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Composting in the High Desert

A plastic or metal compost bin with solid sides and a sturdy lid is the best for desert conditions. Not only does this type retain moisture, it will keep out unwanted critters that will be looking for water and food. You can make your own by drilling a few aeration holes near the bottom edge of a large plastic or metal garbage can, but you will also have to cut the bottom out because it does need to sit directly on the ground for friendly microbes and bacteria to move in. It also needs to be fairly large, since you have to add so many bulking materials. 

To optimize decomposition, every compost pile needs to maintain at least 50% moisture, which should feel like a damp, wrung-out sponge. Since evaporation is such a problem in the desert, you’ll need to work harder to achieve this level of moisture. Here are some general guidelines to help you get the most from your desert compost.

  1. Locate your compost in the shade. 
    Composts located in direct sunlight will be an average of 10 to 15 degrees hotter than those in the shade. Higher temperatures speed evaporation, challenging decomposition and the microbes that help it take place.

  2. Minimize ventilation holes.
    Enclose your compost pile in a bin with fewer ventilation holes than those designed for moister climates. This will help minimize water loss through evaporation. 

  3. Minimize disturbance.
    Gardeners who live where rain is more frequent benefit from turning their compost often, because turning speeds aerobic decomposition. In the desert, however, frequent turning can result in your pile drying out too quickly, which slows decomposition. Try to strike a balance between turning your pile and keeping it moist by minimizing turning and wetting your pile each time you turn it.

  4. Aerate the pile by adding dry bulk material.
    Sticks, pinecones, twigs, corn stalks, and other dry, bulk materials help “fluff” up your pile by introducing air pockets to improve aeration. This is in addition to the typical brown/green ratio that a regular compost pile would have. Normally you would add at least two parts brown (carbon) to one part green (nitrogen) material. (The ideal ratio is closer to 20:1 carbon to nitrogen). Brown materials include leaves, nut shells, paper towels, straw, and shredded paper. Green materials include grass trimmings, coffee grounds, food waste, and crushed eggshells. In the desert pile, add an additional layer of dry, bulky material in between each layer of green/brown material, or approximately 4” of bulking on top of each 6” of green/brown. Every now and then you can add some water if it dries out.

  5. Cover the pile.
    Adding some kind of topper to your compost will help seal in moisture and insulate your pile from the outside. A desert compost pile will heat up very quickly from the inside and should reach 150° F for at least a few days. When it cools down, usually after a week or two, you can turn the pile. This means trying to bring the bottom of the pile to the top, and the sides into the middle. Then the pile will heat up again, and the process repeats until everything except the bulking material has turned to humus. Insulating your pile with a layer of leaves, cardboard, or straw will aid this process. An enclosed compost bin with a lid is another great option.

To Learn More about Compost.....
Check out this cool website and video from "Kiss the Ground"
The Compost Story (Full Video) by Kiss The Ground

The Compost Story (Full Video) by Kiss The Ground

Play Video

Don't have room to do composting in your own yard/garden?

To locate the food waste collection sites in our local area, visit the Share Waste website: and check our their map. If you already do home composting, consider signing up (it's free) and adding your location to their map. 

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