Compost Your Worries, Share Your Joys.

Posted by Jennifer Jewell, author of The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants

Meet Jewell at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival on October 3rd!

I would never have wished tragedy to get people to garden more, or to value gardening as an activity of proactive sustainability. But wow.  The novel virus COVID-19 has brought more people to gardening than just about anything else in the last 60 years. 

So that’s a silver lining. Working your own little piece of ground gets you outside, gets you moving – often vigorously – to work off calories and stress, and puts you in direct communication with the plants, birds, bees, butterflies and bugs who need your garden. It reminds us that there is more to life than the worry and fear of this moment. 

I was traveling on a book tour when the first stay-home orders in my home state of California went into effect. When I finally made it home all I wanted in my 14 days of self-isolation was to get out into the garden. 

Peonies are up and top-dressed with the screened compost. Lettuce and green seeds are coming up under cages beyond to deter neighborhood cats. Eggshells take a LONG time to fully break down, but the larger bits do no harm and may deter snails and slugs with their sharp edges.

There is no telling why stress inspires us in the ways it does. The first thing I wanted to do was uncover two heritage peonies from under an overgrowth of parsley gone wild – I really wanted to know that those decadent, old fragrant blooms would be something I could look forward to in 6 – 8 weeks’ time. The second thing I did was check my store of seeds – vegetable and annual flower seed that I should be planting right NOW. I found standard basil, bush bean, an Asian greens mix, and nasturtium seeds among other seeds for later in the season. 

And the third thing I did was screen the several-years in the making compost in my upright, plastic composters. It was the gratifying hard work I wanted/needed: turning out the top layers with my pitchfork into a wagon and getting to the useable compost – earthy, dark and crumbly at the bottom. 

And all the while I was also screening phone calls, and emails, and texts from family, friends, and listeners to my podcast from around the country: “How do I do this? When should I do that? Why does this look like this?” My nephew, a 20-year-old college student and athlete in Ohio, texted me with: “Aunt Jenny, how do I make a compost bin?”

Screening the compost. The stuff in the wheelbarrow goes back in once all the ready material at the bottom of the bin is harvested. The ‘screen’ is an old metal wire basket from a salvage shop. REMINDER: although you’re not supposed to add anything with thorns or weeds gone to seed, sometimes they get in. When screening or working with your almost-finished compost, WEAR GLOVES!

With that text, I thought – what a perfect skill and activity for all the new gardeners out there! Something important to add to their lives along with the new raised beds: a compost pile to naturally feed the flowers and vegetables that feed them with food and beauty – the very things I instinctively reached for when getting back home myself.

The most helpful thing I can do in this time as a knowledgeable and experienced gardener is to share as much as I can to encourage the new gardeners coming into this love out of tragedy. Share my seeds, share cuttings and starts of vegetables and herbs and FLOWERS to attract and support the pollinators and beneficial predators our plants and gardens AND WORLD needs. 

And not only share my compost, but also show and encourage people who are starting their very own kitchen gardens as ballast against an uncertain future how to compost. Starting now. Because, as we all know, if you want a garden you have to start with the soil, add the plants, and then take care of them both.

More silver linings.


Start or build a compost pile or bin in your back garden: 

  1. Create a small enclosure using slatted wood/old wooden pallets (or just a circular tube of chicken wire) staked to the ground – maybe 3-4 feet high and 2-3 feet across.
  2. On the bottom of the enclosure or pile, put all the dried leaves you (or your kids) can find – those leaves you didn’t pick up under the deck, along the fence, under the front shrubs, etc. These are what composters call the BROWN elements of your compost and they provide carbon.
  3. Mow your lawn – or ask whoever mows your lawn – to leave the grass clippings for you to put onto the pile next. This is the GREEN needed in your compost, adding the nitrogen. You want to layer these two green and brown layers over and over again in your pile – with a little more brown than green. Too much green and the compost will rot in a bad way and smell funky, too much brown and the pile with dry out and not decompose (as the leaves under the deck demonstrate).
  4. Choose a  container (I like a tall yogurt container) to collect vegetable food scraps in your kitchen to add to the compost. I do not keep the lid on mine but I do empty it every day, which is also why I use a container this size – it encourages you to empty it every day; the fancier indoor compost buckets you buy at garden or kitchen supply shops are sometimes so big you let the contents sit for a few days, with the lid on, and it gets gross. We don’t want gross – we want easy.
  5. Into your kitchen-based container, get everyone in the household to put their: vegetable trimmings, salad leftovers, fruit skins and cores, coffee grinds, tea bags (if paper), tea leaves, if loose, eggshells crunched up, even bread. Items not to put in the bin include: citrus rinds (they take a very long time to decompose), banana peels (they have an anti-growth hormone not best in the compost), meat, milk or oil-based foods (they get funky in a small bin which might not get hot enough to neutralize them).
  6. As the layers of your compost accumulate, stir it with whatever you have – a stick, a shovel, a pitch fork, etc. and make sure to water it when you stir – just enough that the contents are moist but not drenched – the stirring adds the last two essential elements to make good compost: AIR and WATER. These elements help support the climate preferred by the microorganisms that will be eating the ingredients in the pile and helping the items to decompose. As the decomposition starts, the pile will physically warm up – indicating that the decomposers are working hard. 
  7. Check and add to the compost daily.
  8. In a few months, the material on the bottom of the pile will start to be crumbly and rich, dark brown. You can screen this to remove larger items not yet finished breaking down and add the screened soil around your plants as supplemental food for healthy growth.
The raised beds tidied up and ready to seed/plant with greens. They don’t get quite enough sun here for warm summer crops like tomatoes or peppers need to really thrive.
My small plastic tub for compost collection in the house: bits of mint and lime from an evening cocktail, rosemary stems cut from last night’s roasted potatoes and the core from this morning’s apple.

Composting creates a beautiful full-circle and gets your whole household engaged with the life of the garden!

Purchase your copy of Jewell’s book, The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants.

Need gardening inspiration? Check out Monticello’s gardening section!