How To Get Started Composting In The Desert

There are a few things that separate composting from desert composting. Here in Arizona the dry conditions keep most things from decomposing. The ground is littered with twigs and leaves that dry up and blow away. Most people live in fear they will not have enough brown carbon sources, we live in fear of not having enough green nitrogen sources!

Composting is really just an imitation of nature.

Permaculture, organic home-gardening, and organic farming are getting the respect they deserve recently. The act of taking care of the soil is called permaculture, letting beneficial microbes and fungi live and prosper right where leaf litter falls, returning their nutrients to the soil. This is the act of growing soil!

Composting is no different, but the controlled action happens in a bin or pile, and the resulting fertile soil is spread where it is needed. It is loaded with beneficial microbes, fungi, and insects that break down falling plant debris, and the list goes on. Living compost is what you would start permaculture with. Its water retention is second to none! Go ahead and get excited. Composting is easy whether done directly on the ground, in a bin, or in a tumbler.

What you’ll need:

  • Brown material
    • Wood chips
    • Stems or sticks
    • Tree Bark
    • Shredded Paper or Cardboard
    • Cotton drier lint
  • Green Material
    • Grass clippings (even dry grass)
    • Fresh leaves
    • Kitchen Scraps
    • Fresh Garden Waste
    • Horse/Cow/Chicken Manure
    • Stale/leftover wine and beer
  • Fresh compost or soil
    • Any salt-based-fertilizer free soil that hosts an abundance of life (ask your composting friends, or buy a compost starter)
  • Fresh water
    • Hose water, aerated for a day to release all chlorine
    • Rain water, collected off of safe surfaces

Collecting brown items is a great idea. A large, covered, plastic or metal trash can from any home goods store will work perfectly to hold dry, brown material, and keep it dry. Add to it year round to make sure you have enough.


Green kitchen items can be gathered in a small pitcher or jar, or even a 5 gallon bucket with a lid. Lids will keep odors contained. Collect until you have enough of everything to start layering. If it will take you some time to collect all you need, freeze your waste for later. Ask family or friends for their organic waste and you will have enough in no time flat. A lid will NOT keep the contents from decaying, so take out your green waste on a daily or weekly basis. There are great paid services all over, and your city may even offer curb-side pick up. I know you’re here because you want it all to yourself, though (I’m psychic).

A great place to find active soil microbes in the desert is underneath your potted plants. Molds, fungus, and perhaps some bacteria all thrive here because it stays moist and the temperature stays about the same year-round. Throw decaying leaves and soil from these places into your pile before you mix it. If your goal is a fungus-only leaf pile, then this is a great place to find what you need.

Pile it up

Lay down 4-6 inches of brown material, and sprinkle with water. Next, add 2 inches of green material, then an inch of finished compost or active soil you find under pottery, then brown material on top of that. Alrernatively, you can use a one part green, 2 parts brown ratio. Repeat this until the pile is at least 3 feet wide, tall, and deep. Give it a good soak one more time and let it sit. You may find that a compost starter product will help you. Add this to the green layers and it will move throughout the bin as you water and aerate.

An alternative to a pile or bin is to use a black plastic trash bin, like the one above, from any home goods store. Drill holes in the bottom, maybe a few in the sides, and you’re all ready to go! The lid will help to keep rain out, giving you the most control over moisture content in the bin.

Water your dirt

As you turn the bin, it will dry out some. If the temperature is warm and the air is dry, water your pile every week. You can also check it for moisture by turning it. Keeping the pile as moist as a rung out sponge is best. The section after next will help you save water.


Decomposition happens in the center of a pile. First bugs show up and break things down, then they move out as bacteria heat things up. Turn the insides of the pile to the outside after the temperature reaches 130F or higher and begins to drop. Alternatively, mix the entire pile thoroughly. Then repeat. Compost thermometers are definitely worth the investment here. By far the second best use for it is to test out soil temperature before spring planting.

Composting Thermometer Pickles Of Wisdom

In the absence of oxygen, anaerobic bacteria populate the bin. The culprit is either not turning your bin, or you’ve added too much green waste. You will notice a decrease in temperature, and a suspicious smell. It’s an easy fix though, turn the bin regularly again, and add more brown material. It should heat right back up within a week, maybe two.

Heat is the most important thing in composting. It kills weed seeds, and a host of plant diseases that would otherwise make it back into your garden. Leaving a pile to sit and breakdown for a year or two will not uniformly heat all the contents of your bin. You must do the work to make that happen. Plus, with a bit of work on your part, compost will take less than a year to finish, and you end up with the equivalent of a cubic yard or more of compost from the home goods store!

Keeping It Wet

Here is a bin I’ve started recently. You’ll notice the brown material on top has dried some, but it is moist just underneath. Layering dense material on top of a green layer will cut down on evaporation. Paper was what I had, but if you have wood chips, use wood chips. I don’t kid. They work. The green trimmings in this photo are the start of the next layer.


Alternatively, there are plastic products you could use to cover your pile, but the next best thing besides mulch is a flat cinder block. While a bit heavy, they do the best job of keeping the pile moist all the way to the surface and providing the best environment for bacteria and fungi. Just remove before aerating and replace afterwards. My third favorite solution is the lid from a metal trash can. It comes with a handle, is lightweight, will cover most of the surface of your bin, and may even add a bit of warmth that will spur on the decomposition process.

In a few days the bucket in my kitchen will have enough green material to go on top. In a few months to a year you’ll have enough black gold and soil amendment for the next growing season.

Have a rags to rich compost story? Let’s hear it! Scroll all the way down for comments.


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