Chesapeake: The Sierra Club Maryland Chapter Newsletter
Chapter Home
Newsletter Home
Past Issues

Growing Naturally and Easily
click for print view

by Jeri Metz | 2006

Composting is Easy, Even for a Lazy Gardener

I am a lazy gardener. So when I discovered there was no need for Miracle Gro, only the right recipe to feed the soil, the appeal was immediate. Today, I plan our whole half-acre around a few simple principles.



When a plant or animal dies in nature, it decomposes. If the climate is cool and dry this takes longer; if conditions are warm and wet, it’s faster. The time required to create humus also depends on the size of the pile and compostable objects. When in doubt, think about what happens in the wilds.

If it was once living, it has the chemistry to improve soil structure. The only thing I don’t compost is pressure-treated wood. I use cardboard boxes, vacuum cleaner debris, kitty litter, store-bought flowers, chewing gum, nail clippings, animal products and byproducts. If I suspect anything may bring rats, I bury it deep. One caveat: if you’re pregnant, don’t handle cat litter.

Decaying matter is in a chemical form unavailable to the root systems of plants. Earthworms degrade matter by eating it. They leave their own high-quality soil, worm castings. Microorganisms, bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes break down animal and plant parts and digest them. When microorganisms decompose, they release chemical components—in exactly the form that roots can take up. As long as there is a constant influx of humus, dead soil critters slowly release all the nutrients that plants need.

     I compost in the middle of the garden. This way I don’t have far to lug the soil. My garden is messy and sad through the winter—but I have little work and no trips to buy fertilizer.

Here’s how: At the bottom, put twigs, sticks, anything hard to break down. A four-by-four-foot pile, several inches high, is enough to bring air underneath the pile. Make wet and dry layers of waste, always topping off with the latter because it smothers odors. Wet includes just-mowed grass and byproducts of food preparation. Dry might be autumn leaves, sawdust, newspaper (except glossy and color), or paper towels. Weigh down paper with a tarp and bricks. You can also use garden soil for dry layers.

The trashcan method requires two cans. Metal is best because it conducts heat. Drill holes in the bottom (some hardware stores will do it for you). Dig a shallow pit several inches deep and set in the trashcan. Layer wet and dry if possible; but this is not essential. It will all rot. The holes let liquid drip into the earth. Setting the can in the earth helps eliminate odors. When the can is full, let it sit for a month, then dump the humus. If some items are not fully composted, put them back in and start again.

For things that are slow to break down, diseased, too appalling to look at, poisonous, or full of seed heads, I have a long-term pile in the far end of my yard. Unless I’m sure it will break down within three months with no chance of contaminating my soil or plants, it goes out back. After two years, it’s all dirt. Under enough heat and pressure, even dog poop and Christmas trees become unrecognizable dark, rich humus.



I used to “double-dig,” even though I don’t like to sweat. Now I simply plant in the mess I never cleaned up last fall. Tilling not only disrupts the soil’s micro community, it also over-aerates the earth. And constantly turned soil gives off more CO2 to the atmosphere. We want to keep the carbon in the soil, to feed the microscopic critters. Even cultivating the top few inches negatively impacts the immediate soil ecosystem. It is detrimental to the worms and destroys their complex channels that conduct water and provide oxygen to plant roots.

Plants need varying distributions of nutrients, but don’t go crazy trying to figure this out. Just leave your annuals and herbaceous perennials where they die. Do not remove the leaves that drop from evergreens. All the chemicals, in just the right proportions for that plant, will rot and be available the next season. If you don’t like the look of the leggy dried flower stalks, cut them—but leave them on the ground, covering the roots.

Only remove sick plants. Cut them off at ground level and place them deep inside the compost pile. Pathogens will be killed by the intense heat.  

(Reprinted with permission from Jeri Metz ©

> 2006 Table of Contents


Up to Top