How to Start Composting
Composting is great thing to do at home and has a multitude of benefits. Here is a brief overview of what you need to know about how to compost properly.
What Is Composting?
Composting is basically using materials and substances which we usually throw away to create something beneficial for the soil.
For example, great items to compost instead of throwing in the trash are coffee grinds, egg shells, apple cores, banana peals, and many leftover foods.
Why Is Composting Good?
Compost is very beneficial to all types of soil. While decomposed material is naturally recycled and turned to compost all the time, composting at home is a way to make this process faster and use it for your benefit.
This is a very useful practice because instead of throwing away these materials away as waste, we regenerate them.
Benefits of Composting
There are many reasons why one should compost.
- Composting involves recycling which is beneficial to the environment and reduces our use of landfills.
- Compost also reduces our use of pesticide as it acts as a natural pesticide.
- Compost gives the soil the many important nutrients valuable for growing and maintaining plants.
- Compost is a natural way to provide plants with the nutrition they need, so it saves money.
How Composting Works
Different composting methods, what is the composting process, and steps on how to compost:
A. Composting on the Ground
Many people wonder how to compost at home. This is not a complicated process as natural action plays a huge role in helping you compost. A simple way to compost is to create a pile on the ground with layers of materials, alternating layers of moist and layers of dry materials.
Process: Place this pile on the ground outside so worms and other organisms which are very beneficial to the soil can reach it. You must make sure that the pile is kept moist, so water it if necessary and keep it covered to help the moisture stay in. Finally, just make sure to turn occasionally, mixing the layers. The final result will be an almost black compost, packed with essential nutrients for the soil.
Materials: There are some materials which are ideal for composting while others should not be composted. Among the best things to compost is extra food, which would be thrown away, even if it is not edible any more. Composting scraps of food is highly recommended and food should be one of the main components of your compost. Things like eggshells and other parts of food which we do not eat are also great for compost. Gardening by-products such as leaves and grass should also be added to your compost, while materials such as paper, cardboard, and carton are also ideal. Finally, adding soil to your compost is a good way to hide any smells.
WARNING: What NOT to Compost: Meat and bones should not be composted, and this includes fish and fish bones. The rinds of fruit which may contain pesticides should also not be used to make compost as this could prove harmful.
Advantages: Compost provides many nutrients to the soil such as carbon and nitrogen, making your plants stronger, healthier and better-looking while optimizing plant growth. Composting at home is a great idea to save money while recycling and helping the environment while reducing chemical use in your garden.
B. Composting in a Bin
Process/ Advantages: Construct a bin for your compost. While you still can compost successfully in a pile on the ground, a bin will keep the process neater and will help to discourage animals if you are composting food scraps. Depending on the construction of the bin, it can also help to regulate moisture and temperature. A good minimum size for a pile is at least 1 cubic yard or 1 cubic meter, though a pile can go larger than this, and smaller-scale composting can be made to work.
1. Fill your bin with a balanced mixture (for best results):
- Green stuff (high in nitrogen) to activate the heat process in your compost. Perfect heat-generating materials include: young weeds (before they develop seeds); comfrey leaves; yarrow; chicken, rabbit, or pigeon manure; grass cuttings; etc. Other green items that compost well include fruit and vegetables; fruit and vegetable scraps; coffee grounds and tea leaves (including tea bags – remove the staple if you wish); vegetable plant remains; plants.
- Brown stuff (high in carbon) to serve as the “fiber” for your compost. Brown stuff includes fall (autumn) leaves; dead plants and weeds; sawdust straw; old flowers (including dried floral displays, minus plastic/foam attachments); and hay.
- ‘Other items that can be composted but you may not have thought of before: paper towels; paper bags; cotton clothing (torn up); egg shells; hair (human, dog, cat etc.). Note: Use all these items in moderation.
- Air. It is possible to compost without air (anaerobically), but the process employs different bacteria and an anaerobic compost pile will take on a sour smell like vinegar. It may also attract flies or take on a matted, slimy appearance. If you believe your compost pile needs more air, turn it, and try adding more dry or brown stuff to open up the structure.
- Water. Your pile should be about as damp as a sponge that has been wrung out. Depending on your climate, you can add water directly or rely on the moisture that comes in with “green” items. A lid on the compost bin will help to keep moisture in. If a pile gets too much water in it, it might not get enough air.
- Temperature. The temperature of the compost pile is very important and is an indication of the microbial activity of the decomposition process. The simplest way to track the temperature inside the heap is by feeling it with your hand. If it is warm or hot, everything is decomposing as it should, but if it is the same temperature as the surrounding air, the microbial activity has slowed down and you need to add more materials that are high in nitrogen to the bin.
- Soil or starter compost. This is not strictly necessary, but a light sprinkling of garden soil or recently finished compost between layers can help to introduce the correct bacteria to start the compost cycle a little more quickly. If you are pulling weeds, the soil left on the roots may be sufficient to serve this purpose. Compost starters are available, but probably not necessary.
2. Layer or mix the different materials in your bin so that they come into contact with one another and so that you avoid any large clumps. Especially avoid compacting large quantities of green materials together, since they can rapidly become anaerobic.
- If possible, start with a layer of lightweight brown material, such as leaves, to help keep enough air near the bottom.
