Here’s the dirt on composting in Greater Sacramento

Matthew Ampersand of Find Out Farms builds compost piles at his farm in Oak Park.
Matthew Ampersand of Find Out Farms builds compost piles at his farm in Oak Park.

Saving the Planet, One Banana Peel at a Time

Composting — the process of turning organic waste into usable fertilizer — is having a moment. Experts compare it to the early days of recycling programs more than 40 years ago. In a huge cultural shift, residents learned how to sort their trash.

“Now instead of where to put that can, it’s where do you put a banana peel?” says compost expert David Baker, director of ReSoil, a Sacramento-based community recycling program. “Give me a banana peel, and I’ll put it into the soil.”

David Baker, ReSoil Sacramento director, feeds juice pulp to garden soil in Land Park. Photos courtesy of ReSoil

Compost may be the fastest way to build healthy soil, which means more vegetables, fruits, and flowers. It adds ready-to-use nutrients, holds water, and improves plant growth. It feeds the countless beneficial microbes that live underground. Soil rich in organic matter also saves water; by retaining moisture, it reduces plant water needs by as much as 30 percent.

“The end product of composting is called humus,” explains Becky Fritchie, a Placer County master gardener. “It’s a dark, rich, earthy-smelling product — black gold. A gardener can save money improving their soil structure with compost they’ve made as opposed to buying [fertilizers]. It’s a valuable resource for homeowners, especially in newly constructed homes, where the topsoil has been scraped away, by providing the nutrients essential in the restoration of the soil.”

Finished compost is called humus. Photo by Kathy Netto

Big Changes in 2022

New awareness about the link between organic (aka carbon-based) waste and greenhouse gases has made composting a hot topic. And if it’s not already, a bin to collect scraps will become a fixture in your kitchen.

Several local communities plan to distribute kitchen bins as part of their rollout of new programs to collect organic waste, including kitchen scraps, yard waste, and paper products. Such waste is the focus of Senate Bill 1383, which went into effect in 2022.

Signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, SB 1383 mandates that cities and counties reduce organic waste in landfills by 75 percent by 2025. How? Most cities are still working out the kinks with new recycling rules that will go into effect this summer.

Under SB 1383, residents and businesses will be required to recycle all organic waste. Collection programs will divert that waste to “anaerobic digestion facilities” to create biofuel, and thus electricity (an option nicknamed farm-to-fork-to-fuel), or to composting facilities that make soil amendments to be used at local parks, schools, and other public places.

In most Sacramento-area cities, residents will start disposing of their kitchen waste (including bread, bones, and soiled pizza boxes) in what’s now their green waste containers.

According to California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), food waste represents California’s largest waste stream, representing 18 percent of all garbage. As it breaks down in a landfill, that organic waste emits methane, a super-polluter 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. By diverting that waste into compost and biofuel, California can cut down on greenhouse gases and help fight climate change.

Make Your Own

Fortunately, it’s not hard to do. Residents can make their own compost with those kitchen scraps. That choice is the easiest, most cost-efficient, and most environment-friendly way to dispose of organic waste. No one has to haul out the garbage; the end product stays in your backyard.

“I love that Sacramento wants to become a sustainable city,” Baker says. “Composting is a big step in that direction. … If I can convince people to use their own leaves and food scraps, we don’t have to haul so much to facilities.”

But will people do it?

“A lot of people are afraid of composting,” admits Baker, who teaches classes. “But it’s really a kind of recycling. What goes in comes out.”

Serving clients on both sides of the Tower Bridge, ReSoil is the composting arm of Green Restaurants Alliance Sacramento (GRAS), part of the farm-to-fork capital’s campaign toward sustainability.

Leon Truong and Sanea Crawford layer food scraps into bins at Niños Community Garden in Natomas. Photo courtesy of ReSoil

“We may be the only community composting program in the state that’s allowed to pick up at restaurants,” Baker says. “We’re operating on a very small level — about two dozen farm-to-fork restaurants. We’re a non-profit with limited resources. But this is our niche; we can service smaller mom-and-pop businesses.”

ReSoil picks up kitchen scraps from such Sacramento restaurants as The Waterboy, Magpie Café, and Selland’s Market-Café. In addition, ReSoil collects about 1,200 pounds a month from two Sacramento farmers’ markets. That organic waste is then composted, mostly by ReSoil or by community garden volunteers. The organization sells finished compost, too.

Fremont Community Garden in Midtown Sacramento is among ReSoil’s drop-off locations. Fremont member Lynn Franks oversees the garden’s compost-making volunteers.

“Be patient,” Franks advises when it comes to getting the finished compost product. “The process takes time. Worms are working hard to break things down!”

