house living green

Building a Sod Compost Bin

With backyard garden dreams like stars in our eyes, Neil and I began tearing up the sod in the backyard. We’ve torn up probably 500+ square feet of sod so far, making way for kitchen gardens, flower gardens, and a prairie garden. Thinking of getting rid of all that sod gave Neil an idea of building our compost bins out of some of it.

As you may recall, our quick and easy winter compost situation was just to toss it in a steel drum that I found on craigslist. When the weather started to warm, we wanted a compost pile situation that was a bit less “trash fire” or “junk yard” looking. So Neil planned out and built a two-pile compost bin arrangement made of sod. And I want to share how we did it just in case you have plans to tear up a bit of grass for a garden and start a compost pile this spring or summer.

Building a Sod Compost Bin

Building a Sod Compost Bin

  1. Measure out the area that you want for your pile, and include 1 foot for each wall.

We wanted about a square yard for each pile, and we had enough room for two piles. so the are we mapped out was:

length = 1 ft (left edge wall) + 3 ft (pile 1) +1 ft (center wall) + 3 ft (pile 2) +  1 ft (right edge wall) = 9 ft.

depth = 1 ft (front wall) + 3 ft (pile) + 1 ft (back wall) = 5 ft.

  1. Dig out the sod within your measured out area so you are starting out with a blank dirt rectangle.

OK, this step is optional, because the walls and compost pile will kill all that grass anyway, but it does give you some sod to start building your bins out of.

We dug out the sod beneath the bins using a square edge shovel. Tearing up sod is not an easy job, especially at this point in the spring when it’s had a good bit of time to re-establish its root system. When we cleared out the sod beneath the bins, it was the end of March, so the grass hadn’t really come back to life yet, which made this process easier. For the sod removal we did for our garden beds, we rented a manual sod ripper from a local hardware store. It was still tiresome manual labor, but it definitely went faster than working with a shovel. Rumor has it you can also rent gas powered sod rippers from Home Depot and the like, but our nearest Home Depot apparently doesn’t have a rental center.

Building a sod compost bin side view

  1. Build the back, side, and center walls out of sod using an alternating pattern. This means you face dirt side to dirt side and grass side to grass side. This is the pattern you use to stack sod to compost it as well. We also overlapped the sod layers so that the breaks in sod strips didn’t line up from layer to layer – you know, lego style.

We built our walls to be about 2.5 – 3 ft tall.

You may want to enforce your walls by making them a bit wider at the bottom than they are at the top. I did this by taking some piece of sod and leaning them along the bottom inside and outside of the wall.

building a side compost bin inside view

  1. Build a shorter front containment wall. Our front wall is maybe only 9 inches tall. Its purpose is just to keep the compost pile from spilling out the front of the bin. You don’t want too tall of a front wall so that you have easy access to the pile for turning it and for retrieving your finished compost for spreading on the garden.
  2. Finish off your walls with a dirt-side-up layer of sod, and plant flowers or a vining plant on the top of the walls.

This step is obviously also optional, but will potentially make for a prettier compost pile situation in the middle of summer. We planted some old nasturtium seeds we had along the top of our walls.

Sod compost bins are certainly not a permanent compost situation. We’ll probably have to build new bins next spring or certainly by next fall. But they serve as multi-taskers for now: containing our kitchen and yard compost while also composting down some of the sod that we were tearing out of the yard anyway. When the sod walls have composted themselves, we’ll be able to use that as garden food as well as the compost piles the walls are containing.

Interested in more building earth articles on compost? Check out the following:
Starting a Winter Compost Pile
Composting during the Winter
Can I Compost That?
Apartment Composting

Keep up with building earth by following us on facebook, pinterest, or on @buildingearth on instagram


living green

5 Ways to Celebrate Earth Day

5 ways to celebrate earth day

Earth Day is next Wednesday, April 22. We certainly try to treat every day as earth day, but it’s always nice to have a reason to celebrate. So here are 5 ways to celebrate Earth Day, especially if you’re just getting into living a more green lifestyle.

