you’ll see amazing results in a few months. The “black gold” you’ve created for the healthiest soil will grow the healthiest plants.

How to Get Started

There are several types of containers to choose from. A simple rubber trash can makes a great compost bin—it fits in small spaces, has a lid to keep animals out and is easy to move around the garden. Be sure to drill holes along the sides and bottom in order for air to circulate the decamped matter you will place inside. Raise the trash can on bricks so material doesn’t stagnate inside bin. Add uncooked vegetable scraps, dried leaves, grass clippings and disease-free plant material. It is helpful to chop the vegetables into small pieces so that they will break down quickly. Keep moist by adding water and be sure to turn every week—you can roll the trash can on its side with the lid on or take a long wooden stick or rebar to stir. Don’t make it too heavy with material that you can’t stir. The compost will be ready in a few months.

I prefer repurposed wooden pallets to create my compost bin. It’s inexpensive, easy to turn material, naturally aerates the decomposed matter and keeps the pets away. I wire three pallets together to form a U shape and start adding waste in a ratio of three “browns” to one “green.” Browns are carbon-rich materials and include wood chips, straw, branches and leaves. Greens provide nitrogen and include grass clippings and kitchen scraps, like eggshells and carrot tops. Be sure to add water as you layer your material and use a pitchfork to turn once a week. Don’t let the pile dry out. If it starts to smell, add more browns.

What Can You Put in Your Composter?

  • Uncooked vegetables and fruits—be sure to cut them up into small pieces so they will break down faster. This is helpful with a small compost bin.
  • Grass clippings
  • Dried leaves
  • Disease-free plant material
  • Shredded paper
  • Avoid sticks and woody plant materials because they will not break down.

How to Tell if Compost is Ready

When it’s ready for use—which could take anywhere from a few months to a year—compost looks and smells like very dark soil. If you’re unsure, put it to the baggie test: place a small amount in a plastic bag and take a whiff before sealing. Then place the bag in a drawer for a few days. When you open the bag, the sample should smell the same as it did before. If it smells worse, your compost needs more time in the pile.