The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting by Chris McLaughlin

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Composting

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Composting

Maybe you’re already a gardener, ready to plant some vegetables to reduce your grocery bill and gain some peace of mind about what additives you will not be putting into your family’s bodies. Or, maybe you secretly yearn for a yard filled with colorful flower blossoms from early spring until late fall.

If you see yourself in either of these scenarios, then The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting: Turn your organic waste material into black gold, is for you. No, this isn’t a book about planting a garden. It’s about how to nourish the soil you will use to grow amazing veggies and posies. And, I have to say, it’s even fun to read.

Compost Happens

“The first thing you need to know is that no matter what you do—compost happens,” author Chris McLaughlin says. She sets out to educate, support, inform, and entertain her readers.

I’ve always been a kind of a sucker for the “idiot’s guide” type of book, since I don’t know all that much about anything. I’m not much of a gardener, but I started a compost pile 20+ years ago as an environmental gesture to remove organic waste from the garbage can.

McLaughlin is right, “compost happens.” I knew nothing. I did my composting with the most minimal effort possible. I created a designated spot in the far end of the backyard, put some landscaping logs around it, and began dumping all the kitchen waste there. (Even I knew enough not to put in any meat scraps.)

All I did was keep a covered bucket under the sink, then haul it to the backyard when it was full. Then I dug a small hole and poured it in and covered it up with some dirt. The microbes and worms did the rest. Simple.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t know about the valuable applications of the black gold I was creating has been a terrible waste. After reading this book, I realize I have been accumulating a pile of invaluable compost without actually putting it to use.

From “Idiot” to Composter

In this enjoyable, easy to read, and surprisingly thorough and diverse book, McLaughlin moves us from “idiots” to knowledgeable composters ready to create black gold with minimal effort and maximum results. She not only tells us how to make the stuff, but how to use it effectively and with ease.

Most environmentalists are aware of the rebound in “locavore” eating and the mushrooming of home gardening: community gardens, potted mini-gardens on apartment balconies, backyard gardens, plots shared with neighbors, and even indoor greenhouses to extend the growing season.

But we also are recognizing the urgency for using more sustainable methods. These are part and parcel of the composting process:

  • eliminating synthetic fertilizers
  • using natural weed control
  • growing plants that are healthier and more disease and pest resistant
  • conserving water

McLaughlin reminds us that “composting is sustainability at its finest.” It’s good for our gardens, good for us, and good for the earth. She quickly addresses the issue of common myths and bad reps about composting, such as it attracts rodents, or it stinks, or it requires lots of time and effort and is very complicated or expensive. Nix on those. Read on.

Composting Made Simple

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting is well organized, succinct, and rich in information, helpful hints, and DIY instructions. I particularly enjoyed the iconic little sidebar boxes in each section that address potential problems, provide definitions about terms and techniques, offer fun facts, and afford opportunities to “dig deeper.”

Perhaps most encouraging is the admonition: “Ignore anyone who tells you it has to be a certain way. Use a system that fits your lifestyle.” Yes!

The Basics of Composting

Here are the nuts and bolts (or shall we say, “the humus and mulch”) found within the 193 not-dense pages:

Part 1 – “The Dirt Beneath Your Feet”

  • Learn what makes soil healthy and fruitful, and discover the benefits of composting.
  • Find out how it works and the four main things every compost pile needs.
  • What to compost and what to avoid.
  • The difference between a “hot” and “cold” compost pile, and how to do it.
  • Inexpensive do-it-yourself methods of building your pile.
  • How to shop for commercially available bins.
  • Troubleshooting if necessary.
  • How to use the gold, once it’s ready.

Part 2 – “Worm Wrangling 101: Vermicomposting

You can do without the worms, as I have for 20 years—or read it and then decide. You’ll definitely be better informed. This chapter covers:

  • How to harness the power of worms for particularly potent composting.
  • Everything you need to know about housing and feeding worms.
  • What to do with all that rich worm poop

Part 3: “Creative Composting: Beyond the Bin”

  • Bed, Sheet or Sandwich Composting (you’ll have to read it, I’m not telling)
  • Grasscycling for keeping grass clippings where they belong – on your lawn
  • Mulching is composting, too
  • Planting cover crops for adding nutritional value to your soil
  • Taking compost into the community as a way of sharing the wealth and building community

I told you this book was thorough and diverse.