1. Start a Compost Pile

Have you been putting off starting a compost pile? Well, what better day to start than Earth Day? Composting can keep hundreds of pounds of kitchen waste (and more) out of landfills, and can be used to increase the health of the soil in your garden or potted plants.  And it’s very simple to get started.

  1. Dedicate a space for your compost to go – a plastic or metal bin can be good enough to get started.
  2. Start saving your kitchen scraps from the trash and put them in the compost bin
  3. Add some sort of “brown” material such as dried leaves, torn up newspapers or paper bags, or torn up egg cartons (not the Styrofoam kind!)

2. Don’t Use Your Car

Can you go an entire day without using your car? Give it a try. Maybe you can use public transportation or a car pool to get to and from work. Ride a bike. Or, if you’re lucky enough to live close to where you work, head out a bit earlier and walk! And you might be surprised to find out how many restaurants and shops are within walking or biking distance of your home or work place. You’ve got a whole week to work out the logistics, so I’m challenging you to figure out how to give up your car for the whole day.

3. Plant Something

Celebrate Earth Day by planting something

Chances are your local grocery store or hardware store has a display rack of seeds right now, because ’tis the season for planting. Why not pick up a pack of seeds for you favorite veggie or flower and start growing something this Earth Day.

Not much of a green thumb? You’ll only make it greener through practice. Start with something that sprouts quickly – like peas! The quick reward will help keep you motivated to keep it growing, plus they have pretty, sweet smelling blossoms.

Don’t have much outdoor space? Tomatoes grow well in containers – but do need to be outside when they flower in order to be pollinated. Lettuce grows well in containers, and you can grow it inside in a sunny window.

4. Participate in a Park Clean-Up

Many communities host park clean-ups to celebrate Earth Day. Participating in a park clean up can be a great way to meet your neighbors, get some fresh air, and help make your local park a bit more beautiful. If you’re in Madison you can check out this Earth Day Challenge for more information on park clean-ups. Or check out your local park board website and see if they are hosting a similar clean up.

5. Be Inspired by an Episode of Earth: A New Wild

PBS recently aired this documentary mini-series that is focused on how humans and nature can interact for the good of both. And it’s truly inspiring to learn about the situations where mankind and nature are thriving together. The show is a great reminder that we are not separate from nature, but a part of it. And we need to work with it for the good of all. You can find the first episode on youtube.

Keep up with building earth by following us on facebook, pinterest, or on @buildingearth on instagram

house living green

Starting a Compost Pile in the Winter

At the start of the winter I wrote about how you can keep adding to your compost pile during the winter. The important factor in maintaining a winter compost pile is to keep it covered so that all your hungry neighborhood critters didn’t make a mess of it while foraging for food.

While we have a covered compost pile to add to at our apartment complex, I couldn’t wait to start our own compost pile now that we have a yard and our own soil to start enriching. But a snow covered yard and below freezing temperatures don’t lend themselves well to building a multi-pile compost system out of pallets or what have you. And building a loose pile is just inviting the rabbits and deer to move into our backyard. So I needed a contained solution. A few quick searches on craigslist led me to some very cheap 55 gallon steel drums for sale at a neighborhood farm. There was actually a range of drums to be had on craigslist– from shiny and painted, to food grade plastic, to older and slightly rusty. I went for steel as opposed to plastic, unpainted, and slightly rusty, but with no holes, and with the top removed.

The drum is about 3 feet tall, and I’m keeping it roughly where our future multi-pile system will go – behind our garage. But it’s pulled out a few feet from the wall of the garage in the hopes that being removed from anything climb-able will deter animals from trying to climb into the bin. The drum is heavy enough that I think it would probably take a few raccoons working together to knock the thing over.

