Composting is an environmentally friendly way to improve your garden soil and reduce waste. Yard waste and table scraps can make up a large part of household garbage which could be turned into nutrient-rich amendments for your garden with the right compost recipe. Here’s everything you need to know to learn how to compost properly.
Even if you only have a small garden, learning how to compost is one of the most important activities you can do to save money and prevent waste from unnecessarily ending up in a landfill.
Some people mistakenly assume that compostable materials thrown in the garbage will break down and feed the soil in the landfill. But throwing vegetable and garden scraps in the trash means it will be surrounded by garbage and not have the proper recipe to decompose. Instead, it releases harmful methane gas into the environment.
Composting isn’t difficult, but it isn’t as simple as just throwing your kitchen scraps and garden cuttings into a heap and checking on it a year later. Eventually, those items will break down and create compost, but it is much faster, cleaner, and more effective when you know the proper compost recipe.
So, let’s learn how to compost, shall we?
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How to Make Compost
Healthy compost results from a combination of four ingredients: greens, browns, air, and moisture.
1. Greens (Energy Materials)
Add 1 part of greens. Green compost ingredients are those with higher nitrogen content, such as grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and garden trimmings.
These materials rot quickly and contain the compounds needed for fast microbial growth. They are usually quite wet and heavy and can get stinky fast unless you balance them with enough brown material.
2. Browns (Bulking Agents)
Add 2-3 parts of browns. Brown compost ingredients are those with higher carbon content, such as paper, shredded woody material, and straw.
Browns are dry and bulky, allowing air to reach the greens. They do not decay rapidly without greens because they do not hold enough moisture.
Are Fallen Leaves a “Brown” for Composting?
Colour alone is not a good indication of what is considered brown materials. Deciduous leaves that have fallen and turned brown, as well as chopped up tree and shrub clippings, have higher nitrogen balance than true “browns.”
Leaves and chopped-up clippings are excellent for compost and can decompose readily on their own, without needing additional greens or browns. You can choose to compost these materials from the garden on their own or mixed in with the 1 part green / 2-3 part brown mixture.
Just be sure not to replace the browns with fallen leaves, or your compost will be too wet and stinky.
Packing layers of green and brown materials into a compost bin will not make compost alone. Air needs to be introduced by turning the compost with a fork, an aeration tool, or a rolling composter.
As the microbes work to break down the materials, the compost heap will become warm. The heat in the middle of the pile can reach up to 150 degrees F.
Turning the compost once a week should be plenty, but to speed up the process, mix the compost every few days to introduce more air and move materials from the edges to the middle.
Moisture is also necessary to give the microbes the best possible conditions to break down the material. After adding the materials, water the compost 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 you may have to protect the compost from rain.
How Do I Use Compost?
Now that you know how simple it is to make compost, let’s chat about what you actually do with it.
I love the look and feel of compost. It’s rich, black, light, and fluffy to the touch. When I pick it up, I just know that it will be pure gold for my plants and my garden.
Creating your compost rather than buying it means you’ll have more of the specific nutrients and organisms that your plants and soil need. You can use it as a soil amendment, fertilizer, and as mulch.
Amend soil with compost manually or more often when you have compost readily available. Spread compost in a thick layer over the soil when the garden is not productive. Compost doesn’t need to be scratched in or turned into the top layer of the soil.
Turning the compost in only disturbs the network of microorganisms already living in the soil. Better yet, add compost directly over the mulch layer that protects soil and decomposing itself.
When I’m adding a new plant to the garden, I also like to mix in a little bit of compost at the bottom of the hole I dug to give the plant an extra boost of nutrients. I really never use fertilizer for my garden plants, instead opting for compost.
You can also make a compost tea. This is a liquid made from steeping or brewing your compost in water to extract beneficial organisms and water-soluble nutrients. Then, it’s applied as a foliar spray to help with plant diseases or as a soil drench which applies diluted concentrations of soil microorganisms and nutrients.
Choosing a Compost Bin
Compost bins are another major part of learning how to compost. You need to find the right bin to suit your needs; one won’t work for everyone. It depends on your available space and how much compost you’ll need.
You can have one big compost bin or many small ones. The goal is to ensure it’s accessible and easy to add and aerate.
