Composting 101

I like to make stuff. I can make quilts, scarves, sweaters and more. But there's one thing I can make that is a little more unconventional, dirt. You read that right. As crazy as it sounds, I make my own dirt for the garden.

Gardening in Tucson is a bit of a challenge. It's hot, dry, and the soil here is a rock hard clay called caliche. It's not an easy environment for growing herbs and vegetables. A few years ago, I did most of my gardening in containers. It was easy enough to buy a bag of potting soil at the nursery and fill the containers before planting. As I began thinking about building my wine bottle garden, I realized I was going to need a lot more dirt that was very nutrient rich to compensate for the terrible soil here. That's when I started learning about composting.

Composting is the process of decomposing organic matter into a nutrient rich soil amendment. Some of the articles I read about composting made it sound like a difficult, time consuming task that should be left to the professional horticulturalist. But, I am always up for an interesting challenge, so I thought I would give it a try.


The first thing you need is some sort of container outside to hold your organic matter (fruit, veggie, and plant waste.)

I constructed two bins out of some old bricks that in a former life were part of our patio. I also use pieces of pegboard to cover them. I like to use two bins so I can add new organic matter to one while the other is just decomposing.

You can build a bin out of almost anything. Old kitchen cabinets work great or you could use scrap lumber. It doesn't have to be fancy. If you are not the DIY construction type you can even buy simple compost bins like these. Pre-assembled bins come in a variety of sizes and price ranges. 

A good compost bin has:

  • an open bottom so it is exposed to the ground
  • air flow because things can't decompose without oxygen
  • a cover to maintain the temperature and moisture (and keep out large critters)

Once you have your bin, it's time to start adding your dirt ingredients.

Most of my compost ingredients come from our kitchen. I compost a lot of the veggie parts that don't get used for cooking - stalks, skins and peels.

What can go in your compost:

  • fruits and veggies
  • coffee grounds
  • crushed eggshells - if you don't crush them, they take forever to decompose
  • yard waste like leaves and cut grass
  • wood shavings - aspen or pine bedding from pet rodent cages

What NOT to put in your compost:

  • meat or dairy products
  • animal waste
  • weeds
  • large branches - they will decompose, but not nearly as fast as the materials listed above
  • anything moldy or diseased
Once you start adding organic stuff to your bin nature does most of the work for you. Two things you can do to help the process along are add a little moisture occasionally and turn the materials in your bin with a shovel to keep the air flowing. Don't panic, though. Even if you never add moisture or turn the compost, nature will take it's course and everything will magically become dirt. It just takes a little longer.


After your organic matter is broken down, add it to your garden or a container. You can use it with another type of soil or on it's own.

Composting is a great way to reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill as well as provide valuable nutrients to your garden!

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The Chilly Dog: Composting 101
Composting 101
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