Be Loyal to Your Soil!

Permaculture (12)Last weekend the hubs and I took a little road trip out to Sebastopol to attend a compost workshop being put on by Grab n’ Grow at the Permaculture Skills Center.

Little did I know that May 3rd-9th was Compost Awareness Week (who knew they had such a thing?). A friend told me about the free workshop and I quickly went online to reserve my spot. While I have never personally shopped at Grab n’ Grow (though it’s on my list to stop by soon), I do like to go on their website and read through their blog posts for tips. They’re awesome!

I thought I knew a lot about compost, but I felt the workshop was very informative and I left a little bit wiser. So let’s “dig in” to what I learned and enjoy a little eye candy courtesy of the Permaculture Skills Center.

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This guy knows what’s up in his garden.

The workshop was a talk and Q&A session with one of the compost makers at Grab n’ Grow, whose name I totally forgot to write down (Sorry!). He was very friendly and excited about the topic, plus he definitely knew a thing or two about compost as he’s been in the business since he was a boy tending his family farm’s compost pile. He mentioned that at their professional facilities, they can make compost in as little as five minutes! They use a special aerating process that really helps to speed things up (color me jealous).

The Basics

Compost is made with a combination of brown (carbon rich) and green (nitrogen rich) matter found around your home and garden. One thing I was surprised to learn is that layering your brown and green matter in the same amounts is not the most efficient way to create an ideal compost pile. You typically want a ratio of 30:1 (brown to green) waste, which will end up giving you that perfect sweet smelling compost. If there’s too much brown material the pile will be too dry and won’t heat up; whereas, if there are too many greens they’ll stick to each other and create unwanted odors and slime.

Bacteria are the ones doing all the heavy lifting in the pile, using the carbon to grow their bodies and the nitrogen for their fuel, and leaving behind the good stuff.

Typical greens you would want to add are:

  • Grass clippings
  • Vegetable and fruit trimmings from the kitchen
  • Garden trimmings
  • Chicken manure

Typical browns:

  • Dried leaves
  • Hay/Straw
  • Coffee Grounds

Do not add:

  • Meats/Bones
  • Fats/Oils
  • Breads

Setting Up Your Pile


When it comes to decomposition, temperature is the main player of the game. A regular compost pile will heat up to somewhere between 100-150°, with many reaching their ideal temperature within two weeks of creation.

In order to kill weed seeds and human pathogens such as salmonella, the pile needs to get above 130°. Most home piles will not reach this temperature as they simply aren’t large enough. So don’t through obnoxious weeds (like oxalis) or diseased trimmings in your home pile.

It’s important to also note that compost piles can get crazy hot (think 170°), and have been known to start fires. But again, if you’re creating a small compost pile in your backyard it’s highly unlikely it’ll get that hot.

The Build

To start, you’ll probably want a small 4′ x 4′ pile that’s placed in a slightly shady area away from fences and other flammable structures. Make sure there’s a water source nearby too so you can keep the pile moistened throughout the composting process.

Start the pile by adding in your browns and greens in the 30:1 ratio, chopping up or shredding large pieces of material and twigs so they can break down faster. You can even add handfuls of sawdust, ash, crushed eggshells, and more for extra nutrients.


I’ve never used an activator before, but I learned it’s an easy way to hit the fast-forward button. Simply add a 1- 2 inch layer of cow, horse, or chicken manure to the pile or 1 cup of a balanced fertilizer per 25 square feet. I’ll have to try to remember to do this with my next pile.

Other than that, be sure to get in there and turn it every week or so as this will not only add in air to aid with breakdown, but also mixes the contents more thoroughly. And make sure things are kept moist.


A lot of attendees were really freaked out when the speaker mentioned that tetanus is common in compost piles. A compost pile is literally a breeding ground for bacteria and microbes, so it’s not all that surprising that tetanus calls it home too.

So wear your gloves and dust masks when shoveling, get your shots, and enjoy digging in the dirt!


Because we live in a residential area on a smaller lot, we don’t have the space or plant waste necessary to make a traditional compost pile (a.k.a. something large enough to create enough compost for our entire yard). However, this isn’t going to stop us from having a small compost pile that we can use for topping off containers and miscellaneous areas, while recycling our green waste. For larger compost dressings I’ll probably head to Grab n’ Grow to check out their offerings.

They went out of their way to create an inviting event that ended with a raffle for various composting kits and had everyone walking away with a free shirt, tomato start, and a little more know-how. Plus, it was totally free!

On a side note, this trip also gave me a chance to check out the Permaculture Skills Center. It’s a 5 acre demonstration site and educational institution that teaches students about responsible land development and stewardship. They also have a store on the premises (closed for the winter), that I’ll have to look into once the gardening season gets into full swing.

I’ve been interested in the concept of permaculture as a gardening system since reading the book Gaia’s Garden (which is by far my favorite text on the subject), and was excited to check out a working center. Enjoy the photos below of it in its mid spring splendor.

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Here, a shallow swale follows the curving pathway helping with water storage.
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The center has over 100 fruit trees!
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Phlomis and Statice steal the show.
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The farm is preparing for food production.
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This coop is too cute!

Happy Digging,


One thought on “Be Loyal to Your Soil!

  1. What a great resource for knowing all there is to know about composting… all in one place. Wow.

    This is awesome and the photos are fantastic. And yes, the chicken coop is adorable. Thank you for the helpful information.


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