The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that yard waste and food scraps make up about 20-30% of what we throw out. But by composting, we can use much of this waste and recycle it into an organic material that we can use to amend our soil and nourish our plants. The basic principles are so easy to grasp, anybody can do it.
The composting process is incredibly simple. It is very little you need to know about composting apart from some basic compost tips. All you need to start composting at home is a suitable location, a compost bin, and the materials needed to make the compost. That’s it!
What is composting
Compost is organic matter that is derived from vegetable food scraps and yard waste including coffee grounds, grass clippings, dry leaves, and plant prunings. Composting is the process that we use to achieve this end.
The process, which requires oxygen to be aerobic, is controlled, and it might sound complicated. But it isn’t.
What happens is that the waste materials break down as microorganisms feed on the materials in the compost pile. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains that these microorganisms use carbon and nitrogen to grow and reproduce, water to digest materials, and oxygen to breathe.
You don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate that when it’s done right, you’re going to end up with a dark, crumbly material that smells like the earth and looks like soil. This is what composting is all about.
What is exciting about composting for beginners is that it can be successful in virtually any environment. All you need is the waste material, a suitable compost bin, and somewhere to keep the stuff while it transforms itself.
If you have the space, you can start a compost pile in the open, and you won’t even need a compost bin. You will, though, need to be vigilant to avoid infestation by rodents.
The secret is to construct and maintain your compost pile correctly. As the EPA states, if you do this, it shouldn’t attract rodents or any other pests.
Cold vs Slow Composting
Both types of composting processes rely on the decomposition of organic materials. Cold composting just takes a lot longer than hot composting.
Cold composting is ideal if you don’t have time to turn and maintain the compost pile. You can also keep adding to the pile, for example, every time you mow your lawn or prune your bushes.
Benefits of composting
The obvious benefit of composting is that you can produce your own compost. It’s a brilliant soil amendment that can also be used as mulch.
The organic matter that compost adds to soil improves its health and structure. It also helps the soil to retain nutrients and moisture.
It attracts all sorts of beneficial organisms that we need in the soil. And it reduces the need to use chemical fertilizers and helps to remove carbon from the air.
It’s a means of getting rid of at least some of your household and yard trash. It also cuts down on your trash contribution that would otherwise go to landfill.
Apart from the initial outlay for a suitable compost bin (if you’re using one), your only other investments will be time and effort.
What can you compost?
Composting beginners who have never composted before usually ask what they can compost. A simple answer is that in addition to plant material from your garden, you can compost any fruit or veggie scraps – but not meat or dairy.
Avoid pet waste including cat litter as well as fats, greases, and oil. You can, though, include non-meat-eating manure from animals like cows and horses.
Some paper is compostable, but not glossy paper or produce stickers. Don’t use any treated wood, ashes, or charcoal.
You should never include weeds with seeds or any aggressive weed types in compost. You also don’t want plants that have been treated with herbicides or plants that are pest-infested or diseased.
You need a mix of nitrogen-rich green materials and carbon-rich brown materials for your compost. The green materials are mostly organic materials with “life” or moisture in them.
Examples of greens include fruit and vegetable scraps, yard trim and most grass clippings, paper tea bags, coffee grounds with paper filters, and crushed eggshells. Small amounts of cooked food are also acceptable.
Typical browns include dry leaves, plant stalks, twigs, pruned material, and untreated wood chips. Shredded paper including brown paper bags is good, but avoid anything that is glossy or colored. Shredded cardboard can also work as long as it doesn’t have a wax coating, glue, or tape of any sort.
The EPA points out that backyard compost piles don’t reach temperatures nearly as high as commercial composting facilities. This means that even if materials are certified compostable, they may not be suitable for your home compost pile or bin.
What are the 4 things needed to make compost?
The four essential ingredients of compost are nitrogen, carbon, air, and water. This is why we need a mixture of green and brown materials.
The greens and browns we talked about in the previous section are all organic materials that will eventually decompose. By initiating the composting process, we are basically accelerating the natural process of decomposition.
Oxygen from the air is vital to break down these organic materials. Even microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, and insects that move through the compost need to breathe, so you need to maintain airflow.
Water is important too. The developing compost should be damp but not wet.
Quick and easy steps on how to compost
If you’re building a compost pile, find a suitable location on the ground that is level and well-drained. Be sure to keep some distance from buildings and fences, although you can contain a pile against a wire mesh fence.
Bins make the compost mix easier to contain and holes in bins help with aeration.
The Maryland Government has produced a useful factsheet for beginners on building compost piles and establishing compost bins. This suggests that any compost pile should be at least 3 ft x 3 ft x 3 ft in size and no bigger than 5 ft x 5 ft x 5 ft.
Your green-brown mix should be in a ratio of 2:1. You can either alternate layers of the high-nitrogen (green) and high-carbon (brown) materials or mix them together before adding them to the pile.
If you alternate layers, these should be about 2-4 inches thick. As you add the materials, moisten them with water.
Leave a small concave, saucer-like depression at the top of the pile to capture any rainfall. But remember that if the pile starts to dry out you’re going to have to add water to maintain the moisture content.
If the weather gets very wet, it’s a good idea to cover an open pile with a tarpaulin.
Unless you’re opting for a cold compost heap, you’ll need to turn and aerate the pile about once a week as it starts to cool. This can be a little easier if you have an open pile rather than a bin.
If you’re aerating compost in a bin, move the materials from the center to the outside.
Tips for composting beginners
One of the tips beginners may appreciate is that if you don’t have enough green material, you can add a little commercial fertilizer that contains nitrogen. A good rule of thumb is to add half a cup for every 10-inch layer of compost materials you have in the pile or bin.
You can also add a few spadefuls of garden soil to mix if you like. Soil contains decomposing organisms we don’t even realize are there.
Another useful tip for composting beginners is to be careful of adding too much water to the pile. Too much moisture tends to make it smelly.
If it does start to smell, add more dry leaves, grass clippings, and shredded paper to balance out the fruit and veggie scraps that are likely breaking down and rotting. In fact, it’s good practice to keep adding material to any compost heap or bin.
When the pile gets too big, start another one!
How long does it take for compost to be ready to use?
Temperature is a vital factor when it comes to composting. The hotter the materials get, the quicker the composting process will take.
The closer it gets to being fully decomposed, the lower the temperature of the compost will drop. The ready-to-use compost will be a dark black-brown color and it will be sweet smelling with a crumbly texture.
If you can maintain high temperatures of up to 130-140 degrees Fahrenheit, you might be able to use your compost after about four weeks.
But generally, expect the composting process to take between three and six months. You need to be sure that it is 100% decomposed before you use it to amend your garden soil.
If you opt for cold composting, expect it to take about a year.
We have covered as many of the tips beginners generally need to start composting at home. It’s a great hobby with fantastic rewards.
Why not give composting a try?