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Composting 101 with Nan

Friday, April 30, 2010 Leave a Comment

I've been wanting to try out composting. But the array of composting options seemed overwhelming: what kind of compost bin to buy, where to put it, should I worry about the smell/mice/pests, do I have to touch worms, what do I put into it, how long does it take, I could go on & on.

Luckily, Stapleton resident and gardening coach Nan Davey held a free composting class at her house and broke it down for me, and you.

Nan is a lifelong gardening enthusiast. She grew up on a farm in the midwest, and has made a long career out of her love of gardening -- including managing Smith & Hawken in Cherry Creek for many years. She believes we can all be better stewards of our earth by taking care of our own little corners of the world - no matter how small your yard is. And Nan does a lot with her little yard. Lucky for us, she wants to spread the joy.

So, here's a little Composting 101:

Why would I want to compost?

The purpose of composting is pretty simple: to reuse your organic trash and renew your soil. Especially in Stapleton, adding compost to your yard can help break up that hard, awful clay, making your plants, trees and lawn healthier. And you can cut down your trash headed for the landfill by 30%.

What do I put in the compost bin?

It's simple chemistry: half green, half brown, a little water, a little air flow, and heat.

Green is your vegetable and green plant scraps, or your nitrogen: carrot peels, apple cores, lettuce scraps, pepper cores, orange peels, potato skins, celery tops, grass clippings. You get the idea.

Brown is your dead plant matter, or carbon: last fall's leaves, deadheads and old twigs from your bushes, grass clippings that you let dry in the sun for a day or two.

The key is getting the mix right.

Water it until it's moist like a sponge, make sure there's some air holes, and put the lid on and let it heat up.

What kind of bin should I buy?

Keep it simple. Nan uses a $12 black trash can with the bottom cut out and air holes punched in the sides. If you try it and like it, you can buy a more expensive system.


Just cut out the bottom of the trash can, and poke some air holes up top.

Where should I keep it?

Some people keep their compost bins in their basements. Nan keeps hers right in the garden. The sun heats it up, and the good compost-making worms and bugs come to it. When it's time to harvest, she just lifts up the trash can, and that handy hole in the bottom lets the rich brown compost that looks like coffee grounds fall out.

Do I have to touch worms?

No. The beauty of Nan's system, placing it right in the garden, dug down a few inches so it doesn't blow over, is that the worms and other good bugs crawl right up through that handy hole where the bottom of the trash can is cut out and make that nice warm bin their home.


Nan's alley container garden, where she's growing lettuces and spinach. Her compost bin is dug right into the garden.

What if it smells?

If you have the mix right, 50/50 carbon/nitrogen, it shouldn't. If it starts smelling like ammonia, you've got too much green stuff, or nitrogen. Add some brown. Or you can always just email Nan.

What should I not put in?

Meat and fats. No steak bones, or cheese rinds, or leftover bacon, or last night's salad with blue cheese dressing.

How long does it take?

In the summer, Nan can get five or six harvests of compost. The more you can help by chopping your scraps into small chunks, the quicker the process will go. In the winter, everything slows down and becomes dormant.

What do I do with the compost?

Mix it in with your garden soil. Use it as potting soil. Sprinkle it around your plant and tree roots to help amend the soil, break up the clay, bring oxygen into the roots, sprinkle it on your lawns. When you water, the compost will make its way into the dirt.


The finished product: rich, chocolate-cake consistency, sweet smelling compost.

Ready to get started?

Share your composting stories!

And if you have a question for Nan, post it here and we'll get some Q&A with Nan going! If you want to consult with her for her gardening consulting, let me know and I'll put you in touch. She does gardens, kid's gardens, composting, landscaping and more.


  • Anonymous said:  

    Thanks for this! I bookmarked it.

    I was hoping you could post below this new resource, it is a new board for Stapleton residents:


    It is meant to be a kind of evolution of our current Yahoo Boards. I have a post on the Yahoo site as well. Email me at pennyjhunter at gmail dot com if you want more info.

  • Carrie said:  

    We compost (in a half-buried garbage bin) but we'd like to incorporate worms into the bin. Is it as simple as buying worms and dropping them in? Or is it more complex than that? In which case, nevermind ;-)

  • Unknown said:  

    That's the beauty of it - the worms - and other bugs - just crawl in through the open bottom! No need to mess with them.