- Try for a mixture of anywhere from 3 parts brown to 1 part green to half and half, depending on what materials you have on hand.
- Sprinkle each layer lightly with water as you build the heap, if it requires additional moisture.
3. Turn your pile regularly, once every week or two. Clear a patch next to the pile. Then use a pitchfork and move the entire pile to the clear spot. When it is time to turn the pile again, move it back to the original spot, or back into the bin. Mixing the pile in this way helps to keep air flowing inside the pile, which encourages aerobic decomposition. Anaerobic decomposition will smell very stinky (generally sour, like vinegar), and they decompose materials more slowly than aerobic bacteria. Turning the pile helps to encourage the growth of the right kind of bacteria and makes for a nice, sweet-smelling pile that will decompose faster.
- Try to move matter from inside to outside and from top to bottom. Break up anything that is clumpy or matted. Add water or wet, green materials if it seems too dry. Add dry, brown materials if the pile seems too wet. If you are still adding to the pile, take the opportunity while you turn it to introduce the new matter and mix it well with the older matter.
4. Decide whether to add slow rotting items such as tough branches, twigs, and hedge clippings; wood ash; wood shavings and wood pruning. They can be composted, but you may want to compost them separately because they will take longer to break down, especially in a cold climate with a shorter composting season. Shred heavy materials, if you can, for faster decomposition.
5. Again, know what not to compost. Never compost the following items for reasons of health, hygiene, and inability to break down: meat and meat scraps; bones; fish and fish bones; plastic or synthetic fibers; oil or fat; pet or human feces (except for manure of herbivorous creatures such as rabbits and horses); weeds that have gone to seed; diseased plants; disposable diapers (nappies); glossy paper or magazines; coal and coke ash; and cat litter. Place these items in the normal garbage collection.
- You should also try to avoid composting bread, pasta, nuts, and cooked food. They don’t break down very easily, can become quite slimy, and can hold up the heating, rotting-down process. (Old nuts left in the garden will disappear quickly if you have squirrels around!)
6. Harvest your compost. If all goes well, you will eventually find that you have a layer of good compost at the bottom of your bin. Remove this and spread it on or dig it into your garden beds.
- You may wish to sift it through a coarse mesh screen or use your hands or pitchfork to remove any larger chunks that haven’t yet broken down.
- Very fresh compost can grow plants, but it can also rob the soil of nitrogen as it continues to break down. If you think you are not all the way done, either leave the compost in the bin for a while longer or spread it in your garden and let it sit there for a few weeks before planting anything in it.
*More Tips/ Guide/ Basics/ Facts about Composting:
- In dry weather, fill your bucket with water each time you dump in the compost pile. This will help add needed moisture.
- At some point, you may need to start a new compost pile, and stop adding to the old compost pile to let it “finish up.”
- Have a mini compost bin indoors that you keep near your meal preparation area. It should be something that is easy to fill up, transport daily to the compost bin, and keep clean. You could consider a small plastic container (there are fun tiny garbage cans with lids) or use something as simple as a glazed terracotta plant saucer – it looks nice, is easy to clean and transports easily.
- To aid the decomposing, add some red worms, which can be bought online. If you use a compost bin with an open bottom, the worms will probably come into your compost pile on their own.
- Layering is very effective, if possible – one layer brown stuff, one layer green stuff, one layer composting worms (as long as the temperature of your compost does not exceed 25ºC).
- Share a composting facility if you live in an apartment complex.
- Locate your compost bin somewhere that is easy to access, so that you and family members will be encouraged to use it.
- Composting works almost magically and FAST if you begin with a cubic yard of proper materials (3 parts “brown” stuff and 1 part “green” stuff), keep it moist, and turn it weekly. It’s possible to get two large batches of compost each year if you stick to these points. If you vary, it will just take a bit longer, but it will still compost.
- For faster break-down shred leaves, clippings; and crush egg shells.
- Cut around the top of a plastic milk jug leaving it attached at the handle. Keep it under the kitchen sink to collect your compost.
- If you mow your yard, collect your grass trimmings! It’s free, and it’s a great way to get more compost, unless you have a mulching mower. A mulching mower will add the grass back to your yard as mulch (not thatch), which will provide your lawn with 40% of its fertilization needs. Also, never compost grass that’s been mowed within a few days of adding chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
- Covering the compost with a black garden cloth will help raise the temperature. If you live in town, this keeps the area looking tidier, while still allowing airflow.
- The fastest way to make compost is to mix 1 part grass clippings and 3 parts dead leaves (chopped with a mower), place in a three-sided bin with no top or bottom, keep it moist, and turn it with a cultivating fork every 2 weeks.
- Contact your local municipality if you can’t compost for whatever reason, to see if they will collect garden waste for composting. Many municipalities will collect Christmas trees and chip them for compost in January.
- While it’s not strictly necessary, a compost pile that’s working at its fastest will heat up. If you have created a good mix, you may notice that it’s very warm inside, even steaming on a cold morning. This is a good sign.
- Bury food scraps under a layer of general yard/garden waste if you wish to include them. It will help to discourage animals and flies. So will having a contained, covered bin.
Adapted in part from How to Compost.