Three Additional Resources

In the back of the book, McLaughlin gives us these helpful resources:

  • Appendix A: A useful glossary of terms for easy reference
  • Appendix B: The “Resource Appendix,” with helpful websites and blogs on composting, a list of retailers selling composting supplies, other books on composting, a list of university extension offices, and some composting organizations
  • Appendix C: “Compost and Worms in the Classroom,” a fun resource for teaching kids, complete with activities and classroom planning

A Gift to the Earth

If you are or are going to be a gung-ho gardener and composter, this book is invaluable. If you are a new or casual gardener, this book is invaluable. If you are no gardener at all and just want to expand your horizons, this is also valuable and fun to read. If you want to help the planet and cease from putting your organic material down the garbage disposal or in the garbage can, by all means, take a look.

The truth is, I don’t feel like I’m as much of an “idiot composter” as when I began reading. And McLaughlin supports whatever composting efforts I decide will fit in my lifestyle. That’s a gift for me, my garden, and the Earth.

The Fine Print

Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of the book reviewed in this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.

Blue Planet Green Living’s policy is to review only those books we feel merit overall positive comments. If we do not like a book more than we dislike it, we do not review it. We are not influenced by free books and provide our honest opinions. For more information, please visit the Policies tab on the top navigation bar.

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Miriam Kashia

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living

Green Living — A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re just beginning your green journey, it may seem like there’s so much to catch up on: organic food, holistic medicine, natural fibers, hybrid vehicles, and so much more. In general, green living is about making changes to reduce the amounts of natural resources we humans use (and, more importantly, waste), and to becoming a caretaker of our remaining natural resources. It’s about working toward sustainability for our society and our planet.


Individual Americans use 100 to 176 gallons of water at home each day. Photo: © Ieva Geneviciene -

Historically, industrialized societies have acted as if resources and land were infinite — and burned through them with that mindset. We Americans use a relatively large amount of resources — much more than our fair share. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “The average African family uses about 5 gallons of water each day, while the average American individual uses 100 to 176 gallons of water at home each day.”

The following statistics from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and James Madison University provide a startling picture of Americans’ waste habits and the powerful effects of recycling:

  • The average American family produces 100 pounds of trash per week, that’s 3 pounds of waste per person per day.
  • More than 1 billion trees are used each year to make disposable diapers.
  • Americans throw away about 10% of the food we buy at the supermarket. This results in dumping the equivalent of more than 21 million shopping bags full of food into landfills every year.
  • In a lifetime, the average American will throw away 600 times their adult weight in garbage. This means that a 150-pound adult will leave a legacy of 90,000 pounds of trash for their children.
  • The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries estimates that more than 200 million trees are saved each year due to current recycling efforts.

1 ton of paper made from 100% recycled stock saves:

  • 7,000 gallons of water (recycled paper uses 35% less water)
  • 60 lbs. of air pollution effluent (recycled paper creates 74% less pollution)
  • 4,000 kWh of energy
  • 17 trees
  • 3 cubic yards of landfill space
  • $35 per ton of waste disposal fees

Avoid the Hype

As businesses realize there’s money to be saved by “going green,” they also realize there’s much money to be made by selling the green movement in a consumerist fashion. For example, I witnessed earlier this year many businesses giving away or selling so-called reusable shopping bags to customers. These polypropylene bags were hardly thicker than a plastic shopping bag and lasted about as long. That’s not helping anything but a company image. We have to get real — and that means distinguishing what’s really helping from what’s hype, and then making real changes.

Let’s keep this process focused on what it’s about: love for the Earth, respect for Earth’s resources, and keeping ecosystems functioning and abundant for Earth’s creatures and the generations to come.

Plant a Tree

Planting trees is one of the most impactful actions we can take to help restore balance to the Earth. Trees are incredible — sucking up carbon gases like gigantic sponges, creating habitats for innumerable creatures, purifying the air and water, building soil by the ton, feeding us with fruits and nuts, sheltering us from wind and sun, creating rainfall through transpiration, giving us timber and fiber to build our homes, heat them and make other products. They hold the soil together with mazes of roots, preventing it from washing away in rains. Our very lives and the life of the planet depend on trees.

