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Activities / Colorado Livin'

Composting: How to create gold in your own backyard!

Google “composting” and you will have over 16 million websites at your fingertips – brought to you in 0.10 seconds. Search on the Arapahoe County Library website for “compost” and 30 books will come up all talking about composting and gardening in one way or another from “idiot’s guide…”, to “complete guide…”, to kids picture books and even one with the mysterious title of “the secret life…”.

That’s a lot of attention and devotion to rotting food and plants. Most people would call that trash but, a gardener calls it gold.

How do you get your hands on this elusive gold? A popular question these days. The answer, as always in the world or gardening…patience and persistence, young grasshopper.

In today’s commerce drive culture, a lot of money can go a long way towards instant gratification, including the garden. On the other hand, today’s gardener – urban, suburban, and otherwise – all know that we typically have the means and know-how already and simply need to tap into our creative outlet to generate a wealth of garden solutions.

You can buy pre-rotted, pre-made, pre-aged compost at any gardening center or major all-purpose box store. It’s dirt with lots of nutrients that you toss on the ground to help things grow. There are even numerous nurseries in the area that will bring it to you by the truck load and dump it on your driveway creating hours of fun and enjoyment for every neighborhood kid under the age of 10 and enough work to send you into a tub of Ben-Gay by sundown.

As a culture, and to the delight of every tree-hugging environmental enthusiast world-wide, urban agriculture is “in”. Did it ever go out, really? Perhaps just cycles of interest over the years.

Apartment and townhouse dwellers are tired of looking out the windows of their high rise buildings and down upon those urban homes with a yard and a tomato plant with luscious fruit gleaming in the sun. Those land-lacking urban folks want fresh-just-picked-from-the-garden gorgeous, sweet, red tomatoes on their veggie burgers too!

Balconies and patios and windows are filling up all over Denver with pots and containers filled with lettuce and tomatoes and basil every where you look. The new urban squatters are taking over neighboring yards of abandoned homes and filling them with, gasp, peppers and cucumbers and beets, oh my!

A good garden requires good soil, as anyone who paid attention in grammar school science has been told. You can buy that good soil or you can make it yourself – even in the city and without a yard!

Peek into any one of those composting and gardening books or surf one of the multitude of composting websites and you’ll see that by taking the waste we normally create in preparing our food and diverting it from the trash to any number of compost systems and you will have, in time, created your own nutrient dense dirt with which to fill with all manner of pots and containers with seeds and plants that can feed you and your family for any number of days or weeks or months to come.

Idealistic? Well, yes. Completely doable for anyone with creativity and again, young grasshopper, patience? Absolutely!

Before you dig into all those resources, remember that the simplest solution to any problem is to keep it, well, simple. You could spend the rest of your life sifting through 16 million websites and a good many years (or months if a certified speed-reader) to weed through the multitude of books available.

Keep it simple people. You’ll have dirt under your nails and home-grown tomatoes on your plate a lot sooner that way.

There is hope for the even land-lacking gardener.

Here’s a basic rundown, the abridged version, of all those books and websites:

  1. You need a place to put the stuff: trash can with holes drilled in, a round container fashioned from wire, purchased compost bin, pallets, plastic storage tub.
  2. Layer dry and wet materials, also known as brown and green – plant material only, no animal products. Most of us have plenty of wet, green kitchen scraps to put on the pile and not as much dry, brown. Using shredded newspaper and even egg cartons (stick with pages and cartons with only black ink, no toxic color please) qualifies for the brown classification.
  3. Invite or add critters to come and dine. The creepy crawlers are needed to eat what would have been trash, digest it and poop it out – and that, in honest terms people is how compost is made.
  4. Turn the pile if you feel like it. If it’s not possible to get in there with a pitch fork and turn the pile you can make or purchase and aerator, basically a big metal stick, to poke holes in the pile. The more the pile is turned, the faster it will decompose.
  5. Water if it gets dry.

That’s composting in a nut shell (toss that on the pile when you’re done).

With that very simplistic overview knowledge in-hand, you can now browse a few books and read a few websites to glean more details and figure out which type of container will work for your space and get it all set up. From there you just pile on the trash, give it a good turn every now and then, and in a few months or by next spring (depending on turning rates, warmth, moisture, etc.) you’ll have gold.

The urban, land-lacking dweller can go with the plastic tub, buy some worms at a fishing supply store or, of course, on-line, add wet, shredded newspaper and kitchen trash. The worms will be happy in their dark, wet, plastic universe as long as you continue to add new food. In a few months, the worms will have cycled through the scraps and created the gardening gold.

Even I was surprised by this system. Who knew that a plastic tub in the house could create, over time, gardening gold?

In my backyard we have two compost bins. A plastic bin purchased 12 years ago for $120 and a pallet bin created for free from found materials. My infatuation with the all-purpose pallet continues.

Three pallets have been put together to create a rather large space where we throw our kitchen trash. The pallet bin is much more poplar with everyone and the purchased bin goes neglected. The act of taking off the lid has proven to be an impediment. The general consensus is that tossing trash on a pile is easier and, frankly, more fun.

The children have even become used to placing food waste into a plastic bowl on the counter and they often volunteer, yes you heard it right, they volunteer to put it the compost on the pile. My daughter admonished my husband last week for tossing egg shells into the trash can when, as she pointed out in very stern, strongly toned words, “that goes into the compost pile, dad!”

My husband created our pallet bin at the beginning of spring and we have added kitchen trash everyday, cut up tree branches and leaves go on there too. He brings home organic produce scraps from his job at a natural food store too so we’ve had a lot of material added in a short time.

Turning the pile today, I took a moment to look at the activity in the pile. The compost books I checked out from the library reminded me that there is a flurry of activity going on in any compost pile.

First, I had to put aside the fact that I was looking a pile of trash that I deliberately put in my yard. I took a deep breath. It smelled good. It smelled fresh, earthy, rich. Next, I noticed the movement. Bugs galore were scurrying all around. After I got over the initial instinct to swat and smash every critter, I realized that these buggers are doing all the work!

WOW! I’m shocked to say that I’ve invited creepy crawlers to my yard and I’m happy with the result. Under the pile of rotting egg shells, corn cobs, and cantaloupe that was over ripe and smelled funny, there is black gold!

Thanks to the ants and worms and flies and pill bugs and wasps and other little tiny flying and crawling bugs, the pile of trash has become lush, dark, beautiful compost! If we keep this up, we’ll have a huge pile of gold by the time spring comes around again. Our tomatoes will be bigger and redder, our beans will be longer and plumper, our zucchini will be, dare I say, more prolific!

Books I enjoyed from the library:

“Basic Composting” by Eric Ebeling

“Let it Rot” by Stew Campbell

“Compost” by Ken Thompson


If you would rather someone show you how, then you’re in luck! The Denver Urban Gardens hosts composting classes, including the super-duper worm method, from April through October every year! Visit for more all the details. There’s many chances for you to get in on the fun of turning trash into gardening gold!

Heather Ruch
Author: Heather Ruch

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1 Comment

  1. Fantastic resource on composting. When I was home, I was surprised to see my dear ol’ 70-year-old dad doing it so it’s never too late to start!

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