Down the Garden Path: Turn trash to treasure with composting

A compost bin at the Children’s Garden in Elwood provides organic material that can be added to the garden’s soil and out of landfills. The Children’s Garden in Elwood recently celebrated their 25th anniversary. Saturday, July 9, 2022 in Elwood.

At its core, composting is recycling organic matter into nutrient-rich soil. Plants and other vegetative matter are broken down by insects, worms, fungi and bacteria, making the nutrients they contain available to other growing things. It also helps improve the physical, chemical and biological properties of the surrounding soil. Composting helps individuals reduce their food and yard waste while providing free fertilizer.

The setup

There are many ways to set up compost bins. The simplest is to pile up plant waste and let nature take its course. This may be problematic in small yards or where animals may make a mess of things. It also can be smelly and unsightly, not good for being kind to neighbors. The internet has many suggestions to design your compost, such as bin setups made from pallets (look for heat treated, instead of chemical treated), lumber or old fencing. Keep in mind that compost piles should be turned occasionally, so having two or three bins can make that process easier.

The process

Most types of plant material can go in a compost. Typically, materials are divided into “browns” and “greens.” Browns are high-carbon materials such as dry leaves, wood chips, paper or cardboard. Greens are fresh material high in nitrogen, such as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and grass clippings. Large pieces should be chopped up to help them break down faster. Animal products such as meat and dairy, animal waste, diseased plant material or anything with seeds should be avoided. For a healthy compost, equal amounts of “browns” and “greens” should be added. Compost should be turned periodically to incorporate fresh oxygen into the mix. The more often the pile is turned, the hotter it will get and the faster things will break down. Adding water if the pile seems too dry when you turn it will help speed up the process.


If you don’t have space for an outdoor bin but would like to compost, a vermicompost, or worm bin, may be a good fit. Worm bins use the amazing abilities of worms to quickly break down food scraps. All it takes is some shredded paper, food scraps and worms to soon have some “black gold” that can be added to houseplants, containers or your garden. Maintained properly, worm bins have almost no smell, don’t attract bugs and still leave behind very rich soil in less time than a traditional compost bin. Kits or full instructions for a DIY worm bin can be found here.

For information on composting, check out the University of Illinois Extension’s website on composting and vermicomposting. Also, check out the University of Illinois Extension Horticulture YouTube Channel for videos on other horticulture topics.

Jamie Viebach is the University of Illinois Extension Horticulture educator serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. Viebach’s primary areas of expertise are native plants, landscaping, pollinators and rain gardens.