Here are some tips to get you started with tree planting:

  • Go Native. Native trees have evolved for millennia to be perfectly adapted to your area — withstanding bugs, drought, storms, and snow with ease. Trees also fit into the ecosystem with other native creatures, giving them shelter and food. I’ve noticed after large storms that nonnative trees are damaged much more severely than native varieties. Depending on your location, the native trees vary widely. In much of the US, oak trees, maples, birch, elm, hemlock, redwoods, red bud, poplars, walnuts, and chestnuts are all fine choices. A bit of quick research will tell you which trees are native to your area.
  • Consider Fruit Trees. You can grow the best fruit you’ve ever tasted in your own backyard. Get trees from a local, reputable nursery that specializes in fruit trees. In temperate regions, such as the Midwest, you can grow native varieties of apples, plums, cherry, peaches, paw paw, pears, grapes, persimmon, walnuts, or mulberry. In warmer climates, go for avocado, citrus, carob, olive, pomegranate, almonds, pecans and dates. In tropical regions, choose coconut, cherimoya, guava, mango, soursop, bananas, rambutan, lychee, breadfruit and macadamia. Dwarf trees are genetically very small and can fit in nearly any back yard to produce bountiful fruit. Get healthy, medium-sized trees and follow growing directions found online or at the nursery. Nut trees are an excellent choice too, grow very big, and produce prodigious crops.

Buy Local Food

With peak oil looming around the corner, and the multinational corporation-based food system in serious question, supporting local farmers and food systems is critically important. Most supermarket fare is trucked in from across the US or around the globe, traveling thousands of miles in refrigerated trucks, to the great expense of petroleum and food quality. Without new technologies, it is an unsustainable system.  And because food shipped long distances must be picked before it’s fully ripe, it often lacks the full flavor of its locally harvested counterparts. Fresh food tastes wonderful, and local food is thousands of miles fresher than food that travels long distances.

So what counts as local?  Some definitions of “local” recommend staying within a hundred mile radius, and this is sensible.

Support local farmers by purchasing food at farmers' markets.

Support local farmers by shopping at farmers' markets. Photo: © Average American -

You can support hardworking local farmers in many ways. Farmers’ markets are a great option. They’re now popular throughout the US, and some are open throughout the year. Many health food stores sell delicious local produce. Online, you can find sources for local u-pick farms, specialty foods, meat and dairy products, honey, and other items. Every time I go food shopping, I buy local food. It’s the first step to reweaving the local food web. If the farmers stay farming, we stay fed. Try it — you’ll love the fresher, tastier, more distinct, and much more nutritious food.

Reduce Waste

Reducing waste isn’t just about recycling more and throwing away less. It’s also about the amount of disposable things you buy and use. This includes items such as shopping bags, plastic bottles, disposable razors, diapers, and cheap goods that will likely break soon.

Buy or make a sturdy, long-lasting shopping bag, or use a backpack when you go shopping. Obtain a quality metal or glass water bottle, and fill it with filtered tap water, instead of using imported, bottled water. Choose organic-cotton, cloth diapers to use at least part of the time, to help reduce waste from disposables. Always buy the best-quality goods that you can afford, and avoid flimsy, plastic goods that will soon be in the trash. In the long run, you’ll save money, while providing a better quality of life for yourself and your family.


Recycling reduces the waste sent to landiflls.

Recycling reduces the waste sent to landfills. Photo: © Joy Fera -

Recycling is an absolute necessity. We all produce trash, and most of it is recyclable and valuable when reincarnated into a myriad of other items. If you don’t already recycle, it’s a very important step toward green living. If your local trash company does not provide recycling services, request them. Recycling is easy and fun, and brings about a sense of responsibility and accountability for what we use and where it ends up.


Hundreds of tons of biodegradable kitchen waste get lost in landfills every year. Consider starting a compost pile in your yard. Then you’ll have plenty of excellent fertilizer for the fruit tree you just planted. There are many resources online and in your local library on how to start a healthy, productive compost pile.

Make a Commitment

Going green is a process and a commitment. It’s a commitment to living healthier and more in harmony with our Mother Earth. But don’t expect to achieve a green lifestyle overnight. As philosopher Lao-Tzu wrote in the sixth century B.C.E., “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So take one step at a time, if that’s all you can do. But begin your journey to green living today. It’s not that hard to do, and every bit you do makes a difference. So what are you waiting for?

