Gently Educating the Reluctant Composter

Dec 30, 2023

A few weeks ago, some friends were over for dinner, and I was throwing food scraps into my miniature compost bin that fits under my kitchen sink (free from the City of Napa). One gentleman told me he didn't compost. “It's easy,” I said. “The UC Master Gardeners have workshops on it all the time. I can set you up.” 

What he meant was that he doesn't compost at all. He tosses all his food scraps directly into the garbage bin, to be taken to the landfill.

I pointed out gently that he could put those scraps in his yard-waste bin and Napa Recycling & Waste Services would haul it away and turn it into compost at their American Canyon facility. I added that, since January 1, 2022, we are all required to recycle (compost) green waste and food waste, to keep it out of landfills. Not doing it, he countered. One person won't make that much difference.

Rather than burnish my persona of The Compost Scold, I changed the subject, but I wondered how long it would take Napa Recycling's Flip the Lid crew to come to his street to inspect his garbage/recycling/yard-waste bins. This is an educational, not punitive, program to encourage people to keep as much waste as possible from ending up in landfills.

While the UC Master Gardeners teach people how to manage a backyard compost bin, our municipal compost program takes waste that can't go into home compost, such as oily foods, greasy pizza boxes and meat scraps. Their compost pile gets much hotter than home compost bins and can handle those materials.

Starting your own backyard compost bin is easy, and the end of the year is a good time to begin. This is the time when even the most anti-conspicuous consumption citizens can generate a lot of waste.

Gift packaging, especially cardboard, can be recycled, or you can use the cardboard for sheet composting in your yard. You can recycle some gift wrap (not plastic- or foil-coated), or you can shred it and put it in your backyard compost bin.

I haven't bought wrapping paper in years. I cut up brown paper bags, wrap presents in the comics section, or encase my gifts in new dishtowels. Brown paper and newsprint can be composted, and a cotton dishtowel is reusable—and ultimately compostable.

A reluctant composter can easily manage a warm compost pile. Making hot compost requires turning a few times a week, and cold compost—for the most intransigent sluggards—takes a long time to show results. But warm compost only needs turning once a week, and if you forget, the pile is very forgiving.

There are all sorts of compost bins on the market. Most types hold about one cubic yard of compost material, meaning they are approximately 3 feet on a side and 3 feet deep. They come in all sorts of shapes, from Mayan temple to Darth Vader to oil drum to spherical. They can be made of wire, metal, plastic, or wood. They all do the job.

Soon your yard will be generating lots of compostable material, from the last of the dried leaves to pruning remnants. You want an approximately equal mix of “greens” and “browns” in your bin. “Greens” are nitrogen-rich materials such as green leaves, weeds that have not gone to seed, vegetable and fruit peelings, apple cores, crushed eggshells, flowers, coffee grounds and paper coffee filters, bread, tea bags, cooked pasta, and rice (without oil or butter), and that slimy bunch of kale in the bottom of the crisper.

“Browns” are high in carbon and include dry leaves, paper, cardboard, dried grass clippings, sawdust, pruned twigs and branches, straw, bark chips and dryer lint—but only if it is from 100 percent natural fiber. Spandex and polyester do not decompose.

Aged manure from herbivores—animals, like goats, that don't eat meat—is compostable. Cat and dog poop is not. Don't waste your money on compost starter. It is unnecessary. And don't add dirt to your compost pile. It just makes it heavy and harder to turn.

I chop up yard waste with clippers and loppers. Keep those tools sharp and wear gloves and eye protection to avoid flying splinters. If you are dealing with dry and dusty materials, wear a mask so you don't inhale anything.

I cut up my kitchen scraps with a pair of titanium-coated shears. If I had a large family, I would put everything in a garbage can and cut it up with a weed whacker (while wearing a mask). Ideally, your compost materials are in half- to two-inch pieces. Small pieces compost faster.

Layer the materials in your compost bin and add water until the mixture is as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Toss it with a garden fork once or twice a week. This will aerate the pile, encouraging the materials to decay and generate heat. The center of the compost pile can reach 100°F to 150°F. With warm compost, you can keep adding materials as you acquire them.

In a few months you should have finished compost. It will be dark and have a pleasantly peaty smell, with fine white filaments throughout. Those are actinomycetes, beneficial microbes that help keep soil healthy. Strain the compost through a quarter-inch metal mesh and put it to work. Use the bits left behind as mulch or to start another batch of compost.

Compost is easy to make, and it is supremely satisfying to create a useful material out of waste. You really don't need a recipe; it just happens. My next project is to convince my reluctant friend to install a compost bin in his yard.

Library Talk: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County and the Napa Library for “Discover the Las Flores Learning Garden” on Thursday, January 4, from 7 pm to 8 pm via Zoom. Did you know that Napa has an amazing learning garden where you and your family can see examples of dry gardens, native plants, and pollinator plants? Learn how Master Gardeners transformed part of Las Flores Community Center Park into an array of botanical teaching gardens. 

Register Here  to receive the Zoom link.

Workshop: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for “Winter Rose Garden Care & Pruning,” on Saturday, January 6, from 10 am to noon via Zoom. Prepare your roses for the upcoming growing season with this review of pruning techniques and best pruning tools. Learn how to help your roses cope with climate change and how to choose the right rose for the right place. Attendees will be invited to join a hands-on pruning workshop at Napa's Fuller Park rose garden on Thursday, January 11, from 10 am to noon, to practice what they learned. Register to receive the Zoom link.

Help Desk: The Master Gardener Help Desk is available to answer your garden questions on Mondays and Fridays from 10 am until 1 pm at the University of California Cooperative Extension Office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa. Or send your questions to Include your name, address, phone number and a brief description.