Composting—It is good for a more sustainable lifestyle and your garden by Lee Miller

Recently when I mentioned that I was collecting coffee grounds for compost, I was asked “What is compost?” I was a little shocked since being a gardener I thought everyone would know what compost is. Likely there are many people who don’t recognize the term, because they do not garden or, if they do, may find compost a foreign concept if they are hooked on using chemical fertilizers which are advertised widely. So what is compost?

Compost is essentially decomposed organic matter that can be made up from various organic components such as kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings, weeds, plants from the garden, including coffee grounds, alfalfa meal, hay, straw and even wood shavings and sawdust. The process of biodegrading and recycling these organic materials into useful compost is called composting. It provides a recycled product that organically improves the fertility, condition and water holding capacity of your soil. Besides the value to the soil, composting is a sustainability practice that keeps organic materials out of landfills and instead recycles the organic material for your soil. If it once was alive, it can become compost. Nature composts leaves without our help in forests and grasslands.

Fall was a great season of composting for me and after leaf fall I had 7 piles of compost going. My new home is less conducive to composting the way I used to do it using a tractor with a loader to mix and turn the compost piles at my old farm.  However, I get a little more of a workout turning piles with a fork and I have learned a new way to make compost.

One of our Master Gardeners has introduced us to using stacked bins which appear to work very well.  So many bins are constructed so it is difficult to easily turn the pile from one bin to another. There are also bins which can be turned with a crank, but are not easily loaded or have inadequate holes to permit air to penetrate the compost.

The stacked bins are constructed by stacking 36 x 36 x 6 inch board bin components to contain the compost as in the picture. The boards are fastened at the corners with screws into 2 x 2 x 6.5 inch blocks which will create half inch gaps when stacked. I was fortunate to have salvaged some redwood fence boards and have repurposed them to make compost bins. Any width board from 5 to 7 inches can be used.

It is easy to turn a pile by just moving each bin segment and then filling it using a fork. Material is forked and turned into the new bin location until the pile is totally moved and aerated. Aeration is important to make the compost breakdown faster.  Of course materials will breakdown without aeration, but it takes a long time for that to happen. For quick compost, weekly turnings are good. However, it will not breakdown if moisture is not present, so keep moisture present at about the level of a wrong-out sponge.

What do you need to make compost? Composting occurs best when the ratio of carbon components and nitrogen components are about 30 to 1. Efficient composting depends upon a well-balanced mix of ingredients, which generally fall into two categories: ‘browns’ (high carbon), and ‘greens’ (high nitrogen). Mixing fresh lawn clippings, a green source which is about ratio of 20:1 with leaves which are about 60:1 will make an ideal mixture.

However, fresh lawn clippings are not always available in the fall when leaves are coming down. Instead, I recommend, and I use, coffee grounds collected from a local coffee shop to mix with the leaves. Coffee grounds are about 2 percent nitrogen and make a good source for green material along with vegetable scraps from the kitchen. Coffee grounds are a ‘green’ material that is, in fact, colored brown. Coffee grounds can also be used as a fertilizer, but I find them more useful to make compost. There are some things that are organic, but should not be in a compost pile: noxious weeds, Bermuda grass, pet feces that may cause disease, bones or meat and dairy products that might attract varmints.

Reminder: The Master Gardeners and Master Food Preservers are holding their Smart Gardening conference on March 3 from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. It is a bargain at $25 which includes lunch and an all day long program to help you garden smarter and better. The keynote speaker is  Ernesto Sandoval, Director, UC Davis Botanical Conservatory who will talk about low water use garden projects.  For more information on workshop topics covered, go to:

If you have a gardening related question, you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found at:

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