Blake Cothron

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)_

Ranching Underground Livestock

Mary Somerville probes a compost bin for worms to show us. Photo: Joe Hennager

Worm castings are the ultimate fertilizer,” Kevin Somerville says. With a flat-end shovel, he carefully turns the compost pile in a shallow, wooden bin to reveal a squirming ball of red earthworms. Kevin’s wife, Mary, shows us the tiny, white babies, not much wider than a piece of thread. The biggest of the worms is only a couple of inches long.

Joe digs his hands into the rich soil. “It’s warmer than room temperature,” he reports, “and slightly moist.” I’m too busy taking notes to stick my fingers in, but the soil looks soft, inviting, and well aerated.

Vermiculture, or worm farming, is an important element in the Somervilles’ plan for their 140 acres in Johnson County, Iowa. Just this year, they received certification as an organic farm. The compost they’re making will enrich the soil for next spring’s crops of organic hops, sweet potatoes, and alfalfa, as well as their family garden.

Taking a Scientific Approach

Mary holds a moving mass of compost and earthworms. Photo: Joe Hennager

“The land is the most important thing,” Kevin says, explaining how they will grow quality produce without the farm chemicals and pesticides so widely used in commercial agriculture.

“If you have healthy soil,” Mary adds, “you’ll have healthy plants; they won’t be as susceptible to disease or bugs.”

The Somervilles take a scientific approach to creating healthy soil. “We had comprehensive soil testing done to measure the minerals in the soil,” Mary says. By learning which nutrients were needed, they could determine exactly what they should put into their compost pile to provide a healthy living environment for the worms as well as the best nutrient mix for their fields.

“It’s similar to human health,” Kevin says. “The land needs certain nutrients.” Some of those nutrients, the Somervilles purchase from Humus Health Organics in Kalona. “The rest,” he says, “we add as vegetative matter.”

About 12 months ago, the Somervilles constructed a large, flat bin in one of their outbuildings, then layered it with torn cardboard, shredded newspaper, grasses, and piles of pre-composted fall leaves. “We used a recipe,” Mary says, “to get the nutrients we needed.” When the bin was ready, they purchased 30 pounds of red wiggler earthworms from an organic worm farmer.

In optimal conditions, red wigglers will double their population in four months. In the past year, the Somervilles calculate, their 30 pounds of worms have become 240 pounds. “We call it ‘ranching underground livestock,’ ” Kevin says with a laugh.

They’ve built several additional bins to accommodate the expanding worm population. Three are currently in use, containing about a foot-deep mixture of red wigglers, black worm castings, yellow pieces of chopped organic hay, decomposed brown leaves, brown cinnamon sticks, and a variety of other herbs and spices. Sounds like an odd mixture, until the couple explains.

Earthworm Haute Cuisine

One of the huge piles of leaves (complete with biodegradable bags) from local city leaf collecting. Photo: Joe Hennager

One of the huge piles of leaves (complete with biodegradable bags) from local city leaf collecting. Photo: Joe Hennager

It takes a huge amount of plant matter to sustain a compost operation this big. The Somervilles have been highly resourceful in finding just the right materials to give the worms an ideal home. After all, the earthworms are the “machines” that process plant matter into rich castings (worm manure) for farming. It’s critical to keep these critters well fed and happily reproducing.

Stacked in the Somervilles’ barn are several pallets of 50-pound bags. At first glance, they look like sacks of animal feed or seed for the next year’s crops, but Kevin tells us it’s 100 tons of worm food. “We got a mother lode from Frontier Herbs in Norway, Iowa. I picked up two truckloads of herbs and spices from them just today. And there’s more waiting for me.” One hundred tons of herbs and spices? That seems like an expensive diet for earthworms.

“I got them through an exclusive agreement with Frontier Herbs,” he says. “It all started with a timely phone call. We needed more plant material, and Frontier Herbs needed a place to get rid of all the stuff they couldn’t sell. The spices might be outdated, or the bag might be torn open, or there might be material in the bag that makes it unusable. Our agreement with them is that this will only be used in our compost, not for anyone to eat.” It’s as good a deal for Frontier as it is for the Somervilles, as it keeps them from paying to dump the unusable food in the landfill.

We drive to another part of the farm and see two huge piles of decaying leaves. We see yet another example of resourcefulness. When nearby cities collected fall leaves, they needed a place to dump them. Again, the Somervilles were willing recipients of someone else’s vegetative waste. Here on their farm, Nature is recycling herself. Deep inside the piles, leaves are beginning to decompose. They’ll be used as pre-compost in the new bins the couple will start when the earthworms have finished the job in the current bins.

