The Dirt on Composting

By Colleen Smith

The poet Robert Frost once commented on Iowa’s dirt, saying something to the effect that the soil looked good enough to eat without putting vegetables through it.

That’s not the case in Colorado. Here, we’re talking a semiarid and mostly sunny climate with a clay soil that bakes into the consistency of adobe. To support gardening, the soil needs amending and, oftentimes, mulching. Compost provides an ideal means for both.

compostflowers095Like the plants compost fortifies, the practice of backyard composting grows and grows.

Landscape designer Laurie Jekel begins every landscaping project by amending the soil with compost. “People think I’m nuts: All I talk about is compost,” says Lori, owner of The Last Detail in Denver. “I don’t spray; I don’t get bugs; I can cut down on watering; I get three years’ growth out of one year–and it’s all about the soil,” she says.

Denver Botanic Gardens horticulturists Chris Story and Tracy Gray tout composting as a way to reduce waste, save money and produce valuable garden amendments.

compostjudy018And the local queen of composting, Judy Elliot, supports their zeal, noting that compost feeds plants better than chemical fertilizer, reduces diseases better than chemical herbicides, and can decrease water bills by up to 40 percent.

“If you get involved in composting, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor instead of laboring over your fruits,” says Judy, an educator with Denver Urban Gardeners. “Composting makes gardening easier. It’s a no-fail endeavor.”

Composting turns trash to treasure. It’s as simple as that. And the process need not be complicated or labor intensive, either, nor smelly nor messy. To the contrary, Judy says. “Composting is a simplification. It takes us back to our roots.”

compostcans063To demonstrate, she oversees the Denver Recycles Backyard Composting Demonstration site at 13th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard that showcases compost bins of various sizes and shapes. Open from May to October, the demo site shows a variety of compost bins with compost piles in various stages of decomposition.

“There’s no special equipment or expense. Composting needs to be available to everyone, independent of budget or lifestyle,” Judy says.

compostshovel120Visitors can view a bumper crop of commercial bins, alongside models homemade from wood palates or cinder blocks. Testimony to the impact of compost, the site is lush with trumpet vines trailed over a pergola, cheery sunflowers, swaths of cosmos and lamb’s ear.

“Compost is a metaphor for healthy living,” Judy says. “Composting helps us establish a relationship with the environment.”

Green thumb green-minded environmentalists in the Rocky Mountain West know that composting serves a particularly important role in the regional landscape.

“If the soil is too dense, water and oxygen can’t get to the roots. Compost opens up the soil,” Judy says. “And compost can hold 100 percent of its weight in water.”

compostworms105And composters can drastically reduce their trash collectors’ loads, too. According to Denver Recycles, composting reduces what individuals send to the landfills by more than 255 pounds per year per person.

Composting diverts organic wastes from landfills and recycles these wastes into an almost miraculous soil amendment. Every time you crack an egg or cut the ends off a bunch of broccoli or asparagus, every time you empty the coffee grinds or wring out a tea bag, you can add to your compost pile. Every time you gather yard waste–leaves, grass clippings, plant trimmings–you can add to your compost. You can add dryer lint, paper towels, pet or human hair, the inside cardboard rolls of toilet paper or paper towels, cloth, rope, peanut hulls–just about anything organic that doesn’t contain fat or bones.

composthands028Judy sees composting as garden alchemy: “There’s a certain magic to taking what people would consider junk and making it into the best possible growing material. We tell people, “Don’t throw out your trash; it can become your treasure,” she says. “We need to keep this stuff out of the landfills. All the leaves in the fall, all the thatch in the spring, most of the food scraps–these are perfectly organic materials that could be composted.”

Compost is finished when materials are broken down enough that individual elements cannot be recognized. Ideal compost appears dark in color, feels crumbly in texture–something like coffee grounds–and smells like the floor of a forest.

compostwirebins074The finished product can be used in a number of ways around the lawn and garden. Compost provides all the major and minor trace elements, including a slow release of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. The Ph neutralizes our alkaline soil.

