Desert Composting

Desert Composting

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The Good, The Bad, and The Seriously Ugly

Creating compost in our unique desert climate requires a different approach than elsewhere in the country. Our climate has suitable temperatures for the year-round composting activity of micro-organisms (stuff you cannot see) and the macro-organisms (stuff you can see, including ourselves.)

The most limiting factor to desert composting is moisture. A productive compost pile will need to be moistened and turned frequently. However, the benefits of recycling kitchen scraps, grass clippings, newspaper, etc. into rich, organic material for your garden is well worth the effort.

The Good

Other items suitable for a compost pile include: manures (no cat or dog droppings,) dried leaves, cardboard, thornless cacti, coffee grounds, etc.

The Bad

Be careful about using diseased plant parts, wood ashes, dairy products, weeds and sod, and leaves with high levels of aromatic oils, i.e. Eucalyptus.

Avoid using poisonous leaves, i.e. Oleander, thorny plants, meats, bones, dairy products, oils and greases, glossy magazine paper and newspaper inserts, or fireplace ash.

The Seriously Ugly

Earthworms are a super bonus and even beetle grubs are beneficial when present in your compost pile. Just make sure to remove them before using your compost!

Almost any organic material is suitable for adding to your compost pile. Anything green is considered a source of nitrogen. When using cactus or succulent pieces, make sure to chop them up to spread out the moisture evenly. Manure is considered a source of nitrogen when it is fresh and a source of carbon when it is aged or dried.

Creating a Compost Pile

“Green” materials include: kitchen scraps, grass clippings, barnyard manures, and landscape trimmings. “Brown” materials include: sawdust, straw, twigs, dry leaves, pine needles, shredded newspaper, etc. The ratio of green to brown should be 1:1 (or half green, half brown.)

  • Assemble enough green and brown materials for a pile of at least 3’ x3’ but no larger than 5’ x 5’.
  • Chop or shred large pieces.
  • Put green and brown material down in alternating layers and then blend together.
  • Moisten pile and add a few shovelfuls of native soil, finished compost, or compost activator (available at garden centers.)
  • Cover the pile with straw or pine needles to conserve moisture.

Compost Pile Maintenance

A compost thermometer will monitor the temperature of the pile which should be kept at between 140º – 160º F. to kill weed seeds and sustain decomposition.

The pile should be turned weekly and kept moist, but not wet.

Key Points

Oxygen: The more air your bacteria get the faster they will break down plant residues and the quicker you will get good compost.

Depending on the size and condition of the plant residues, a compost pile can take six (6) weeks to six (6) months to produce healthy compost.

  • Hello!
    I have a question.
    While realizing that I should build a composter, I recently picked up a nice plastic 55 gal drum that I intend to cut a door in and hang it on a 2″ pvc pipe end-to-end, and put it on a stand for rotation. When drilling holes in it, what size would you recommend and how far apart?
    I have heard 1/4″ up to 2″.
    Also I live in the Phoenix, AZ metro area.
    Thanks for your consideration!

  • Hello Brad,
    After speaking to Mr. Harlow, we have decided we are not the experts in this situation. We recommend you contact the Maricopa County Master Gardeners. Here is their link:

    Thank you,
    Cara Bohardt
    Assistant Administrator

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