Compost: The Dirty Underbelly of Gardening

The compost and leaf piles

In continuance of my pledge to keep it real, and influenced by Margaret at A Way to Garden and Kathy at Cold Climate Gardening, I’m showing you my garden’s soft underbelly. It isn’t all blooms and ripe tomatoes here. There’s also compost, leaf mold and other rotting stuff. Not pretty, but essential.

Sure, you can grow veggies and flowers without improving your soil. I recently watched a story about a woman who does. She grows her veggies in what looks like straight Oklahoma red sand, and if you listen closely, you’ll hear the words “Miracle Gro.” Now, I’m not going to fault her for using the blue crystals. It’s just not my way.

Black compost bin


Above is my compost area. I have three compost bins and a leaf pile. The leaf pile was once three piles, but I’ve used most of the leaves, and over the winter and summer, they’ve broken down into leaf mold. I absolutely love leaf mold. There is no greater substance to improve soil in Oklahoma. It’s slightly acidic, and we have very alkaline soil. It holds moisture and cuts down on weeds. It is a great medium to sprout seeds (including weed seeds,) but fortunately, leaf mold makes the soil so permeable that the weeds are easier to pull.

Leaf pile which eventually brings leaf mold

I don’t claim to be a great composter. In fact, when I was adding the veggy scraps from last night’s dinner to the pile, I was thinking about all the articles I’ve read about composting. I once wanted to be shown in the back of Organic Gardening and be given their composting award, but I never could keep up with all the rules.

Mrs. Greenthumbs, Cassandra Danz, was a writer and gardener I continue to admire, even more so since her passing. Her sense of humor and humility came through in every line she wrote. I loved her book, Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned a Boring Yard into a Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too. In her essay about her lackadaisical composting habits, Mrs. Greenthumbs seemed somewhat apologetic when she wrote that she just put everything in a big pile, covered it with dark plastic and waited. When I read that, I breathed a novice gardener’s sigh of relief. Until then, everything I’d read on composting seemed so technical and had so many rules. I knew I couldn’t meet the bar.

Organic matter (i.e., natural stuff) left to the elements rots unless it is carried off by varmints. Here are my guidelines to easy composting:

  • In the pile, layer brown matter: dead leaves, dead grass clippings, etc. The emphasis is on dead and brown. Then, add green matter: veggy food scraps, weeds without the seed heads if possible, garden leaves (except diseased leaves like black-spotted rose leaves or diseased tomato leaves.) Brown, green, brown, green. End with brown. Then, water the whole thing.
  • Cover it with something. I like these bins. I’ve had them for years. My middle pile is not covered. That is bad. It doesn’t hold in the heat. However, miraculously, it still produces compost, although much more slowly.
  • If you live in a very dry climate like ours normally is, water the pile every couple of weeks.
  • You can turn the pile if you want. I don’t.

    Pernnial hibiscus 'Moy Grande'
  • Pick one pile and keep adding matter. I don’t really do this either. I just add to whatever pile I want. I know . . . it’s pure garden laziness, or is it rebellion?
  • When you add green stuff, you might also top it with some shredded leaves or dirt. Keeps it from smelling bad.
  • Don’t add dairy or meat products. This is a hard and fast rule. Otherwise, animals are attracted to your pile.

Enough rules.

Whenever I want compost, like Mrs. Greenthumbs, I just dig into the center bottom of the pile and pull some out. In the spring, I turn over the whole pile and dig out the good stuff. I put the remaining stuff back.

Ugly? Dirty? Yes.

But, look at the beauty it helps create.


  1. Martha/All the Dirt on Gardening says:

    Luckily, my brother manages a compost facility and he is visiting us this week.

    He had all of us out there last night watering and turning the pile of sticks, grass clippings, kitchen stuff and plants, etc.

    All the while he and hubby worked the pitchforks I was holding the hose and making the ice water trips.

    Today, that pile is hot and smells terrific.

    Lots and lots of water will help make all that great waste into usable compost faster.

  2. I love leaf mold! It’s so much better than compost for woodland plants, but compost is great for everything else. There’s a very talented gardener & designer in my area, Trudi Temple, who does all her composting in the ground, including junk mail. She puts a rock over the hole & when it sinks down, she knows it’s time to plant in it. I am too lazy to properly layer my compost pile. I almost always forget to add a layer of soil in there. Cindy’s chopping/shredding advice is on the money. Do you know how long it takes a whole Jack O’Lantern to break down? I do.

  3. Funny I should read this today, because compost is near the top of my “to do” list. My own compost system is most un-lovely. Three bins similar to yours and two, er, three brush piles. I am trying to consolidate. But as you know, when you live in the country, you generate more than your share of composting material. But then, you also need more than your share of compost.