Compost makes ideal top dressing for flowers, vegetables, herbs, shrubs, trees and lawns. In spring, add 1/2″ to 1″ and cultivate into the soil. After aerating lawns in spring and autumn, sprinkle compost by hand over the lawn, allowing compost to settle into the holes left by the aerator. Around midsummer, add compost around plants and shrubs that appear stressed. Lightly hoe the compost into the soil around the plants.

compostpergola085Inside, houseplants benefit from compost added to potting soil. * In her container gardens, Lori Jekyl uses a mix of 1/3 compost to 2/3 potting soil.

“Instead of buying peat moss, which is a nonrenewable resource, use free compost. Because compost is organic material, it should be applied not once but several times during the year,” Judy says. “Just as you wouldn’t eat once and say, ‘Oh, I’m stuffed, I don’t need to eat any more,’ you can’t just feed the plants just once.”

Judy encourages would-be composters to take a class at the demonstration site. “People are always excited by the ease of composting,” she says. “It’s not a high energy process, and you don’t have to give your entire life to it.”


Greens and browns make black gold–at least on the color wheel that governs composting.

Once you’ve decided upon a composting bin and set it up–preferable on a permeable rather than hard surface, you’ll want to monitor what’s going into the bin. “Feed it a balanced diet,” Judy says.

Follow these guidelines to create your own black gold.

  • Create a balance of “greens”–materials high in nitrogen–and “browns”–materials high in carbon.
  • Greens include fruits and peels, green leaves, human or pet hair, moldy food, weeds without mature seeds, non-meat food scraps, coffee grounds.
  • Browns include autumn leaves, cardboard cores from toilet paper and paper towels, coffee filters, corn cobs, cotton or wool rags, cotton string, rope, dryer lint, eggshells, grain hulls, dried grass clippings, shredded paper, paper towels, tissues, peanut hulls, sawdust, rope, vacuum cleaner sweepings. Browns include some materials that appear green–broccoli and sunflower stalks, for example–but fall into the brown category because of their rough texture.
  • Avoid citrus peels; they kill the red wiggler worms.
  • Avoid diseased plants or plants treated with chemicals. Though Denver Recycles recommends leaving grass clippings on the lawn, if grass clippings are collected for composting, to prevent them from matting, allow them to dry a day or so before adding them to pile.
  • Add a handful of dirt to introduce friendly bacteria when you add material to your compost bin.
  • For the most efficient results, chop greens and browns into pieces measuring 1 to 2 inches. Chop materials when still green and succulent; when plant material dries out, chopping is more difficult.
  • Do not add meat, bones, fats, cheeses, cat or dog feces to compost piles. These materials smell, draw flies and can attract vermin.
  • Water the pile until it’s the consistency of a wrung out sponge. Keep the pile evenly moist as more layers are added.
  • Cover the pile to prevent drying. Direct sunlight slows the decomposition.
  • To speed up the composting process, turn the pile once a week to add air to the materials.

compostwirebins081Troubleshooting the compost pile typically uncovers a few basic problems: using the wrong materials or the wrong ratio or size of materials, watering the pile too much or too little or not turning the pile regularly. Most compost pile problems are easily rectified.

With chopped layers, regular turning and adequate moisture, “brown gold” compost can be ready in as soon as two months.

Judy does not recommend the compost starters or compost boosters. Instead, she advocates adding fresh plant material, such as spent annuals, vegetables needing thinning, or weeds that have not yet gone to seed. Keep a bit of soil on the roots to introduce helpful bacteria to the pile.

If selecting a commercial bin, look for one that’s easy to load and unload, easy to turn, is made at least in part from recycled materials and has replacement parts available.


In a large container–plastic trash barrels work nicely–mix 1/2 compost with 1/2 water. Cover. Stir every few days with a long stick or a broom handle. Wait one week. Dilute the dark brown tea until the fluid resembles weak tea. Strain through a cheesecloth, if desired. Apply to leaves with a foliar sprayer for quick absorption of nutrients. Or use a watering can to pour the compost tea at plant roots.

For more information on free composting classes, call 720-865-6810 or visit: