I’ve been wanting to start composting for a long time now, but it has always seemed so difficult to me. After reading tons of stuff online and in gardening books on how to compost, I was left with more questions than answers. Would I ever figure out how to get “the perfect nitrogen to carbon ratio”? Did it really have to be so complicated?
Now, before we talk about how to make compost, let’s talk a little about:
The “Science” Behind Composting
Compost has been used for thousands of years. People may not have always understood why, but now that we know exactly how the scientific process of composting works, there’s really no reason not to make it part of your lawn and garden routine.
Composting speeds up the process of decomposition, breaking down organic matter so that you can recycle old nutrients and create new, fertile soil. In any soil or pile or organic matter, there lie thousands of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. These microorganisms are known as chemical decomposers, as they alter the natural chemistry of waste.
Most compost piles also contain larger, more visible decomposers as well. These include centipedes, spiders, slugs, ants, and other insects. These are physical decomposers, working to break down matter through biting and chewing.
While both types of decomposers are important to a compost ibn, bacteria are arguably the most important. These need high amounts of oxygen, but as they break down matter they excrete valuable nutrients such as nitrogen, magnesium, and phosphorus. These nutrients are highly beneficial to plant life, allowing them to grow and bear fruit. This is why compost soil is so valuable to the everyday gardener.
Composting is a great way to get rid of excess kitchen scraps, and to create nutrient-rich “black gold” to feed your garden. While composting requires careful thought about what to include and how to tend your pile, it ultimately is a simple process that can be completed by any homeowner. Composting helps get rid of up to thirty percent of your household trash, and helps to provide multiple other benefits.
Benefits of Composting:
Composting isn’t just a way to get rid of leftovers from dinner of rom your garden. It also produces nutrient-rich humus to help fertilize your plants and moderate soil moisture. Compost soil is a natural alternative to potentially harmful synthetic fertilizers, and the natural microscopic organisms in compost provide a unique benefit to soil as well. These microorganisms are absolutely crucial for a healthy garden, breaking down organic matter and helping to prevent disease.
Composting also helps reduce the harmful effect that “throwing things away” has on the landscape as well. When you bring a bag of trash to the landfill, it doesn’t have access to a good air supply. Therefore, it produces detrimental methane gas as it decomposes, which rapidly accelerates the rate of global warming.
Start composting today! While it can take some getting used to, composting is ultimately an easy process that, with a little bit of know-how, can be implemented on any size property. Finally, I’ve come to an understanding of composting that is simple enough for even me to wrap my head around. Here’s all you need to know to get your compost pile going:
Location: Find a place close to your garden to start your compost pile. I’d suggest a place you can reach with your garden hose, since you’ll be needing to water your pile if you live in an extremely dry climate. Having your compost close to your garden is also a convenient way to access that black gold when you need it.
Compost Location Checklist:
While you can build a compost pretty much anywhere, keep in mind the following aspects.
- Your compost will need adequate moisture, so make sure it’s within easy reach of a hose or other water source
- You need plenty of space if you are planning an open compost or bin (think three to five cubic feet)
- If you plan on adding manure or other “stinky” ingredients, your compost should be a fair distance from your house (or neighbor’s homes!) because it may begin to stink
- You can place your compost atop the future location of a vegetable garden, flower bed, or fruit plot. If you’re willing to wait a few months, the ground beneath the compost bin will become just as fertile as the final compost soil itself
Structure: There are several different structures you can use to contain your compost, ranging from expensive manufactured barrels, to a simple homemade box, to simply throwing everything into a pile on the ground. Do a little researching and decide which kind would be right for you.
Potential Compost Bins:
You can set up a freestanding compost pile, with no outer walls or cover, but this can be tougher to maintain as it isn’t guarded from the elements.
Some better options include:
A homemade box…
…constructed of plywood or even old pallets (just make sure the wood is not treated with chemicals or painted)
You can also create a homemade compost bin out of common upcycled materials. For example, some people use things like old trash cans, with holes drilled in the bottom, as compost containers. Just make sure the bin has proper aeration and exposure to sunlight and moisture.
Photo Caption: Homemade compost bins, one from chicken wire fencing and two from scrap wood, providing proper aeration.