Now that I have a sturdy container, the next step is to build the pile. I don’t expect to build a big enough pile this winter to generate any heat and break anything down in my compost pile this winter, but I want to have a good start for when the temperature start warming up in the spring. I also want to even further prevent my compost from attracting animals by keeping it full of “brown” or carbon-rich materials. These materials will help keep the pile from developing an odor on the days when the temperature gets above freezing and the food scraps thaw out a bit. Good “brown” compost materials for starting a winter pile are shredded or torn newspapers, shredded or torn brown paper bags, and/or torn apart cardboard egg cartons. If you happen to have any dried leaves from the fall still around, those would work well too. Aim for at least 50% brown items in your winter compost pile.

So there you have it: Starting a compost pile in the winter

  1. A container that is difficult for animals to get into
  2. Plenty of “brown” compost materials
  3. Your kitchen scraps

 That’s it. So what are you waiting for? Get to composting!

Want to read more about compost? Check out these previous posts:

On Apartment Composting
Can I Compost That?

living green

5 Tips to have a Greener Holiday Season

greener holiday seasonDuring a season dedicated to gatherings, gifts, and baked goods, I’d like to offer some simple ways you can reduce your footprint and have a greener holiday season.


  • Upgrade to LED holiday light strings. They may cost a bit more up front, but they’ll save you plenty in electricity use, and will last forever. As LED technology grows, you can now find strings that have that desirable yellow-white light rather than just the blueish white that you may associate with LED holiday lights. (Although I happen to think that the blueish white strings are spectacular for outdoor decorating.) Plus, no more half burnt out strings of lights.


  • Wrap your presents in recycled paper – either from the store, or make your own using grocery bags or cloth. Or reuse gift bags that you’ve received in years past. Keep in mind that tissue paper is not recycleable, so if you receive a gift wrapped with tissue paper, try to resuse it in your own wrapping in the future.
  • Giving American made gifts not only supports our economy, but it also reduces that energy required to transport products from factory to store. Better yet, look for gifts that are made within your own community, or give experiences like dinners out, theater or sporting event tickets, or museum and zoo memberships.

Cooking and Baking

  • If you’re going to be spending all day in the kitchen doing a marathon baking session, turn the thermostat down a few degrees – the kitchen will still be toasty warm from the heat of the oven!
  • Americans throw out huge amounts of food waste every day. You can help reduce that by thinking through your holiday menu plan and carefully considering how much food to make. Try not to make more than will get eaten during the meal or as left overs. And remember that you can keep adding to your compost pile all winter long rather than throwing out your kitchen scraps.

And with that, have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, and Happy New Year. I’ll be back with more posts after the New Year.

living green

The Winter Compost Pile

winter compost pileMuch like it often happens in the fall, it seems like we went from comfortable-with-a-sweatshirt weather to need-all-the-layers weather overnight. And to top it all off, we have a layer of snow on the ground. Oh, November, you’re full of surprises.

With the change in weather, you might be thinking that it’s time to put the compost pile to rest. However, with a cold weather adjustment or two you can continue to build that pile all winter long. First, let’s look at what might be happening in that pile.

Small Winter Compost Piles (less than 1 cubic meter)

If you have just a small pile, the soil making microbes might take a break during the cold weather. But the cold weather will also freeze – or at least preserve – the pile and anything you add to it, helping to keep the pile from developing an odor. When the pile thaws out in the spring be sure to add a good amount of “brown” carbon-rich materials to prevent odors while the microbes move back in. Since you’ve been feeding the pile all winter, those soil friendly microbes and earthworms will quickly move back in to your pile since it will be providing a bountiful feast for the little guys.

Larger Winter Compost Piles (greater than 1 cubic meter)

One of the great things about larger compost piles is that they generate enough heat in the center of the pile to keep those microbes alive and working. This means that you can feed and even turn the pile throughout the winter, and come spring you will be a bit further ahead in having some finished compost to add to your garden beds.

Winterizing your compost pile

Since the winter tends to be a leaner season for all those backyard and neighborhood critters, they tend to be on the lookout for any easy sources of food. If you don’t want your backyard to become the compost pile buffet, you may have to get creative with locking up your pile. Our current pile is contained in a bin with a twist-locking lid. The bin has ventilation built in, but the locking lid keeps birds, squirrels, coons, and neighborhood cats out. If you have an pallet bin, you may want to make a screen lid for it that can either be locked down or weighted down. If you have a loose pile, consider covering the pile with a tarp for the winter – just give yourself a point of easy access before the snow comes down if you want to keep feeding the pile during the winter.

winterize your compost pile with a lid or cover

Interested in catching up on other compost topics? Check out these posts:
On Apartment Composting
Can I Compost That?

