Composting 101: Black Gold

It’s always a good time to plan a garden however big or small.  One of the first fun steps is to begin thinking about soil and composting is the best way to start!

You don’t need a professional bin but do need a bit of space in a yard. One cubic yard or about the size of a washing machine is ideal to be able to work the pile and have it decompose quickly.  Some folks will have two compost piles, one that is “cooking” and added to regularly and one that is finished and ready to use.

Bacteria and other microorganisms break down organic matter aerobically, meaning the organisms survive and grow in an oxygenated environment which is why you need air flowing through your pile.  So we layer “brown” dry scraps and wet “green” scraps to create that necessary air flow.

Most kitchen and garden scraps are considered green and that includes orange and banana peels, onion skin, carrot tops, lettuce bottoms and some coffee grounds. They can be chopped up for faster decomposition.  The brown scraps are usually in the form of raked up leaves, twigs, sticks or shredded paper (not the glossy kind). You can also add egg shells but do not add meat, bones or oil to a basic backyard compost pile.  It will help to add a bucket of good healthy garden soil to share some of the beneficial bacteria and microorganisms that go to work and occasionally give the pile a good stir to speed up the process.

In the end it should all smell earthy and sweet, fresh and rich. What you have made is good healthy nutritious soil.

Sprinkle it in window boxes, flower pots and your garden. In doing so you’ll have eliminated your need for chemical fertilizers and reduced a good percentage of your home waste from piling up at the landfill.

Cedar Three Bin Compost System built by Eagle Scout

Good educational signage is appreciated. This is the sign I made for my compost bins.

School cafeterias can be an excellent source of compost if the students have been well educated on the process. This sometimes takes a student representative sitting near the bins to help or an announcement of certain specific items from the cafeteria lunch that might get tossed on that day like uneaten broccoli. The Willow School is best example I’ve found of this type of education in action.

The students there weigh the trash and compost each day and are able to determine what school lunch menu results in the most waste. One group recognized that there was a lot of pizza crust in the bins so the students came up with the idea to cut crusts by pairing up crust eaters and non crust eaters so every bit was enjoyed rather than tossed.

Graphed Weight of Trash and Compost Each Day


If you are teaching about compost, laying some out is a fun way to invite students to examine it like a detective to better understand what is included. Letting them explore with magnifiers and popsicle sticks is sure to be an exciting lesson!


And starting a mini composter is a fun way to actively begin and send participants home with their own little jar to kick things off and stir things up at home…especially if you include a worm or two.  Let’s remember, the whole idea is to Do Something Rotten!

David Alexander was the New Jersey Dept of Environmental Protection Recycling Educator of the year in 2017. He is author of the Buzz Into Action & Hop Into Action Science Curricula and is passionate about making nature accessible to people and wildlife.  You can follow him at


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