Did you know that composting can transform your trash into new life? And that new life, in the form of microbes, fungi, earthworms, and more, provides the foundation for much of all other healthy life on Earth.
Composting is a great way to create healthy soil to support our people and our planet. Healthy soil is also a magical carbon sink that absorbs carbon from our atmosphere and helps cool the planet. While dead dirt has few living organisms, a teaspoon of healthy soil has more living organisms in it than the entire population of humans on Planet Earth!(1)
We need the world to compost!
Don’t think you can compost? We’ve got a whole set of resources on Everything To Know About Composting At Home, including more You Can Make Dirt interviews. All of this information about composting at home will hopefully prove that just about anyone can make space and find a system to turn their food scraps into nutrient-rich compost to enrich our soil, feed our food cycle, and limit the food waste that ends up in landfills.
This series highlights families in various circumstances who have all found a way that composting works for their lifestyle. Hopefully, you can be inspired to give it a go and help our planet stay a little healthier.
Meet Elana from Salvage and Stitch. A master with the sewing machine (at least in my opinion) with a creative knack for DIYing her own refashions, she also likes to get her hands dirty in her urban garden. She’s made space for growing food as well as for feeding those plants with her own compost.
She lives in a city with a composting program, which definitely makes composting a bit easier, but she’s also proof that you can have your own compost even in a small urban yard. I’ll let her share more details about how she works her dirt-making magic.
Tell us a little bit about where you live and what method you use for composting. Do you have any special tools or products (compost bin in your kitchen, compost bin outdoors, etc…) that help you make it easier or more efficient?
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area in a 100 year old fourplex apartment building in south Berkeley, where someone, at some point, created a garden plot. Berkeley is densely urban, but many people garden and compost, and I always knew that I wanted to have my own compost pile.
I have a small space in my garden to keep a compost pile, housed in a wooden structure that my partner and I built from scratch. We usually create a layered compost pile with a ratio of 3 parts brown matter to 1 part green matter. Brown matter (dead leaves, paper shreds, dead plants, etc.) is layered between green matter (grass clippings, vegetable scraps), watered, and turned with a pitchfork every week to allow for aeration. Honestly, buying a pitchfork was game changer with how fast we can now turn our compost over, but aside from that we’ve not purchased anything. We just pile the compost, add to it, and let nature do its work.
We keep a bucket in our kitchen for vegetable scraps, and take them to the compost pile every evening. When our compost pile is too full of scraps, we take advantage of our city’s green waste disposable system. Berkeley creates and redistributes compost to residents from our unwanted vegetable and yard waste.
What do your neighbors think about it? Does it bother them?
Luckily for us, our neighbors are fine with the compost pile! Because we live in such a small building, it’s actually been really easy to get other people involved in composing as well. My
only complaint is that sometimes my neighbors will continue adding to the pile before I can scoop out the finished compost, which is prompting me to maybe create a second pile nearby. The surrounding neighbors don’t have any idea we compost, but given the amount of gardens on our street, I doubt we have the only compost pile on our block.
Have you had any trouble with animals getting into your compost bin?
Because we live in such an urban area, rats, squirrels and racoons are the biggest threats to our compost, but they mostly keep away and dig up my garden beds instead. I’ve had a much bigger problem with ants. While some ants are welcome in a compost pile because they aerate the soil, an entire ant nest means your compost is too dry. Living in a dry climate perpetually in drought, it’s difficult to keep my compost moist enough, even in the shade. I’ve found that the best thing one can do with an ant nest is to water it, turn the compost as normal, and get really comfortable with seeing millions of ants scurry from it. I really hope this doesn’t scare anyone away!
Do you keep it near your garden?
Yes, the pile is kept in the garden plot. Half of the garden gets poor sun because a leafy tree hangs over it. When we cleared the plot last year to revitalize it, my neighbor and I decided that the shady space would make the perfect place for compost. At first, we just had a pile of decaying kitchen waste, which I disliked because it meant I couldn’t turn it without the pile spreading. Compost needs to be piled relatively high for material to break down, so we built a fence for it.
How big is your garden? Does the compost pile take up a lot of space?
Our garden is separated into two plots divided by a path to our shed, the total square footage being about 20 by 20 feet. Thankfully, the compost is on the side that doesn’t get sun. I can only grow brassicas and lettuce on that side, even in mid-summer. The compost pile is about 3x3x3 feet. I read somewhere that this is a good starter size for starting a compost pile. That said, composting material decreases in size pretty quickly, so most of the time the compost looks relatively flat.
How do you keep the compost that’s ready for use separate from the compost that still decomposing? Do you have separate piles or spaces?
I usually use the ready compost pretty fast as I’m an avid gardener, but when I don’t have space for it I store it in big planters that have drainage holes for the worms to escape.
What’s the biggest benefit you’ve seen from composting?
Being able to manage my own food waste and turn it into something that allows me to grow more food is life changing. I’m much more aware of how much energy it takes to grow food, and how much energy it also takes to compost food, which has significantly reduced the amount of food I’m willing to waste. Sometimes, those who don’t compost themselves have this idea that compost is magic, that if one doesn’t finish something in the fridge, composting it will pacify their guilt. While composting is great for getting rid of unwanted food scraps, it still takes months to decompose back into soil, and watching that process has made me more reluctant to waste food.
I also love that with very little effort I can transform what many people believe is garbage into the material it takes to grow new life, for free. Many people have the idea that starting a garden means paying lots of money upfront to amend one’s soil, which can still be helpful for some, but compost is a great benefit to the soil already.
Anything else you’d like to share about composting to help others, particularly those new to composting, get started and overcome any fears or hesitations?
When I started composting by myself (I composted with a group of people before I moved to my current home), I was really afraid that I would mess up my compost and end up with nothing. I went out and looked at my compost pile everyday to see if it was doing anything and spent hours researching compost. While I suggest doing a lot of research to understand the science behind how your compost breaks down, resist the urge to obsess! Take your compost as it comes. Almost all compost problems can be solved.
The best advice I ever read on composting was that regardless of your method, how much you turn it, water it, ignore it, or obsess over it, you’ll probably end up with fresh compost in six months maximum… even as a beginner. Just have fun watching your stuff decompose and learn as you go.
Where else can we find you? (Blog, social media, etc..)?
(1) According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.