Last year, I finally built the veggie garden of my dreams.  Laid out in the geometrical pattern of a French potager, it is a thing of beauty, and I'm determined to maintain its bounty.

Whether you give it the lofty name of "black gold" or just call your local steaming heap of microbial goodness "the manure pile," compost is an essential ingredient in the organic home garden.  And, I have discovered, it's needed in bulk.  Some people have a virtually unlimited supply, but as a semi-suburbanite, I'm not so lucky.  I calculated that if I paid to have compost delivered to my house, I would spend about $500 a year.  This turns my little garden into more of a luxurious indulgence than any kind of frugal endeavor.

I needed something cheaper.  As in, free.  So I began compiling my local resources, and I soon discovered I had far more opportunities than I thought.

Best Resources for Building Compost

  • Your own vegetable kitchen waste, garden waste, and fall leaves. Your own house and yard are the first source for your compost heap, large or small, and while your production may be tiny compared to your need, it's a start.
  • The neighbor's leaves and grass clippings. Hit the streets before yard waste pick up day, and you can come home with a carful of treasure.  The neighbors might think you're a bit crazy, but soon enough, you'll be the community eccentric.
  • Starbucks. You may have to get in line for this one because many gardeners already know the secret, but Starbuck's will happily give you a big bag full of the day's used coffee grounds.
  • The local horse stables.  Horses poop.  A lot.  And only in a few places are there good composting networks that make it economical—much less profitable—for stable owners to get rid of their manure.  There are local horse stables near me with 40 years of poop—six, ten, or even more dump truck loads.  A big Rubbermaid box and a shovel can make even a minivan a good poo-transporter.  If you arrange ahead of time and bring a truck, some places will even load you up with their Bobcat.
  • Farmers.  Hay gets spoiled.  Farmers can't use it and are happy to have you haul it away, often for free.  Craigslist is a good place to find sources.
  • The woods. Ask permission of the owner, then go armed with a rake and get your own leaves.

Other Places that May Work

  • Other coffee shops. Just because Starbucks offers coffee grounds for compost doesn't mean that other coffee shops won't.  It never hurts to ask.
  • Community compost center. Some communities compost and/or mulch yard waste.  My current county sells the results, but at my old home, I could go to the transfer station and get free unlimited mulch.  I used to tie a tarp inside my minivan so that it covered the side panels and the backs of the front seats before shoveling it full of mulch, but that's not for the faint of heart!
  • Locally-owned restaurants. Most owners are uninterested in the extra work involved in sorting out compost, but the worst they can say is "no."
  • Lowes and Wal-mart garden departments. They're always killing plants, right?  Sometimes, you can get and entire rack of dead perennials for nothing or a little more, and not only do you get the plants to mulch, but you get an enriched growing medium and a bunch of pots for your seedlings next year.

Don’t Waste Your Time Trying

  • Your local supermarket. Grocery stores are very chary about the possibility that someone might eat their spoiled produce and get sick.  They generally have a policy against allowing gardeners to have their waste for compost.
  • Home Depot garden department. The store no longer directly manages the plant inventory of the garden department but farms it out to regional nurseries, so the Home Depot manager does not have the authority to give or sell you dead plants.
Composting Tips from the Guerilla Gardener