    Thanks for keeping it real!

    Gardening Examiner

  4. Anna says:

    I enjoyed reading your compost post! I have stressed about it before and not getting it right–so I appreciate the cover it and let it go attitude. I will struggle this year to have enough green stuff to make a pile. So I have to head off to the local public works yard and collect leaf mulch. I love it too. You are right about the weeds, they come right up.

  5. I call my compost ‘black gold’. I’m like you, I just pile it on and then as if by magic, I get compost!

  6. I’ve just put up a post about pictures from other people’s blogs which have especially stuck in my memory.

    Amongst these, I’ve mentioned those in your deserted garden post.

    I can’t work out how to make links to photos on blogs in situ so I’m wondering if you would mind if I copied one onto my blog – together with a link to yours.

    I’d be grateful if you would let me know.


    Hi Lucy,

    I left you a comment on your blog. I am very honored. Yes, please feel free to copy it and put it on your blog.



  7. Brenda Kula says:

    Wow! Are you an ambitious, play-it-by-the-proverbial-book gardener! I envy you!

    No, Brenda, I’m really not. I break a lot of rules. 🙂 ~~Dee

  8. I’m just getting into composting myself. It’s hard on my city sized lot to give over room to compost instead of plants. I’m told it converts very quickly down here, my mulch seems to self convert yearly so I’m expecting to turn compost over a few times a year. We shall see.

    Hi Linda, It is more difficult to compost in the city. I did it before I moved here in one of those black bins. It converts here very quickly here too. If I worked at it harder, I could have compost several times a year. I just don’t.~~Dee

  9. diane says:

    I am a composter as well

    Often though I have just buried the daily table scraps, (coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable peelings) in a hole just dug that day, and maybe near a special plant or under a newly planted something or other

    It works okay as well as long as the stuff is buried

    I am lazy at times just throw the coffee grounds out in the garden wherever, and scrunch up the egg shells and put them around and sort of under one of the Hostas or other.

    Amazing how quickly the material is absorbed back into the ground

    Diane, I’ve done that method too. I remember Martha Stewart visiting the New York Botanical Garden’s rose garden and finding banana peels buried next to the roses. The gardener confessed that he buried one everyday. It was charming.~~Dee

  10. Cindy says:

    Dee, I too longed to have my picture in Organic Gardening and even had my daughter take a picture of me with a barrowload of homemade compost. I never did get that picture submitted but I still compost, albeit on a smaller scale than before. I tried to camouflage a bin behind some plants in the front but the yard police caught me! The only thing I’d add to what you said is that chopping/shredding the materials can help the pile cook more quickly, if time is of the essence.

    Cindy, great advice I forgot to put in. Chopped stuff decomposes faster, so crush those egg shells and shred those leaves. It’s nice to know someone else wanted their compost featured in Organic Gardening.~~Dee

  11. Oh thank you for every thing you said about compost. I just started one about a month ago, and I was so worried that I was not doing enough to it, and it seems that I am doing fine. Again thank you I feel so much better, oh but I did not know that I was to water it, so how much water do I do, it is not a big box. Hope you can help me..

    Alaura, I’m so glad I could help. Thanks for stopping by.~~Dee

  12. Margaret says:

    My heap is what farmers would technically call a windrow: 40 feet long and probably 6 wide, chest-high at this time of year and thing-high by winter. An archaeological dig of my gardening life. And you are right, Dee: from dust to dust. Faded beauty creates beauty anew. Brown plus green equals black gold.

    Margaret, that’s impressive, but so are your gardens.~~Dee

  13. NancyF says:

    There is nothing so pretty as compost ready to use….


  14. I love compost 🙂
    Good post.

    Thanks, Karen.~~Dee

  15. Amy says:

    I really like this post Dee. I too have been intimidated by composting in the past and have since realised that it really doesn’t have to be a big deal. My composting area is sooo ugly, and there’s no way to really hide the view from my poor neighbors behind me. We planted some sunflowers around one pile…

    Amy, thank you. I’m glad it helped. As you can see, mine has morning glories growing on it. Natural camouflage is always good.~~Dee

  16. Kathy says:

    I seem to have spurts of green or brown, never some of both on hand to make layers. So I just throw it on there. It gets turned once in the spring, after the most rotted stuff has been used. Then the middle bin gets tossed into the last bin, and the first bin gets tossed in the middle bin, and the first bin is ready for more. I don’t know what I will do when I no longer have a strong person living at home to do this for me.

    Kathy, me too on the spurts of green and brown. I like how you move your piles at the end or the beginning of the season. That’s a good idea.~~Dee

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