Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database


Make your own soil amendments for free!

Turn your yard scraps and household waste into next year's golden dirt. Let nature work for you, and enjoy the finest potting soil ever--free!

At right, possibly the world's happiest Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant) in a private Salem, Oregon, garden. It has grown it's whole life in composted soil.

You can make your own soil booster by composting 'waste.' It is simply a matter of putting into a pile the garden trimmings and twigs, leaves from autumn, even scraps from your kitchen. Dairy, meat and cooked food tend to draw varmints and may stink when composting so if you want to include these rich materials in your dirt-making, you will want to use a process specifically for them.

If left alone, the compost pile will yield, in about a year, beautiful stuff as good or better than you can buy. If you stir it up every once in a while, it will be ready to use in just a few months. If you use one of the high tech composters, you'll cut the time considerably, especially when the chemical composting preparations are utilized.

Making compost is one of the most rewarding and useful things a gardener can do. To take garden trimmings and grass clippings and branches and other debris from the garden and allow it to become rich compost is a true miracle of nature. It can be so simple to do! There are special composting bins that turn and ventilate and look snazzy in the landscape but a simple pile in a back corner of your yard will do just as well. It is not labor-intensive unless you feel inclined to turn it periodically. If you're in a hurry to make some compost you should turn it and attend it and generally baby it along. But if you want this fall's debris to turn into rich, dark humus for next spring you can just leave the pile be after it's built.

Ah, but that's where the artistry comes in: building the pile. You can do this in an enclosure of some sort (see examples below) or just in an unused corner of the garden. If your yard has one of those skinny spaces between your property line and your house or another building, this can be a good way to put that dead space to productive use. Sunshine is the only environmental necessity.

Start with that spot in the back corner where nothing much is going on and arrange some branches on the ground to form sort of a platform to allow air to circulate. Nothing fancy, just a pile of branches and twigs will do fine.

Photo at right from Ways 2 Go Green with Black Gold. See www.ways2gogreen.com/CompostGoingGreenWithBlackGold.html

Then layer on the materials--browns and greens (see below for ingredient list)--until you have used everything for the pile. Then water thoroughly (but not soggy) and loosely cover the top only. Covering can be a tarp or a piece of plywood or old door or whatever you have handy. One of my favorites is a patio umbrella that lost it's pole. It's lovely to look at and does the job quite well of protecting the pile from the weather. You see, air must be able to circulate through the sides but the top has to be covered so the rain and snow won't ruin the cooking. The cover also aids in building the heat in the pile.

What happens when you have a properly built pile is the materials work together to actually cook the debris which breaks down the pieces into their basic elements. When the pile is done it's dark and rich and better than anything you can buy. And it's free!

So, once your twigs and branches are placed on the bare ground, start layering the greens and browns, water the pile, cover the top and wait until spring!


Aquarium or pond water, algae and plants

Chicken manure

Dead houseplants

Fresh grass clippings

Green garden debris

Horse manure

Manure from pet rabbit or hamsters with the wood or paper bedding

Vegetative kitchen scraps (carrot peels, celery tops, lettuce, etc.)


Coffee grounds


Egg shells

Tea bags



Grown garden debris like corn stalks or old perennial stems

Hedge prunings and twigs


Pine Needles




Wood ash in moderation but only from untreated wood



Pine cones


Nut shells

Wood chips

No-No List --

Keep this stuff out of the compost mix:

Diseased plants--some diseases may not die in ordinary compost temperature so can infect healthy plants: put them in garbage or burn them

Dog, cat, pig and reptile manures--feces of these animals are not recommended for compost, especially if it will be used for human food

*Meats, dairy products, bones, fish--attract rodents and stink, see below for methods of handling for compost

Gypsum board scraps

Paper--glossy paper with colored ink unless it is soy based ink.

Cowpies may have E coli--bad and can be deadly.

Bins and tools
Compost turners:

For those who want compost faster and more fully mixed, there are many tools made specially for this purpose. The first one at right is called Yard Butler and has two flippers which fold up when plunged into the pile and come down when it is raised, stirring the pile from bottom to top. The second one at right is the Double Winged Metal Pile Turner and Compost Aerator. It has similar flippers as the first one but goes farther with a drill-type pointed end and a second handle for added ease in using.

