Reuse It . . . Composting 101


While it feels like spring will never show her face around these parts, it is still a great time to get going on one of the greatest re-use projects ever: composting. It’s easier than you think and has lots of great benefits. Consider this a quick lesson in Composting 101.

Why should you compost? Aside from the fact that it keeps lots of useable stuff out of the landfill, it’s also great for the land itself. You don’t need a massive veggie garden plot to be able to use compost. Lawns and flowerbeds appreciate it just the same. Compost helps your soil retain moisture and returns beneficial nutrients to the soil. So put away those chemical fertilizers and get your compost on!

The easiest place to start composting is in the kitchen. Anything you eat (except meat and dairy products) can go into the compost pile. Leftover pasta. Veggie trimmings. Fruit peels or cores. Coffee grounds. Even that unfinished PB&J. Get yourself a container of some sort to store this stuff until you’re ready to haul it out to the compost spot. There are lots of fancy compost pails on the market, most good-looking enough to be left out on the counter.

But here’s a little secret: Leftovers and food garbage that sits at room temperature is not a pretty smell. Plus you’re likely to get fruit flies moving in.

Instead, I keep my compost bucket in the fridge until I’m ready to take it out. And my container? A humble plastic coffee canister. Reuse at its finest. (No, I don’t drink this much coffee—my parents do.)

In addition to the moister kitchen scraps, you’ll need dry ingredients as well. Fallen leaves, dried grass, thatch, and torn up newspaper all work well. You’ll need to layer wet and dry in approximately equal amounts every time you add ingredients.

To keep the beneficial microbes from getting lonely, I also throw in a handful of regular dirt every once in a while too. It doesn’t have to be special compost starter — just grab a handful of any dirt around your property.

The next step is to set up the actual composter. Composting can be as simple as just piling stuff in a corner of the yard and letting it rot. A couple of problems with that method though — it takes a long time to break down that way, and you’re likely to get animals foraging through your kitchen scraps. Plus, it’s ugly. And unturned compost tends to break down anaerobically, which stiiiiiinks!

So you’ll want to set up some sort of system that allows you to turn the compost on a regular basis, which aerates the pile and speeds decomposition.

Another fantastic reuse project is to build a compost bin built from wooden pallets. I had a similar set up for a while, but turning the pile killed my back. Also, my husband thought it was ugly. So I switched to a compost tumbler. (I got mine at Costco, but you can also make your own from a 50-gallon plastic barrel). Either way, you’ll want at least two bins, so you can fill up one pile/bin, then leave it to decompose while you add ingredients to the other.

Here’s a secret that you won’t find emphasized enough in most gardening books: compost needs water. It’s pretty dang dry here, which means your compost won’t rot if you don’t add moisture.

Instead you may wind up with a big pile of dry, icky stuff that ants really love to make their homes in. Yup, I’m speaking from experience. In fact, the best compost venture I had was when I put the pile closer to the veggies than I had intended, and wound up watering the pile when I watered the garden.

If you have bin setup or a tumbler, you’ll want to add some water each time you add ingredients. I usually rinse out my pail and throw the water in the composter. Turn your compost once a week or so, and in the warm summer weather, you may get finished compost in about a month.

Finally, here’s a note on things NOT to add to your compost operation:

  • weeds such as dandelion or thistle (again…learned that the hard way)
  • plant clippings recently treated with herbicide or pesticides
  • whole fruits or veggies (chop them up, even if they’re rotten)
  • sticks and twigs
  • meat products
  • dairy products

The benefits of composting for your landscaping or garden are huge, and the benefit of making your own is that you know EXACTLY what went into it. The worms will thank you!

Hope you enjoyed this lesson in Composting 101! I’d love to hear your composting stories so please add any comments below.


Click here to see Lisa Hensley’s Reuse It Archive.


Lisa Hensley is a mostly-native Montanan, living in Missoula with her husband, two young boys, two cats (boys), one tiny dog (a girl!) and 4 fish (probably boys). She spent more than 10 years in the Marketing and creative field, but is now Director of Household Operations for the Hensley group. When she’s not herding kids or doing laundry, she’s shooting photos, gardening, baking, reading or taking classes—sometimes all at once. She serves on the Board of Directors for Home ReSource, which fits in nicely with her tendency to repurpose pretty much anything.