The Dirt on Composting

Nothing says spring like the sound of lawnmowers and the smell of fresh-cut grass. This weekend ritual leads to grass clippings and the dilemma of what to do with the waste.

Most people bag this and kick it to the curb for the greens truck to pick up. Then they head over to a garden center, buy bags of soil and lug those home to add to their garden.

Hmm, seems just a little silly to me, all that extra transport, gas, resources, etc. (not to mention the brown paper bags that had to be chemically processed so you can put grass in them). Why do that when YOU can be the maker of dirt…that’s right…you can make your own, it’s called composting and here’s the scoop on how to do it.

I know that not all people are in a situation where they can have a compost heap at the scale at which I do, but if you can spare a corner in your yard, you will be adding this beautiful black nutrient rich humus to your garden in no time. I pride myself in my ability to make ‘dirt’ (hoo rah) 

I’d say that my heaps are about 4′ x 7′ each. The composter to the left is only to hold some soil or ‘mostly done’ compost for adding to the pile in winter. On the right is the ‘cooking’ pile ( the fresh grass clippings where dumped on the top of the pile temporarily ) and the flat area in the middle is where I just shoveled out the last of the ready humus you see in the wheelbarrow picture above.

People get confused about compost, the do’s and the don’t (s), how often to turn it, what to add etc. It’s really quite simple, just ask yourself ‘what would mother nature do?’ Just follow these basic rules and you’ll be fine. Always build your pile in layers, a layer of brown and a layer of green.

  • Brown Layer- this is dead leaves, straw, sawdust, ash etc. This layer includes soil but I define this separately in my situation as an open air heap being built-in the raining Pacific Northwest. I use straw as a layer to help prevent the pile from becoming sour (smelly and slimy) due to the amount of  precipitation we get here in the winter.
  • Green Layer- This can be grass clippings, garden waste, kitchen trimmings (vegetable peels, coffee grounds) etc. Absolutely no animal bones or carcass’s…unless you want a rodent problem. I add egg shells and oyster shells to my heap, but I smash them first as they take a very long time to break down. I sprinkle this layer with a fertilizer called Rot -It (see more info below) before adding my soil layer.
  • Soil- Or what I use is partially broken down compost.

Brown Layer

Green Layer

Soil Layer











I got the straw from a local feed store, be sure it is straw and not hay...less seeds. I lay it down first, then add the grass clippings. This is where you can add your kitchen trimmings etc then add a sprinkle of the Rot It fertilizer. Now add a layer of semi composted material from the pile on your right and then finally (this is important) wet it with a hose (use a water wand for even distribution).

Wetting it activates the microorganisms (and fertilizer) to start the decomposing process. This is especially important in areas where it’s really dry. I don’t worry about this step in the winter where I live, but I do wet it often in my layering in the summer.

The term ‘cooking’ is just that, the pile will heat up if the proper Carbon : Nitrogen ratio is reached and the beneficial bacteria goes to work breaking down the fresh materials. Water and air are crucial to this process…too much of either will shut it down or ‘cool’ the pile.

So proper turning adds air, and wetting it between layers helps activate the microorganisms. Don’t over think this process and worry you’re not doing it right, you’ll get to know when the pile is cool and when its cooking.

Generally an equal part 1:1 (green : brown) ratio is just fine.

My heap goes back and forth from right to left to right again in my ‘turning’ of the pile. As new waste is added to the ‘fresh’ pile (left), I strip off a layer of the ‘cooking’ pile (right) and add it to the growing heap. I’ll repeat this process going the other way once I remove the finished compost at the bottom of the heap on the right and start a new pile. The key to keeping your compost active is to turn it often. The outer most crust gets ‘cold’ and doesn’t break down, so stripping this and adding it to your new pile as your ‘brown’ layer will ensure that it get’s back into the process again.

Worms…you want to see a lot of these while the pile is cooking. They’re contribution to the process is known as vermicomposting. These little wigglers are our soldiers when it comes to the breaking down process, they show up to finish off the compost after the microorganisms have done their job and work away at the partially decomposed matter and turning it into castings.

As they work the pile, they tunnel through creating path ways where air or water can circulate. My personal clue that the compost is ready is when I get to the bottom of the cooking pile…and the last 12″ to 18″ of soil is mostly void of worms leaving behind a fluffy rich black humus. The lack of worms at this stage generally means that the process is complete and the worms have moved on in their search for some fresh food.

Now your wondering…how long does all this take before you have wheelbarrow loads to spread on your garden beds. 

It depends, are you a ‘turner’ or a ‘let it sit and rotter’.

It can take from 1 month to a year depending on how you manage your pile and how much material your working with. I generally get three harvests (if you want to call it that) from my heap a year. I get a big one in the late winter (Jan/Feb) from all the falls debris, another one late spring (May/June) from the first half of the years wastes, and another one in the early fall (Sept/Oct) from summer debris.

I never let it bother me if I don’t get to eat all the vegetables I grew, or if I have to throw out that rotting tomato in the fridge. These all get added to the compost and what others may see as a waste…I see as nutrients (ingredients) I can add to my home-made soil mix. It’s a cycle of waste, to food and back to waste again…

and its fabulous.

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