Happy Composting!

living green

Can I compost that?

Can I Compost That?

Spring is in the air. The hyacinth are blooming. And you’re probably anxious to give your compost pile a turn. Or at least I am.

Have I mentioned before how much I love compost? Because I love it so much. Because it just does it. Compost just happens. And there is nothing we can do about it. Even when we try our best by putting our waste food into a tied up plastic bag and then sending that bag to be buried in a landfill, it’s still going to turn into compost – just compost that is now in a plastic bag and mixed in with all our other trash that doesn’t break down. And, may I ask, what good is it doing there?*

Have I inspired in you a love for compost yet? Are you itching to start your own pile yet? Or maybe you want to maximize the pile you’ve already started building?

There are plenty of guides on what you can or cannot put into a compost pile out there. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Most of them are playing it safe and give you a very specific method of making your pile. This isn’t a bad thing. They will help you to build a pile and help you keep from attracting animals and upsetting your neighbors – both good things when it comes to the success of your compost. But compost just happens. Organic materials break down into humus naturally. When we build a compost pile we merely are helping it along.

So what can you put in your pile? Pretty much anything organic. What should you put in your compost pile? Well, depending on where you live and the size of your compost pile, maybe you should be a little more discerning.

Can I compost that? Residential area/small pile/community garden edition

In a residential area you probably don’t want to attract animals to your pile, because they will make a mess of it. You also probably want to keep the smells down from your pile because you’re a good neighbor. Small piles (less than 1 cubic yard) don’t really get hot enough to break some materials down quickly to prevent them from smelling, and smelly compost piles attract animals.

  • fresh kitchen scraps (fruits, veggies, egg shells)? yes! – chop it up and it will break down faster
  • produce that has gone bad? yes! it’s already started the process
  • lawn and garden clippings? yes! – cut it up small and it will break down faster
  • weeds? yes! if they haven’t gone to seed yet (otherwise your compost will end up full of weed seeds)
  • paper and cardboard? yes! if it isn’t dyed – tear it up and it will break down faster
  • cooked fruits/veggies/grains? not if they are cooked in oil, the oil will attract animals and smell
  • animal products (meat, bones and dairy)? not unless your ok attracting raccoons, crows, cats, dogs, etc
  • compostable “plastics” like those iced coffee cups? no! your pile is not big enough to properly break these down
  • chicken scat? yep! chicken poop is a great fertilizer, but it’s too strong to be applied directly to plants. Put it into your compost pile to break down for a while first.
  • coffee grounds? yes! coffee grounds are a great addition to your compost pile. In fact, I believe that adding coffee grounds to my indoor compost pile has helped keep the smell down and keep flies away.

Can I compost that? Rural area/large pile edition

If you are able to build a pile that is consistently 1 cubic meter in volume or larger, it probably has enough mass that it will get quite hot in the middle. This enables the pile to break down more complex materials quickly, preventing smelly, animal attracting results.  If you’re in a rural area, with greater distance between you and your neighbors, and plenty of wildlife around anyway, you may not care so much about the odor of your pile. Just keep it a bit further away from your house and garden.

  • fresh kitchen scraps (fruits, veggies, egg shells)? yes! – chop it up and it will break down faster
  • produce that has gone bad? yes! it’s already started the process
  • lawn and garden clippings? yes! – cut it up small and it will break down faster
  • weeds? yes! if they haven’t gone to seed yet (otherwise your compost will end up full of weed seeds).

If you have a big, hot pile it can handle weeds that have gone to seed. The heat will kill the seeds.

