Compost is essentially the foundation of any garden, what gardeners refer to as Black Gold. Not only does composting help close the food - to - waste gap, but it feeds the soil that grows your food ensuring that it’s rich with nutrients. Composting is a natural process that turns trash into treasure through decomposition.
If you have never composted before and need the run down, composting 101 has you covered. From methods to bins to what should and shouldn’t be composting, we will walk you through each step - helping you turn your trash into treasure and saving you tons.
Composting can get technical and complex but it doesn’t have to. Understanding the basics is all you need to get started.
What is compost?
Compost is nothing more than recycled organic matter that puts nutrients back into the soil helping to feed the plants you grow and eat. This allows you to use less fertilizer and grow healthier more productive plants and it's virtually free. By composting kitchen vegetable scraps you cut down on trash and close the food to waste gap. If you are planning to grow a garden the first thing you need before planting even a single seed - is a composting bin.
Bins come in all different varieties and sizes. The best bin for you comes down to your personal needs and preference. If you are composting in an apartment for a patio garden a double bin cedar compost doesn’t make sense. If you are on a budget and farming for a few acres a pricey, petite, indoor compost container isn't going to cut it.
The bin should fit your needs, be shaded or covered, and be relatively close to where you will be planting. Unless, of course, you want to create extra work (or a work out) for yourself by having to haul it. In fact, having a bin isn’t even a requirement necessarily. You see nature compost without it, it just takes a lot longer. Simply take a pile of leaves or lawn clippings and gather them into a pile. Eventually, the will decompose turning into compost. Natures way takes time and isn't always as nutrient-rich. So...
Purchase a bin. Easy peasy, bins are available online. 2-day prime will have you composting in no time.
Inexpensive Simple Bin
A bin can be as simplistic as a 5-gallon bucket with a lid, readily available at Lowes and Home Depot for around 7$. If you are keeping it indoors full time and want one that plays well with your decor, Amazon has some visually appealing bins for around 35$.
Bins For Deep Pockets
If you don’t mind handing over some cash the options are endless. Rugged outdoor bins that can be easily rotated can go for 700$ + like this 70-gallon bin from Houzz.com. This style bin can be duplicated in a DIY manner for much less cash but a bit more effort. The internet is your friend, ask and ye shall find.
My personal favorite. Not only can you recycle some scrap materials you might have laying around but this method will certainly save you money.
We have two acres, We live off-grid and I am gainfully unemployed so I chose the budget-friendly, build it yourself, double box bin. We recycled the wood from an outdoor shower we had before we moved off the grid. I want to be able to start a new compost when one is nearly finished rotating them and creating a cycle of endless black gold.
The front face of my bin has removable wooden slats so I can easily stir the pile and access or remove compost even when it's lining the bottom.
Our bin was designed to fit our needs and it is perfect, which is the glory of DIY. Don't compromise on the features you want, just find a way to make it work.
Cooking A Compost
Composting is sort of like baking a cake. It's a recipe.
1 part "Green" nitrogen-rich (energy) material
Think grass clippings, kitchen scraps (vegetables), and garden trimmings. These materials rot quickly and are full of the compounds needed for fast microbial growth. They are usually wet and heavy and can get stinky fast unless balanced with enough brown material.
2-3 parts "Brown" carbon (bulky) material
Think shredded paper, woody materials, hay, and straw. Browns are dry and bulky, creating space for air to reach the greens. These materials do not hold enough moisture to decay rapidly unless you have enough greens.
Color alone is not a reliable indication of what is considered "brown" materials. Fallen deciduous leaves that have turned brown and shrub clippings have a much higher nitrogen balance than authentic “browns.” Replacing your compost browns with these nitrogen-rich browns will cause your compost to become too wet and stinky.
Packing layers of green and brown materials into a bin is not going to make the compost "cook" all by itself. Air needs to be continuously added by turning the compost with a (pitch)fork, an aeration tool, or a rolling composter. As the microbes work to break down the materials, the compost will become warm. The heat in the middle of the pile can reach a shocking 150 degrees F. Turning the compost once a week should be adequate, but to speed up the process, mix the compost every few days introducing more air and moving materials from the edges to the middle.
Moisture is necessary to give the microbes the best conditions to break down the material. After adding materials, water the pile and mix it well. It should be damp but not soggy. In dry months you may have to add water, and in wet months protect the pile from rain.
Unlike a cake, you can keep adding ingredients as it "bakes" until you get it just right. Compost can be a slow process. Making sure scraps are cut up very small and rotating or stirring the material more often can help speed up the process, but if your bin starts to smell something is wrong. Don't stress, fixing a compost gone wrong is usually as easy as adding something. If it is slimy and stinks bulk up on browns, cool and dry add some water and greens to get it cooking again. Well-rotted manure from grass and seed fed animals such as cows, horses, and chickens can stimulate your compost quickly. They sell compost accelerator and adding healthy garden soil will also expedite the process.
What can I compost?
Kitchen vegetable scraps,
Manure from animals that only eat grass or hay. Horse poo is nice but cow poo is best because it’s only partially digested and ready to get the process going.
Chicken poo works
Tissues, paper towels, matches, tea bags, brown paper bags, parchment paper,
Other organic material including hay, straw,
What shouldn’t I compost?
Meats and fats turn rancid and attract unwanted guests. Home composts do not get hot enough to break these down and the smell won’t be appreciated if you have neighbors close by. Attracting wild animals with rancid meat is an equally awful idea.
Oils and dairy products should be avoided
Walnut seed which contains a chemical poisonous to other plants should not be used. Putting them in the compost has the potential to wreak havoc on your seedlings Sabotaging the soil before you even start.
Pesticides and herbicides should unquestionably be avoided, as well as, any soil previously treated with poisons.
Evergreen clippings should be avoided, they are slow to decay and sticky resins hinder the process.
Cat and dog poo have pathogens that can be transferred to the soil so steer clear of adding those.
Diseased and pest ridden plants are another no-no, composting them will likely perpetuate the disease or pest problem.
Any invasive plant, poison ivy, and weed that has gone to seed are all things to keep away.
Composting should be relatively easy, have an earthy smell, and lack the presence of flies, maggots, rats or other pests. It should be damp but not soggy or slimy and you'll know its ready to use when its elements have blended together in a consistent texture and individual components can't be recognized. If it's mostly done but still has some large pieces you can always use a grate to help filter them out and add to the start of your next pile.