What Is Compost
Composting is the process of converting food scraps and yard waste into material that boosts soil health. This means gardeners need less store-bought fertilizers to get bigger and more robust plants. Here’s six easy steps to start composting …
Compost is also excellent for the environment. When food and leaves break down in landfills, they produce methane … a greenhouse gas. Composting reduces that methane emission – since scraps never make it to the landfill in the first place. Composting is a great way to reduce your garbage, as well as your carbon footprint.
How To Start Composting
The best way to start is to purchase a one gallon (or larger) compost bin for your kitchen counter. Toss food prep scraps and leftovers into the bin. Since it’s handy, you will be more likely to use it and not throw these items in the garbage can. When it’s full, mix these items in your outdoor composter. More on that later …
What Can I Compost
Glad you asked! In the world of composting you’re inevitably going to hear about “the greens and browns” — the two main ingredients for your mix.
“Greens” are typically food scraps, like fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, or, if you have a yard, grass clippings. These add nitrogen — a crucial element for microbial growth. Microorganisms are the true heroes of this process, they do the heavy lifting of decomposition.
“Browns” are more carbon rich — think egg cartons, newspapers, dried leaves, and pine needles. It helps to shred up the paper products before putting them in your pile.
A good thing to remember is that green materials are typically wet, and brown materials are typically dry. When you’re layering, you want the dry browns on the bottom with the wet greens on the top.
What Not To Compost
Not only will these items cause problems in your garden, but they also can make your compost smell bad and attract animals and pests. Avoid these items for a successful compost pile:
- Anything containing meat, oil, fat, or grease
- Diseased plant materials
- Sawdust or chips from pressure-treated wood
- Dog or cat feces
- Weeds that go to seed
- Dairy products
Did You Know … Think twice before adding citrus peels, onions, and garlic to your compost pile. It is believed that these materials repel earthworms, which are a vital part of your garden.
Get Started Composting in 6 Easy Steps
Step 1: Purchase A Composter
We’ve come a long way from the days of backyard compost piles. Today’s gardeners can compost with much greater efficiency and ease. This guide will help you decide which type is best for you. The three types of composters are:
- Continuous composters
- Batch composters
- Indoor composters (includes the worm composters)
Continuous composters – these enclosed bins are meant to handle a variety of material, from kitchen scraps to yard waste. They’re called “continuous” because you can add material all the time. Compost is generated slowly.
Usually the finished compost filters to the bottom of the bin and can be removed a few times a year. Because they are sealed with a lid, rodents and other critters are kept out.
Best for: Gardeners who want a place to toss kitchen scraps, garden weeds and some yard waste. Toss it and forget it!
Batch composters – tumbling action turns these composters into efficient, compost-accelerating machines. Each batch starts with a balanced mix of ingredients and cooks until it’s done, which can be as little as four to eight weeks.
A batch composter is the fastest way to create compost, but it needs to be turned daily and checked for sufficient moisture. While one batch is cooking, you stockpile the materials for the next batch.
Best for: Gardeners who want to get more compost faster and are willing to put in a bit more effort and planning. Also good for people who may have a hard time stirring a compost pile – the tumbler does that for you.
Indoor composters and worm bins – it’s possible to make compost indoors, though it’s on a smaller scale. With specially designed composters and worm bins, you can turn kitchen scraps into compost for houseplants and the garden.
Best for: People who want to compost kitchen waste with limited room. Worm bins are especially fascinating to young people.
Step 2: Combine Your Green & Brown Materials
You are going to want to combine your wet, green items with your dry, brown items. “Brown” materials include dried plant materials, fallen leaves, shredded tree branches, cardboard, newspaper, hay or straw, and wood shavings, which all add carbon. “Green” materials include kitchen scraps from veggies and fruit, coffee grounds, and fresh plant and grass trimmings, which add nitrogen.
For best results, start building your compost pile by mixing three parts brown with one part green materials. If your compost pile looks too wet and smells, add more brown items or aerate more often. If you see it looks extremely brown and dry, add green items and water to make it slightly moist.
Step 3: Water Your Compost Pile
Sprinkle water over the compost pile regularly so it has the consistency of a damp sponge. Don’t add too much water, otherwise, the microorganisms in your pile will become waterlogged and drown. If this happens, your pile will rot instead of compost. Monitor the temperature of your pile by simply reach into the middle of the pile with your hand. Your compost pile should feel warm.
Step 4: Stir Or Toss Your Compost Pile
- During the growing season, you should provide the pile with oxygen by turning it once a week with a garden fork or tumble if you have tumbler style composter. Stirring up the pile will help it cook faster and prevents material from becoming matted down and developing an odor.
- In addition to aerating regularly, chop and shred the raw ingredients into smaller sized pieces to speed up the composting process.
Step 5: Check For Doneness
When the compost no longer gives off heat and becomes dry, brown, and crumbly, it’s fully cooked and ready to use! Finished compost should smell woody, earthy, and fresh.
Things to look for to gauge if compost is ready to use:
- The pile has shrunk significantly, up to one-half its original volume
- The original organic materials that you put in are no longer recognizable for what they were
- If you are using a hot composting method, the pile will be no longer generating a significant amount of heat
- The compost has a dark crumbly appearance and has an earthy odor
Step 6: Harvest The Compost
The finished compost will end up at the top of the bin or compost pile. Remove all the finished compost from the bin, leaving unfinished materials in the bin to continue decomposing. Be sure the decomposition process is complete before you use your compost; otherwise, microbes in the compost could take nitrogen from the soil and harm plant growth.
Doesn’t Compost Smell?
Compost should not create an odor if you take care of it properly and don’t overload the system. Always bury the food waste by pulling aside some of the bedding (browns), dumping the waste, and then cover it up with the dry bedding again.
Healthy compost smells like soil. If your compost is smelly, that’s a sign that it needs more air … or you placed in items from the “What Not To Compost” list above.. Aerate your compost by regularly turning your pile. Compost tumblers make this job easier.
How To Use Finished Compost
Can a gardener ever have enough compost? It’s doubtful. Compost is the perfect thing to spread around when you are creating a new garden, seeding a new lawn area, or planting a tree. Compost can be sprinkled around plants during the growing season or used as a mulch in your perennial gardens. You can add compost to your flower boxes, containers, and deck planters. You can also use it to enrich the potting soil for your indoor plants.
For new beds or borders: Amend the soil prior to planting. Add a layer of compost 1 to 3 inches thick on top of the existing soil and mix it in to a depth of 6 to 12 inches.
For established beds: Add a fresh layer of compost 1 to 2 inches thick on top of the soil in fall after plants die back, or in early spring before plants break dormancy. In addition to feeding plants, the compost layer suppresses weeds and retains moisture.
For vegetable plots including raised beds: Dig or till in 1 to 2 inches of new compost at the start of the growing season.
Give bulbs a boost. Mix in a few handfuls of compost into each bulb planting hole, or prepare an entire bed by mixing in a generous layer of compost before planting.
With kitchen and food waste comprising up to one-third of all household garbage, composting is a great way to reduce your garbage, as well as your carbon footprint. When organic matter ends up in landfills, it lacks the necessary conditions for optimal decomposition, creating harmful methane gas in the process which contributes to global warming and climate change.
Once you get your compost pile started, you’ll find that it’s an easy way to repurpose kitchen scraps and other organic materials into something that can help keep your plants thriving!