By Red58bill [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
A tumbler system
Tumblers are one of the most efficient ways to create compost in an enclosed bin. These maintain high temperatures and turn themselves. While you can make a compost tumbler yourself, there are some relatively inexpensive commercial compost tumblers that include special features, such as aeration spikes, which help introduce air into the compost.
Tumblers speed up the compost process and allow you to compost year-round, regardless of weather conditions. These are odor-free and great for residential neighbors or places with specific zoning laws.
Compost tumblers don’t attract pests, as they are sealed, and can be operated quickly. These are tidy, attractive options for composters with limited time and space.
- A plastic tote compost bin
- Stacked milk crates
- A wire crate compost bin
- Drum-style compost bins, made out of old barrels or commercially manufactured barrels
- A compost digester
These bins ae covered on the sides and top but open on the bottom. These are usually smaller, but take longer to produce compost as a result. These are made out of plastic and may not be ideal for individuals planning on composting a large amount of ingredients.
- A trench compost, in which you dig a hole and bury the ingredients
- Bokashi composts, designed for apartment dwellers in which fermentation pre-composts your scraps
- Electric-assist composters, which are appliances that grind and process your compost in a compact, countertop machine
For more ideas, check out our comprehensive list here.
Whatever your structure is, if it’s on the ground it needs to be straight on the dirt. This will allow worms to enter the pile, along with other beneficial organisms that you will need to help with the decomposition.
How to Make Compost
Ingredients: This is the part that always caused my procrastination, but honestly the following method is super simple to follow!
You need two basic groups of materials: Greens and Browns. What you are putting into your compost depends largely on your type of compost, and also the balance of your existing compost pile. You need to maintain a delicate balance between green and brown ingredients, which we’ll break down for you. Ideally, your compost pile should have slightly more carbon than nitrogen. Try to maintain a compost bin that is two-thirds brown and one-third green.
Green ingredients are those that are rich in nitrogen, for example, manure, kitchen scarps, and lawn clippings. These materials help produce enzymes that are needed for aerobic activity.
Brown ingredients are those that are higher in carbon. These might include branches, dried leaves, bits of wood, or coffee filters, for example. Brown ingredients help give compost its “oomph,” providing volume and helping to absorb some of the activity of the greens.
The ideal ratio will allow oxygen to infiltrate through the pile, and also provide proper nourishment to the beneficial microorganisms that work to break down the material. If you have too many green ingredients, your pile will break down slowly and also begin to smell. If you have too many brown materials, you may notice a pile that breaks down even more slowly. Ideally, your compost should not “stink” but should instead smell fresh and, although not always appealing, at least not smell like something is rotting.
- Kitchen scraps (uncooked fruits and veggies, coffee grounds, tea bags, nut shells, and egg shells)
- Fresh lawn clippings (from untreated grass)
- Garden waste
- Small shrub trimmings
- Livestock manure.
- Feathers or hair
- Aquarium water or algae
Essentially, anything that comes out of your kitchen can be composted, as long as it isn’t too fatty or treated with chemicals like pesticides. For a comprehensive list of how to eliminate all kitchen waste through composting and other methods, be sure to check out our list.
When you are adding green ingredients to your compost, be aware that the “green” ingredients are usually those that produce the most scent. This can be somewhat undesirable if you don’t mind your balances. If you’re looking to jumpstart your compost pile’s activity, consider adding a high-nitrogen source, like chicken manure, but be wary of adding too much all at once, as this can produce a smell.
Also, if you are adding lawn clippings or garden weeds, be careful with what you add. Perennial weeds and plants that show signs of disease can contaminate your compost and encourage their speed. You also want to avoid any plants that may contain pesticides, as well as black walnut leaves, which contain high levels of a toxin known as juglone. This can contaminate the soil.
If you add fresh leaves or grass clippings, consider mixing them into the center of the pile. They don’t compost well when layered on thickly, as they can reduce overall aeration. Keep in mind that regular turning and ensuring a properly high temperature will also help to kill weed seeds in the pile.
- Wood chips
- Small sticks
- Newspaper (not the glossy, colored sheets)
- Untreated cardboard
- Pine needles
- Corn stalks
- Woody plant trimmings or ash
- Paper products (such as paper plates or cupcake holders)
- Cloth or burlap
- Dryer lint (from natural fibers, like cotton)
Be careful with your brown ingredients. Often, materials like cardboard, newspaper, ash, and saw dust were previously treated with chemicals to repel insects or preserve the material. These chemicals can leach into your compost pile and cause unpleasant side effects.
