Backyard Composting: Basics and Beyond

This past weekend, I spent many hours in my mom’s garden in Wisconsin reminiscing about the gardens of my childhood, and contemplating the hereditary nature of the green thumb.

Both my grandmother and my mother had outstanding gardens when I was a kid. While my mother favored a more practical garden full of nutrient-rich collard greens and tomatoes, Grandma D. was a whiz with flowers. My mother’s garden fed our family of eight, and even to this day resembles a horticultural science experiment as she attempts new technologies she reads about from UW Extension or hears about on the radio—one year she used a new type of row cover of shredded newspaper, the next year it was a new method for season extension using plastic milk jugs. Grandma D’s garden didn’t have as many mouths to feed. It was an amazing display of gigantic geraniums, bountiful begonias, and mountainous marigolds, each year bigger and more colorful than the last.

Despite their varied interests in gardening, mom and Grandma D. shared a passion for something so simple and yet so vital for both of their gardens—compost. Composting is as much a part of my childhood memories as rollerskating and piano lessons. It was my daily responsibility. Even through winter, it was my job to carry the old ice cream pail full of coffee grounds, egg shells, and apple cores out to the compost bin. As we composted that which we could have discarded, we did something valuable for our garden and for ourselves. Compost is beneficial for so many reasons—it aerates clay soils, increases moisture in dry soils, reduces the amount of waste you contribute to landfills, and fortifies the soil with nutrients which in turn fortify the plants.

A compost bin can be as simple as a wire frame containing a pile, or as advanced as a multiple-bin composter. It doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming, but there are some rules to follow, whether they are rules of thumb or city ordinances. It’s not too late to start your own compost pile. Here are some resources to help you get started:

The University of Minnesota Extension has a great online resource with lots of information on composting.

The City of Minneapolis has its own composting facts.

Can’t make your own compost, but still want to use it? Here’s more information on buying and using commercial compost.