High altitude gardening column: Start a compost pile | VailDaily.com

High altitude gardening column: Start a compost pile

Lori Russell
High Altitude Gardening
Consider making a double-bin compost pile — one for new, fresh lawn and kitchen scraps, and one for the older decayed waste that is almost ripe for the garden.
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Learn more about high altitude gardening, plus many other tips like how to improve your composting and how it will help build a more sustainable community, in Lori Russell’s organic gardening class at Colorado Mountain College. Call CMC at 970-569-2900 for more information, or call Russell at 970-328-5324.

Everyone should have a compost bin, including property owners, condo buildings and even restaurants. There are some horrific statistics going around recently about the huge quantities of waste — compostable waste — that ends up in our landfills, taking up space, never to be reused again. Something like one third of all the trash at the landfill could be composted and reused.

Composting is nature’s magical system for returning all materials to the cycle of life. When we take all of our compostable waste to a landfill, especially our kitchen waste, we strip our land of valuable nutrients and dump them with our toxic waste, sludge, household chemicals, plastics, etc., where they can never be used again.


Composting is essential if you have a garden. It’s easy to compost, and it’s fun to see how nature works her magic on organic materials. Compost is simply the end product of all organic material (plant or animal) that has been decayed or broken down by the vast network of bacteria and fungus into a dark, nutrient-rich material called humus.

Compost is essential to the health of our topsoil. It contains all the nutrients that grow our food and support our entire web of life. It is as important to life as air and water. If you are growing a garden, either vegetables or flowers, trees and shrubs, you will need to add compost to your garden every year to maintain a healthy growing environment.


The main reason to have a compost pile, if you have a garden, is to have a convenient place to dump the garden waste produced. But even people with just a lawn and shrubs should set up a corner bin in their yard for their grass clippings and fall leaves, rather than haul this good garden food to the landfill. The composted leaves and grass make excellent mulch around trees and shrubs, which feeds your soil and plants and reduces the need for added fertilizers.


Be aware, if you have a vegetable garden, it is nearly impossible to produce enough of your own free compost. You will almost certainly need trips to the garden center to get bags of commercial compost.

For vegetable and flower gardens, I recommend digging in 2 to 4 inches of new compost into the top 6 inches of dirt each year. Good quality, organic compost can be purchased in bags at any garden center. (Get one bag for every 10-20 square feet.) But you can make your own by simply putting all organic waste in a pile, either in a corner of the garden or in a bin. Eventually all of the organic material will be worked on by local bacteria, forming the black, crumbly substance called humus that enriches the soil.

In Colorado, because our ambient temperatures are relatively cold and dry, the composting process can be very slow compared to other climates. The cold temperatures and dry climate slow the bacterial growth that’s necessary for composting. A pile of leaves can take two years to break down into usable compost. You cannot put fresh leaves or kitchen scraps directly into the garden because of how it effects the soil chemistry. (Learn more about soil chemistry in my organic garden class at Colorado Mountain College).


The bacteria that break down the compost need a warm environment, plus air and water. You can aid this process by building waste into a pile at least 3 feet thick, where it can create and contain its own heat to grow. Then water it from time to time to keep it moist and stir it a bit with a pitch fork to add air. Build the pile in a sunny location and cover with visqueen to keep it warmer, like a greenhouse.

A few other tips: Do not put meat scraps in your compost. Stick to kitchen vegetable cuttings, tea and coffee grounds, garden leaves and small twigs. No sticks or cones over a quarter inch because they just take too long to break down. Also, wood ashes are not great in Colorado gardens because they are too alkaline.

Compost bins or enclosures can be easily built with scrap wood. Pallets make great bin walls and are free at many locations. Just sink some 2-by-4-inch boards or posts into the ground and nail the pallets to the posts. It’s better to make a double-bin — one for new, fresh lawn and kitchen scraps and one for the older decayed waste that is almost ready for the garden.

Lori Russell teaches organic high altitude gardening at Colorado Mountain College and builds gardens with All Seasons Service. You can reach her at 970-328-5324.

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