  • paper and cardboard? yes! if it isn’t dyed – tear it up and it will break down faster
  • cooked fruits/veggies/grains? yes! your big pile will take care of the smell
  • animal products (meat, bones and dairy)? yes! but don’t put chicken or fish bones into the pile unless they are ground up. These bones can shatter and be very dangerous if eaten by loved pets or wildlife
  • compostable “plastics” like those iced coffee cups? no! your pile is not big enough to properly break these down

Wait! Compostable plastics shouldn’t go in either of the types of compost piles mentioned above? It’s true, unless the cups are going into huge scale compost piles – like the kind that are built from city-wide compost projects, the pile does not get big/hot enough to break down this material and actually compost it. Otherwise the cup will break apart, but the flakes of plastic will remain intact in the humus.

  • chicken scat? yep! chicken poop is a great fertilizer, but it’s too strong to be applied directly to plants. Put it into your compost pile to break down for a while first.
  • coffee grounds? yes! coffee grounds are a great addition to your compost pile. In fact, I believe that adding coffee grounds to my indoor compost pile has helped keep the smell down and keep flies away.

Do you have any questions about what you can or can’t compost? Leave them in the comments and I’ll be sure to add them to this list!


*Actually, all that food/organic matter that gets thrown into our landfills is finally being put to use in some places. As the matter breaks down it releases methane, and some landfills are starting to harvest that methane to use for energy. Like the bio-gas I wrote about previously in Michigan’s Green Currents program.

Interested in reading more about compost here on building earth? Check out the compost tag, for all the articles I’ve written on the subject.

Keep up with building earth by following us on facebook, pinterest, or on @buildingearth on instagram

apartment living living green

On Apartment Composting

apartment copmosting: veggiesLet’s chat about one of my favorite gardening topics: compost. Seriously, how wonderful is it that you can take something you inevitably have if you cook or eat fresh produce – kitchen scraps – and instead of throwing them away, you can turn them into nutrient rich food for the next generation of fresh produce? And it’s a natural process. Depending on your level of patience, there is very little you have to do to go from trash to “black gold”.

One of the greatest things about compost is that it really only requires two things aside from the kitchen scraps – somewhere to keep the scraps as you collect them, and someplace to put the scraps to let them do their thing.

Apartment Composting

Husby and I have been apartment composting for nearly three years. The first six months or so were certainly a learning curve. Previously we had each been living in houses that had their own compost piles, but our apartment does not. Nor does it have a balcony where we could keep our own pile.

Theoretically, you might be able to keep a self contained compost in one of those large plastic storage bins in an apartment. At least that is what the internet will lead you to believe. But we were never able to get it to work. Compost does require some air circulation, and we always ended up with fruit flies in the compost. Just the simple act of opening the bin to add scraps released a gross fleet of little flies. Yuck.

After trying this method out for a couple months and making a couple tweaks to try and control our fruit fly population, we determined that trying to keep our self contained pile was just not an apartment dweller’s reality. We needed another option.  Our immediate solution, which allowed us to continue composting without interruption, was to collect our scraps and bring them out to husby’s family’s house, where his mom kept a compost pile. After a couple months we made connections with the neighborhood community garden, and made arrangements to add our scraps to their compost pile. For the past few years, every time we have a full container of kitchen scraps we bring them to the community garden. Since then, more and more community gardens have started in our neighborhood, so we, and our fellow apartment dwellers in midtown Detroit, have plenty of places to bring our kitchen scraps.

apartment composting: bins

As far as how we keep our scraps in between trips to the compost pile, we certainly don’t use anything fancy. We just keep them in a plastic mixing bowl, and keep the bowl in the refrigerator to keep the smell down and the flies away.  No need for any specific composting container. No real need for a lid even.  We are easily able to keep scraps for two weeks between  taking out the compost.  In the summer we tend to empty our bowl more frequently, but that is mostly because we are using more fresh produce so we have more scraps in a shorter amount of time, and also because we are making frequent trips to the garden anyway to water or weed our garden plot.

So if you’re living in an apartment and want to compost, find yourself a local community garden and see if they will let you contribute to their pile. Then get yourself a bowl and start collecting.