How to Compost in Your Backyard

Compost in Your Backyard
 I know, *Jed Clampett thinks crude oil is "black gold," but he's wrong. Compost is the real black gold -- especially when it comes to residential gardening. You may think making your own compost is a nasty, hard and smelly proposition, but that's just not true. *Yard trimmings and food make up about 27 percent of municipal waste in the U.S. With a foolproof recipe and a few facts, composting can be dead useful and a pretty satisfying way to turn trash into treasure.

What is Compost?

Compost is: "a mixture of decaying vegetation (and/or manure) used as a fertilizer." There are a number of ways to compost, from creating a tidy pile of kitchen scraps and other useful ingredients in your garden and giving it time to season -- with a little help from you -- to buying a composting bin or drum to make compost prep a stand up job. You can also compost indoors using worms. (This is actually way more fun than it sounds.)

Compost is the essential ingredient that makes square foot gardening so impressively productive. It helps to provide vegetables with what they need to flourish -- and ultimately gives your body what it needs to flourish, too. The problem is that successful composting involves chemistry, the science of -- well, let's call it garden-beneficial decay. It's miraculous when it works, and a big mess when it doesn't.

Compost in Your Yard
The "when it doesn't" part is what makes lots of folks skittish. It can lead to moldering piles of gunk that smell like rotten eggs or even your favorite feline's used kitty litter. A failed compost heap is a science experiment gone horribly wrong. It's not hard to avoid composting disasters most of the time, though, and fix the ones that do occur.

Here's a simple comparison: You know you need the right ingredients to make biscuits. Forget the baking powder, and you end up with crackers. Work the dough too much, and the biscuits won't be flaky -- you get the idea. Once you know a few important rules, you're good to go. Making compost is like that too.

Grab Some Kitchen Scraps and Start Composting

If you've been afraid to set up a composting station on your property, I'm here to encourage you to give it a try. Make this year the year you start turning kitchen scraps into fertilizer for your vegetables and flowers. If you're a garden lover, there's a wonderful kind of symmetry to it you'll appreciate. Start small by reading up on composting. It won't take long, and it's a transformative story with drama, heat and a few dirty moments. You'll love it.

I've rounded up some resources that will help. I wrote a post about vermicomposting a while back -- that's composting using worms. I've included it in the list. I've also added a link to a video as well as a very nice list of 80 things around that house that you can safely compost. That one's an eye opener that'll give you a nice grasp of how useful some of the "stuff" you toss in the garbage can be.

Composting in Your Backyard
Oh, if you think this may be a good project for next year, be sure to check out your county fair this summer. There's almost always a composting booth with experts ready to give you the straight scoop about all things compost related. One year at the Indiana State Fair they were giving newbie composters plastic compost fencing material free of charge. In this economy don't expect that kind of generosity, but do check out the composting booth for some good ideas and enthusiastic encouragement:

  • Compost Truth or Consequences Video - I like this two part 15 minute video because it offers all the basics, including easy to understand troubleshooting techniques. It was developed as a teaching tool by Cornell University. It also comes with a handy free PDF booklet. Take a look. It will demystify composting.
  • Composting Frequently Asked Questions - After you watch the video, you'll probably have questions. Cornell University's composting FAQ page will answer a few of them. It sidesteps the chemical jargon, so it's an easy read: 
  • 80-Plus Items You Can Compost - Here's the list of 80 things you can put in your compost pile from the folks at Networx. To keep your pile pristine, print out the list and keep it on your fridge. It'll help you avoid mistakes like throwing meat scraps on the pile. (That's a big no-no.)
  • How to Start a Vermicomposting Bin - This is my blog about worm composting. I wrote it before vermicomposting really caught on, so it describes the process as well as a DIY approach to starting your own little worm farm in the garage. Nowadays you can find lots of kits that will get you started faster, so lose the drill and grab your credit card: 
  • Cornell Waste Management Institute - Composting - If you want more information about composting, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's site will direct you to a list of comprehensive resources on the subject. This is one recommended site. It'll teach you more than you probably want to know about the science of composting and its attendant benefits. 
You've got to wonder what's in all those chemical fertilizers you've been using on your landscape. Wouldn't it be nice to produce a more wholesome, natural product in your own garden? Come on! Give it a try -- and don't forget to let me know how it goes.
Environmental Protection Agency. "Composting." 11/15/11. 

"Black Gold" and Jed Clampett are references to the television series: The Beverly Hillbillies that ran on the CBS network (1962 to 1971). 

Compost: Truth or Consequences. 1998. Video produced by Photosynthesis Productions, Inc. and Cornell Waste Management Institute. Distributed by Bullfrog Films, P.O. Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 610-779-8226


  1. Hi Sara - I don't understand why more people don't compost...maybe because it seems too complicated or messy? I have a compost piles at the allotment and home as well as a wormery. Between them it's possible to recycle all our food and garden waste into wonderful free compost.

  2. Hi Tanya,

    I think more people would compost if they knew how easy and satisfying it can be. We dedicated composters should be out trying to convert the neighbors.

    Composting is kinda fun and very useful. It's a great way to teach kids about nature, too.

    I so love worm composting -- which is a big surprise. I've developed a fondness for worms, actually. They have a tough job and don't get the respect they deserve.

    Thanks for commenting,


  3. I tried to compost at my old apartment on the balcony using a trash can, that went bad; used to much moisture. I have since bought a house and started a compost pile in the back yard behind storage shed (brought the trash can full of nasty with and added to pile of pine straw). I have since started a new pile to let the original finish cooking. I thought about purchasing one of the large rolling drums, but just can't come off the money for one when a pile in the back yard is free (but defiantly not as fast).


Share some ideas.