One of my personal favourites is a vermicomposting bin. These work great for small spaces and those who want a closed system. It relies almost entirely on the power of worms, and you’ll get some pretty amazing organic matter for your soil.
Here are some other options for compost bins:
- Electric composters are great for those in apartments with minimal or no deck space.
- Compost piles where you simply pile it all together are great for homesteads with lots of need and space.
- Wood slat bins help to keep things contained and aerated if critters are not a problem.
- If critters are a problem, critter-proof bins with lids are good for urban areas.
- Rolling composters are also good for urban areas with their closed bins. The bin rolls to help compost degrade faster.
What Will Make Compost Break Down Faster?
Some materials are full of microbes, bacteria, fungi, soil insects, mites, and worms that will speed up the decomposition process. Add just a small portion of one of these compost amendments to really get the party started.
- Mushroom manure
- Well-rotted manure (not pet waste)
- Healthy garden soil
- Compost accelerating plants such as alpine strawberry, alfalfa, black elderberry, calendula, chamomile, comfrey, dandelion, hollyhock, oak bark, sage, stinging nettle, valerian, and yellow dock
What Should You Not Put in Compost?
Not everything can go in your home compost bin, although some of these can go in city or county large-scale industrial compost bins where the temperatures are consistently hot enough to kill pathogens and seeds.
Before you compost these items, be sure to check your local composting regulations.
- Pesticides and herbicides – Keep your garden healthy without introducing pesticides and herbicides into the compost bin.
- Compostable grocery bags – These should not go in your home compost bin despite the name. Use brown paper bags instead.
- Evergreen clippings – Some evergreens take a long time to compost at home, and some resins can slow down and/or inhibit the composting process.
- Meat, bones, dairy, or animal product food scraps – The home compost doesn’t get hot enough to break these down effectively, and it will attract pests, like rats, to the compost pile.
- Pet waste – Dog and cat poop can carry pathogens that could be transferred to the soil.
- Diseased plant material – Diseased or infested plants may perpetuate the incidence of disease and pests in future years.
- Weeds that have gone to seed – Compost may not get hot enough to sterilize weed seeds.
- Large logs, thorny branches – Big, woody items will be too large to break down. Chip or grind all large, woody materials instead.
- Poison ivy, invasive weeds, and other noxious plants – Don’t risk spreading these plants by composting them.
Composting Shouldn’t Be Gross
If you think composting is yucky or dirty, you aren’t doing it right! Compost should smell fresh, sweet, and earthy. Overly stinky compost is not properly balanced, but it is an easy fix.
Too many greens in your compost will become soggy and smell bad. Compost can also start to stink when it is too wet. In both cases, adding more brown materials and turning your compost to introduce air will help to remedy the problem.
Fruit Flies, Maggots, and Rats, Goodbye!
While composting aims to attract insects and fungi to your compost bin, you shouldn’t need to fight off an army of critters to get into the compost. The best defense against an overly active compost bin is, again, balance.
If you follow this compost recipe and keep a layer of brown on top of the compost, you will only attract those critters that will work for you to make healthy, nutritious compost.
Frequently Asked Questions About How to Compost
Compost can take as little as four weeks to make or as long as a year. Ultimately, the more work you put in, the faster your compost degrades. While you can just toss everything together in a heap and wait a year, you can speed up the process.
If you work to accelerate and aerate your compost bin, you will have compost quickly. Quick composting is when you accelerate compost by adding plants.
Traditionally, this combines dried nettle, dandelion, chamomile, yarrow, valerian, and oak bark. The plants are dried, crushed into a powder, and sprinkled on layers between compost. This will give you compost in 4-6 weeks.
Generally, compost can sit for a long time without any worry. It won’t stink or rot when it’s properly taken care of by controlling the moisture levels.
However, compost can lose potency over time. The nutrients leach, and the compost will turn finer and finer as the microorganisms get to work. Too much moisture can cause the compost to rot and grow fungi. And if your compost is in a pile and not in a bin, it could disappear altogether, becoming part of the soil.
Your compost will be okay in the sun or shade if you properly manage it. Sun speeds up the composting process since it raises the overall temperature. However, it will dry out faster. You may find that you need fewer carbon materials for bins in the sun and need to add water frequently.
Compost bins in the shade will be prone to staying damp and won’t be as warm. In this case, you may need to aerate it more often and add more carbon materials to help accelerate it.
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