Worm Harvest

This hand-turned tumbler separates the worms from the soil. Photo: Joe Hennager

This hand-turned tumbler separates the worms from the soil. Photo: Joe Hennager

When the Somervilles determine that a bin of soil has been fully composted, they’ll sift out the worms using a “worm tumbler.” As the tumbler is turned, nutritious castings will fall out, and the worms will be gently captured in another container. The screen size optimizes collecting the smaller worms and eggs so little “livestock” are not lost. The collected worms are then redistributed into newly prepared bins, to start the composting process all over again.

The Somervilles will mound some of the new soil from their bins around the base of the organic hops plants their 24-year old son, Seth, farms on a portion of their acres. They’ll spread the rest on land for their root crops. Their goal is to sell all of their crops locally, to keep the carbon footprint of their farming operation low in yet another way.

Asked whether “anyone” can try vermiculture, even in a small yard, or if it’s just for farmers, Mary says, “There are composting kits of various sizes available on the market. We have a friend in Tempe, AZ who is feeding his worms on table scraps and vegetation from his yard. The worms are quiet little workers who need no care when you leave town for the weekend. It’s a great way to capture the household waste stream and reduce your trips to the lawn and garden centers for nutrients for your landscape or houseplants.”

Sustainable Farming

“Big Ag has a ‘conservation ethic’ of planting fence row to fence row,” Mary says. “I wish they’d work toward a balanced landscape. If farmers would devote even five percent of their acres to conservation practices, such as adding buffer strips to keep water from running off, that would make a big difference in the stability of the soil.

“I compare it to tithing at a church,” she adds. “You set aside a small percentage for the greater good. But too many land owners choose not to farm in a conservation-minded way.”

Iowa farmers typically have limited biodiversity in their plantings, alternating crops from feed corn to soybeans in a regular rotation. Every few years, some farmers do another crop rotation and grow an alfalfa/grass mix to restore the nutrients. This family farm operates on a completely different philosophy. The Somervilles are conservationists who live their beliefs. The evidence is everywhere we look.

Essential Grant Support

Restored wetlands on the Somerville farm. Photo: Joe Hennager

Restored wetlands on the Somerville farm. Photo: Joe Hennager

When we first arrived, the Somervilles’ daughter, Kristi, showed us a restored a wetland area that had been drained off for farming. “Some farmers plant their wetlands, which end up being flooded year after year, anyway. They don’t get any crops to speak of, but they keep trying,” Mary says.

The Somervilles decided that allowing the land to return to its natural purpose and stay that way made better ecological sense. Restoring the wetland was partially made possible through a whole-farm conservation plan that included waterways and contour buffer strips. The land is a home for wildlife now, where once it had scant crops that used more in energy than it produced in food. From their house, they can see pelicans, wild turkeys, ducks and other water birds.

In two sections of their fields, the family has reestablished native prairies and used native species in their buffer plantings. They received some financial assistance through the Johnson County Soil and Water Conservation District. “With good burns, we’ll have a beautiful prairie,” Mary says. “We want to make pathways so people can enjoy it.”

With a Trees Forever grant, they brought in skid loader with a tree shearer attachment to battle back invasive species. Their goal was to start an oak savanna and allow the native prairie to flourish. “It takes a lot of time and effort to battle back invasive species. Once you get the native plants established, you just need to be patient, and eventually they’ll take over again. Our children and grandchildren will really enjoy what we are doing in our lifetime,” Mary explains.

Growing a “living snow fence” is another part of the couple’s plan. They planted three rows of various types of trees and shrubs to keep snow from drifting over the county road they use to access their farm. The row closest to the field alternates red osier and nine bark. The middle row is white pines. And the row closest to the road is two varieties of spruce. The project has yet to be evaluated for effectiveness, as it will take years for the trees to reach sufficient size to provide the needed barrier. “The tall prairie grasses between the trees and the road might be just as effective at capturing the blowing snow,” Mary says.

The grants and financial incentives the Somervilles have received come with strings attached. They require a tremendous amount of dedication, time, and hard work. But, along with the couple’s own resourcefulness, the funds provided are making their dream of sustainable agriculture a reality, leaving the world a healthier place for all of us.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (home page)