If you have a two or three sectioned bin, you can use a digging fork or pitch fork to lift material from the first bin to the second, turning bottoms up as you go. A third section can hold buckets of greens and browns to be added alternately.

RIBs (Recycle Ithaca's Bicycles) shows this unique compost turner:


RIBs is collaborating with Cooperative Extension to design a fun and interactive compost turning apparatus. The finished product will be a pedal powered compost turner that will be permanently installed in the new plot of land near the farmers market. With the help of local welders, engineers and mechanics, we will be building this stationary tandem bicycle from donated bike parts.
Tumbling compost bins:

An alternative to manual mixing is the tumbling or rotating style of bin. There are many designs available. They have a platform of some sort to allow movement. Some have a crank that is either manual or motor driven. Others just rotate in their stand. They come in varying sizes. In this case, bigger is better because more materials can be loaded, allowing a more varied mixture of nutrients=more balanced product.

Some thoughts about tumbling bins vs. stationary ready-made bins:


They most always cost more than ready-made stationary bins.


They usually have a bigger footprint than stationary bins--they take up more space and require some distance from fencing or walls so that the handle or crank is reachable.


They do not blend into the landscape as well as stationary kinds.

bullet They may or may not work more efficiently or quicker than other types.

The Suburban Hobby Farmer website has an informative article titled "Do Tumbling Compost Bins Work?" in which he shares his personal experiences using this type of bins. See www.suburbanhobbyfarmer.com/compost-bins/

The Barrel Composter:

Besides the two examples of commercially built tumbling bins, another design is very economical, easy to set up and fun for the family (especially the kids). A barrel composter is simply a clean, food grade barrel with a tight fitting lid and holes here and there. Put in the compostables, clamp on the lid, turn on its side and roll around the yard/garden. Some folks claim the barrel must be turned the same direction all the time, but personally I do not see the point of that. This composter is obviously simple to move from one spot to another.

Good barrels for this application can be had surprisingly cheap or even free. Retail prices range from $10 - $100 for 55 or more gallon barrels. Rain barrels, pickle barrels, barrels that originally held grain, all are good candidates. The trick is this: this type of barrel is useless to hold rain or pickles or whatever when they crack or get holes in them so they are often discarded. But they are perfect for composting. If you buy a new barrel, you have to make holes in it anyway. Look on www.freecycle.org or similar websites.

The Back Porch ComposTumbler has two wheels on the back of the frame so it can be moved more easily. Made of new (not recycled) materials. Retail price is $299. www.compostumbler.com/StoreFront/product/back-porch-compostumbler

The Recycled Tumbleweed Compost Tumbler (Composting Bin) Made from 100% recycled plastic. When available, the steel in these legs is made with recycled metal (varies between 17 and 20 percent). Regular price is $199. www.cleanairgardening.com/recycled-tumbleweed-composter.html

Compost bins:

This lovely white picket bin has a front section that can be lifted off for mucking about in the materials.

This glamorous bin was built, obviously, by an artist. The painting on the wall sets off the layered shale stones beautifully.
A wattle bin uses sticks from landscape trimmings to form a strong bin from waste material. When the bin itself finally gives up it can be composted in the next bin to come.
Jeff Yeager used oddments of wood to make this bin. He says: "Composting is the ultimate act of green frugality, turning unwanted organic material into rich humus for use in the garden rather than sealing it in plastic trash bags to spend eternity in a landfill. But for some of us, composting is something even more special a hobby, a passion, almost a religion. I've even named my beloved compost pile; "Gomer," as in Gomer Pyle (get it?)." Jeff composts: dryer lint, hair and fur, fireplace ashes, jell-o (gelatin), cotton, wool and silk clothing/fabric, full vacuum cleaner bags, nail clippings, rope and string, leather goods and clothing, skunky beer, wine, and corks, pet food leftovers, spoiled milk and dairy products, white glue and masking tape, teabags and coffee grounds, latex condoms and cotton/cardboard feminine hygiene products, cotton balls and q-tips, seaweed/kelp, eggshells, stale bread and other grain products, organic holiday decorations. See www.thedailygreen.com/living-green/blogs/save-money/how-to-compost-anything-0525
Trench composting: dig a trench in next year's garden plot and put in materials as you have them. Cover with dirt, let rest until next spring when the area can be tilled under. From Home Composting Made Easy, www.homecompostingmadeeasy.com/foodscraps.html
Bennington County Regional Solid Waste Solutions has some excellent information about composting in general and also designs for bins such as this one made of pallets. See http://bcrcsolidwaste.com/compost.html