What You Should NEVER Compost:
- Diseased plants
- Poisonous plants, like poison ivy or oleander
- Walnut leaves or twigs
- Aromatic leaves
- Manure from reptiles, humans, dogs, or cats
- Scraps from gypsum boards or boards containing paint residues
- Materials found on the side of the road
- Bones or fish (you can add these in moderation, but keep in mind that they decompose slowly)
- Anything with colored ink
Method: Here it is, don’t worry so much about obtaining a perfect C:N ratio. If you use the ingredients listed above, it’s going to decompose and become good compost. Just try not to pile up mostly Green or Brown to the exclusion of the other. Keep it pretty balanced.
Every ingredient in a compost pile is important. Ingredients containing celluloses take the longest to break down, which is why it seems like cardboard seems to hang out forever in your compost box. However, when they do break down, cellulose breakdown makes your compost the hottest.
You should ideally include ingredients of all types and ages in your compost bin. A compost bin comprised solely of just plant clippings and sawdust won’t break down as quickly as one with dozens of types of equally balanced ingredients.
Start your compost pile with layers. The first layer should be small sticks or mulch, something Brown that will allow air to circulate around the bottom of the pile. This light layer will also allow worms and other helpful microorganisms to move up into the pile so that they can aerate it and begin to work the pile.
Cover your sticks with a thin layer of soil. You need the microorganisms in it as a starter to begin the breaking down process.
Next add some greens. Not too thick though, just a couple of inches worth. If it’s too thick it will only get slimy and gross and will not circulate the air well.
I made that last mistake right off the bat. My dad had just mowed his huge yard and I asked if I could have the grass clippings for my compost. My husband loaded up two pick-up truckloads full for me. My thinking was, the more the better!
Turns out, piling up two truckloads of grass clippings into a huge heap and stomping it down into the bin was a bad idea. That mess wasn’t going to decompose into compost any time soon! As a matter of fact, it quickly turned into a nasty pile of sludge. I had to shovel all of that wet grass out and start fresh with the ‘brown’ and ‘green’ layers.
Top it off with another thin layer of soil. Repeat these layers. Once you have your first four layers, simply continue in this order: Brown, Soil, Green, Soil.
If you live in an extremely dry climate, and your compost is NEVER moist, you’ll need to water your pile every now and then. Don’t soak it or it will get gross. But if it sits completely dry for a long period of time, it won’t break down very quickly.
Temperature is also very important for a compost bin, which is why you may notice your compost stalls during the winter months. Warmer temperatures (but not too hot) promote rapid composting and help to eliminate pathogens.
Microbial activity within the pile can raise its temperature to over one hundred and forty degrees! You might notice your compost pile “steaming,” which is a good sign that the microbes are doing their job. Turning, providing adequate amounts of oxygen and moisture, and adding proper ratios of brown and green ingredients, can help to ensure proper compost temperature.
Turn the pile over every so often to help speed up the decomposition process. You can use a pitch fork to kinda mix up the contents of your compost, or you can totally flip everything over into another pile, so that the bottom layers are now on top.
While layering helps to ensure equal measures of all ingredients, keep in mind that a layered compost still needs to be turned. If you don’t turn regularly, a layered compost can actually be detrimental, as it doesn’t allow the compost ingredients to cook down effectively. Turning helps to create air pockets, which the microbes need in order to circulate.
You can help speed up your compost’s progress by shredding or chopping materials and making sure everything is roughly equal in size. Stir or turn your pile as often as possible so the microbes can circulate. Make sure your compost bin has plenty of room for airflow and moisture to permetae, but not too much, as a wet compost will cook just as slowly as an overly dry one.
You should consider covering your compost bin. Covering helps the pile retain its temperature and maintain a controlled moisture content. If you leave your pile open to the elements, it will receive unbalanced quantities of air and moisture.
Consider closing off your compost bin to new ingredients for a couple of months before you plan on using it in your garden. If you continue to add new ingredients, it will never fully break down, and the soil will never be entirely ready to use in your garden. If you’re storing kitchen waste in your home before it’s ready to be transferred to the compost, use a stainless steel or ceramic pail to eliminate odors. You can also use a recycled plastic bucket, like an old coffee can, to store wast.