Compost bins at Fremont Community Garden in Sacramento

Compost is easy to make; nature does the real work. Compost-making also is easy to spectacularly goof up. “Fast” methods, which can break down a pile in two to three weeks, target 160 degrees F as the ideal temperature goal. But if it gets too hot, the pile can catch fire.

“Take it slow,” Baker says. “Slow” compost takes two to three months or even more to properly break down. “Nothing in nature gets to 160 degrees (while breaking down); it cooks the microbes.”

Composting questions rank among the most asked of local master gardeners, who have done extensive experimentation. The perfect size for a bin or pile? Between three and five feet square; it’s proven to be most efficient, they say.

“The smaller the scraps and yard refuse you put into the bin, the quicker it will break down,” Fritchie says. “Keep what’s in the bin moist like a wrung-out sponge; not too wet or too dry. Stir or turn your bin frequently to aid in the decomposition process.”

Think of compost-making like making bread: It’s a living, breathing example of chemistry in action. Like sourdough, it needs a balance of dry and wet ingredients with starter to get the magic going.

Compost uses equal amounts of greens, which contain moisture, and dry browns. Those terms refer not to color but traits and nitrogen content. Steer manure and blackened peels are both greens; shredded newsprint is a brown.

Compost also needs water, air, and attention. Too wet and it stinks as it rots. Too dry and it never breaks down. Why air? Because, like healthy soil, compost is teeming with life. Billions of microbes gobble that trash and convert its nutrients. Also working the pile, earthworms and other bugs eat our garbage and poop out fertilizer.

Instead of kneading, compost requires “turning,” the process of stirring the layers and adding air to the pile. It’s a zen-like movement, a chance to plunge into the center of the pile and see what’s going on. If it feels warm, it’s working.

There’s a meditative quality to compost-making, too.

“I enjoy observing the transformation from raw inputs into finished compost that can be used by the gardeners,” Franks says. “During this process, I like to physically turn and move the food scraps and plants, and at the final stage of this transformation convert the material to soft, usable compost.”

The final gratification? Seeing that compost help things grow.


Equal amounts of greens (nitrogen- and protein-rich materials) and browns (carbon or carbohydrate-rich materials)
Compost starter*

Greens include:

  • Grass clippings
  • Fresh leaves
  • Prunings from trees and shrubs, cut into small pieces
  • Weeds
  • Spent flowers
  • Vegetable and fruit waste
  • Banana peels
  • Rotten fruit
  • Alfalfa pellets
  • Seaweed
  • Coffee grounds (including filters)
  • Tea bags

Browns include:

  • Dried leaves
  • Straw
  • Corn stalks
  • Paper products (newsprint, brown bags, cardboard), finely shredded

* Compost starter, which contains microbes and kickstarts the decomposition process, is available from garden centers. You also can use non-sterilized compost from an existing healthy pile or bin.


Cut all ingredients into small pieces, 2 to 3 inches long or shorter. For faster decomposition, cut or shred pieces to smaller than 1 inch.

In a bin (plastic, wood, or metal will work) or pile at least 3 feet square and tall, alternate layers of greens and browns. Make each layer about 4 inches thick. Sprinkle ½ cup of compost starter over each layer of greens. Moisten each layer with water so ingredients are damp, but not wet or soggy. Then top off with layer of browns. Be sure to keep a lid on your bin to keep out pests such as rodents or flies.

Wait 48 hours and check. Pile or bin should feel warm to the touch and smell earthy but not unpleasant. An ammonia smell indicates you have too many greens. Add sawdust to the site of odor. If pile feels cold and no decomposition seems to be taking place, add chicken manure or fresh grass clippings.

Turn or aerate the pile every other day (for faster compost) or once a week (for slower compost). With a pitchfork, move material from inside of pile to outside. If needed, lightly moisten pile after turning so it stays damp but not soggy. If possible, keep covered to cut down on pests.

Once material has decomposed, sift through a ½-inch screen, if desired.


Sheep and chickens eat all they can get at Antonia’s Homestead in Florin. Photo courtesy of ReSoil

Many composters recommend the addition of steer, horse, or chicken manure as part of the greens. But keep in mind that manures may carry pathogens that can be harmful to people or plants. Because they are so rich in nitrogen, manures should be used sparingly. They may heat the pile up too much and create fire danger.

Use aged and, if possible, sterilized manures. Never use manure from a meat-eating animal; it can contain bacteria. No dog or cat poop!


ReSoil Sacramento/Green Restaurants Alliance Sacramento • • Find Green Restaurants Alliance Sacramento on Facebook

For details about recycling, including organic waste, in your area, visit