Photo credit: Tobin

The UW Extension Cooperative Extension's Solid & Hazardous Waste Education Center provides, in their Master Composter Instructor Resources, construction plans for various compost bins such as this handsome and functional bin system for long term use. See www4.uwm.edu/shwec/composter/how-to-build-a-compost-bin.cfm
Composting meats, dairy products, bones, fish

Bone meal and fish emulsion have long been recommended as fertilizers for the garden but to make them at home can be tricky. It's not impossible, just requires careful planning. There are composters available that will break down these materials without stinking or drawing scavengers and without much work by the gardener. My personal favorite is the Gedye compost bin. I've used it for years and it has never failed to give complete satisfaction. I compost meat scraps, bones, fish innards--anything! It does not smell, it does not attract varmints, so far it has been indestructible after over 15 years of continuous use. It is made from 100% recycled plastic. Unfortunately it is manufactured in Australia and rarely available in the US. (At the time of this writing, there is one advertised on eBay for $105. The retail price is $85 from the company that makes them.)

Compost boosters

If you don't want to wait for nature to get your compost going, there are many different kindss of stuff to get your composting off to a good start quickly.

  • Ringer 3050 Compost Plus has a "blend of microorganisms with specially designed nutrient sources that start the compost process quickly and efficiently."
  • Natural Industries LGDC0020 Decomp-9 Compost Booster Microbes contains "booster microbes."
  • Homemade starters, according to various gardeners, include soda, dog food, beer, rabbit pellets, manure, urine, bone meal.
  • One of the best boosters is oxygen. That's one of the reasons for turning and mixing, but you can also build in aeration by placing a layer of branches at the bottom of the pile. Then add other layers of branches every couple of feet. We're talking about branches bigger than 2 inches in diameter. Lay them down cross-hatch so they won't compact. Another way to get air into the bin is to put something about the size of a 3 gallon bucket in the center and layer compostables around it. The item can be an old wicker basket, wire waste container, wooden box with some gaps, even a rough oval of wire fencing with some sticks for a top--something that creates an air pocket in the midst of the pile.

Chicken delivering fresh manure to the compost pile

NW Native Plant Journal articles on composting

July 2007, Compost anyone?, pg 17, www.nwplants.com/information/emag/vol5-7.pdf

October 2008, Composting for beginners, pg 11, www.nwplants.com/information/emag/vol6-10.pdf

April 2007, To do list: caring for your NW native garden, pg 6; Garden products, pg 9, www.nwplants.com/information/emag/vol5-4.pdf

Composting information on the internet

How-to tips: EcoHearth, Come Home to the earth, http://ecohearth.com/eco-zine/food-and-garden/1230-breaking-down-the-bones-how-to-compost-meat-and-other-animal-products.html

Detailed instructions: National Geographic Green Living, http://greenliving.nationalgeographic.com/compost-meat-waste-2320.html

Ideas from around the world: The International Compost Sanitation Forum and Message Board Home Page, www.jenkinspublishing.com/cgi-bin/messages/discus.cgi?pg=topics

Specially designed composters (a bit spendy though): Clean Air Gardening, Environmentally Friendly Lawn & Garden Supplies,  www.cleanairgardening.com/how-to-compost-meat.html

Contact:  star@chillirose.com ~ Copyright 2012 Wallace W. Hansen ~ All rights reserved