Alternative Composting Methods
Think carefully about where you live when you are planning out your compost bin. Follow the below guidelines to help find the best method of composting for your individual needs. If you have limited space, or are simply looking for something outside of the traditional “compost pile” set-up, consider implementing one of these alterative composting methods.
If you live in an urban location with limited outdoor space:
If you live in a city, you might consider a private composting service. If you are unable to create your own compost system, compost pickup is a good option. These services usually charge a set fee to remove a five-gallon pail of scraps from your home or apartment every week or so. This allows you to give back to the planet even if you live an urban setting.
Vermicomposting, indoor composting using worms, is another option. While red worms are most commonly used for indoor composting, you can also use other types of worms, such as trout worms. The best way to set up a vermicomposting system is to layer three totes atop each other, with holes cut in the top of each for perforation. The worms move through the layers and work the material that lies between them, helping to turn it into organic matter without any extra work on your behalf.
The bottom layer is usually set up with moist, shredded newspaper. The top tote contains your food for the worms (the scraps you will add) and facilitates movement. The worms need about one square foot of space per each pound of worms. Generally, finished compost ends up on top and the worms continue to work the bottom tote. This allow you to harvest compost before both trays are finished. If you don’t want to make your own worm composting bins, you can also purchase ready-made markets that will fit nicely in an apartment or small living environment.
You have to be more mindful of the ingredients you are adding to an indoor compost system, as the worms can quickly become overwhelmed with too much work, but this can be incredibly effective in crowded locations or those with extended winter seasons. If you choose to vermicompost, you can only add kitchen scraps. The worms will not be able to keep up with extreme ingredients like manure or sawdust.
Vermicomposting bins can be placed outdoors as well during periods of nice weather, but this is entirely up to you. They are most effective hewn provided with temperatures ranging between forty and eighty degrees Fahrenheit. Worms are easily killed by cold weather, high temperatures, and drowning. Be careful when moving the bin outside, as they are susceptible to the threats of sun and rain.
Worm composting also presents the added composting benefit of “worm tea.” Worm tea is the byproduct of the worm castings, made easily by soaking a “tea bag” of an old sock stuffed with “worm dirt” in water for a few days. This tea is highly nutritious and can be sprinkled on your garden as you see fit for an extra boost of fertilizer.
If you live in a suburban area with restrictive zoning:
Trench composting is another popular method of composting. This involves the digging of a trench about twelve inches deep and filling it halfway full with ingredients. You then bury the ingredients with the dirt that you extracted from the hole. This provides instant nutrition, and it is invisible for homeowners who aren’t technically supposed to be composting in their backyards as a result of zoning or municipality laws. Trench compost system can accommodate all kinds of waste, including kitchen scraps as well as yard waste.
If you live in a rural area:
If you live in a rural area and don’t have to worry about space or nearby neighbors, an open compost pile or bin will work just fine. This is easily the most cost-effective and easiest-to-implement kind of compost. All you need to do is pick a spot, and start layering.
Another type of composting is known as in-vessel composting. This is down in a drum, silo or other type of enclosed bin, tumbler, or turner. You can buy a commercial turner or create one yourself. This drum turns the bin on its own, so that you don’t need to manually turn it with a pitchfork.
This method is great for those with limited time and massive quantities of compostable ingredients, as it ensures the proper environmental conditions will be provided. These ensure that compost is ready in just a few weeks, and take up much less space than traditional compost methods.
Winter composting is a particular challenge for some gardeners, because compost needs to reach a certain temperature in order to “cook successfully,” and in some locations this simply isn’t possible in the dead of January. You might hang on to as many of your scraps as possible in airtight buckets throughout the winter, but this isn’t always practical. If you don’t have access to an indoor composting system, like a vermicomposting bin, consider following these tips to make sure you can continue composting throughout the coldest months of the year.
At the end of autumn, as temperatures begin to plummet, jump-start the microbes by adding a large quantity of well-balanced, new ingredients. Add equal parts of fallen leaves and kitchen scraps, and chop everything into fine pieces. Throughout the winter, you will want to be vigilant about making sure everything is finely chopped. It is much easier for the microbes to break down small, uniform pieces, than large, oblong chunks. If you’re having trouble getting the pile going at the end of November, consider adjusting its moisture and adding a high-nitrogen ingredient, such as alfalfa pellets.
Make sure your compost bin is well-insulated throughout the winter months. Consider a compost bin with insulated walls, or wrap the outside of the bin in a few layers of aluminum foil. You could also line the outside of the bin with hay bales or bagged leaves to help retain heat. If you ge ta lot of snowfall, it’s also a good idea to cover the bin so it doesn’t get too sodden.
Continue adding ingredients throughout the winter, but be mindful of what you add. Add ingredients that will break down quickly and make sure everything is finely chopped. Keep an eye on how things are breaking down; if your compost seems to be lagging, don’t add any new ingredients until the microbial action picks back up.
What to Do With Finished Compost
Compost can be used in a number of ways. Most people use compost as a soil for gardening, regardless of the type of plant you are growing. It can be used on bare dirt outside, or in a container on the window sill. If you end up with endless quantities of compost (unlikely, since you’ll probably want to put it on everything!) you can always sell it to likeminded gardeners or donate it to the local community garden.
FAQ: Troubleshooting Your Compost Pile
Q: I just started my compost, and it’s having trouble getting going. How can I speed up the process?
A: Depending on environmental conditions, such as weather and location of your compost bin, it sometimes takes an extra kick to get your compost going. Consider adding a “jump-start” ingredient like chicken manure (high in nitrogen) or other activators like grass clippings or comfrey leaves.
Q: My compost STINKS! How do I prevent it from smelling?
A: Make sure your compost has appropriate balances of nitrogen and carbon (green and brown) ingredients. Too much nitrogen can really cause a stink. Also, make sure you aren’t putting any bones, meat, dairy, or fats into your compost bin. These break down exceptionally slowly and will smell like they are rotting before they actually decompose.
If this still doesn’t solve your problem, consider covering the pile with a layer of mulch like dried hay or leaves. This will help absorb some of the odor and help reduce some of the ammonia-like smell.
Q: My compost is clumping!
A: Turning your compost will help prevent clumping, as will dicing and shredding all new ingredients into small pieces. Clumping is a typical problem with tumblers and other mechanical compost bins. Try to mix in materials gradually and not add a ton of material of one type all at the same time. Clumping ingredients is not desirable for your compost bin; if ingredients clump too much, the process of aeration can drastically slow.
Q: My compost pile is attracting bugs and other nuisances.
A: Bugs are naturally going to be drawn to your compost bin, and that’s not a bad thing. Insects, like worms, flies, and other creatures, can help with the decomposition process and will actually speed it up. However, to prevent bugs from becoming a nuisance, make sure your compost bin is a safe distance from your home, and cover any new nitrogen-based additions with an extra layer of brown matter, like leaves. Lime and calcium, when added in moderation to a compost bin, can also help reduce the amount of bugs hanging out in your compost bin.
If larger creatures are getting into your compost pile, it may be time to consider covering the bin. Raccoons can easily scale a compost’s walls and drop down inside for a tasty feast, as can other mammals, like mice and rats. Affix a lid to the compost, and move the entire bin, if possible, so it’s in a location that is not attractive to scavengers.
Q: My compost doesn’t seem to be breaking down, and it’s been sitting there a while.
A: If you’ve tried adding an activator and have bene turning your pile regularly, it might be too dry or too wet. Consider recent weather conditions, and either moisten or cover your compost bin, depending on its moisture. You want the pile to not be soggy, and to maintain a healthy balance of green and brown ingredients. Your compost pile should be steaming and giving off heat. This means that the microscopic organisms are hard at work making compost. If this isn’t the case, moisture and temperature are usually to blame.
I’ve just started my compost pile, so it isn’t even close to being usable yet, but I am excited at the idea of having some great stuff to spread on my garden next spring! And finally I am confident enough to try.
Here are a couple of resources that I found extremely helpful:
Hopefully this has helped you to have a better understanding of how to compost, without all of the technical chemistry of it!
If you’ve been composting for a while and have any tips to add to this, I’d be grateful for any advice you can share! Happy Composting!
update by Rebekah White 05/03/2018