A few years back, my husband came to me with the idea of starting a compost pile in our yard and I was a little concerned about the idea. I was concerned about the smell. I was concerned about critters getting into the compost pile and I was especially concerned about what we were going to do with the compost. Since that time though, I’ve learned more about composting and what it can do so before we talk about how to compost at home, I first want to talk a bit about what composting is and why it’s a good idea.
What is Composting?
When you start composting your organic kitchen and yard scraps, you are basically just aiding a very natural process. Organic materials break down naturally using bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms as well as insects and worms. By composting your organic scrap materials, you’re just making it a little easier for those materials to break down as they naturally would and then you’re reaping the rewards of that process.
What is Compost?
Compost is the material you’re left with after composting. It is a nutrient rich soil that is dark in color and crumbles when you touch it. My main concern about my husband’s compost pile was the smell but I was surprised to learn that a properly cared for compost pile doesn’t really smell all that bad. Compost itself really just has an earthy kind of smell so when you properly care for your compost pile, it shouldn’t smell much worse than an average dirt pile which isn’t really that bad at all.
What are the Benefits of Composting?
As I mentioned, I was concerned about the idea of composting when my husband first mentioned it but he sold me on the idea when he listed the benefits. The biggest for me was the positive impact composting can have on the environment. Composting your kitchen and yard scraps means those materials are not going to the curb with the rest of your household trash to be taken to the landfill. The benefit there is obvious but goes beyond just reducing the amount of trash you put in landfills. Composting offers plenty of oxygen to your kitchen and garden scraps which allows them to decompose naturally. In a landfill, this material doesn’t get the oxygen it needs to decompose naturally. When this material decomposes without adequate oxygen, it produces greenhouse gasses so by choosing to compost, you are choosing to do your part to reduce greenhouse gasses.
In addition to the benefits to the environment, composting also offers tremendous benefits to your garden. By using compost in your garden, you can significantly reduce, if not completely eliminate, the need to use chemical fertilizers. Composting improves the texture of the soil and enables it to retain more moisture and oxygen, making it an excellent, natural fertilizer that is rich in nutrients which will help improve the overall quality of anything you grow in your garden.
What Can I Compost?
There are a lot of things that can be composted. There are a lot of things that cannot. Knowing the difference between what can be composted and what cannot be composted is a big part of proper composting. Before you know how to compost, you need to know what you should and shouldn’t be putting into your compost bin or your compost pile. The basic rule of thumb is anything organic can be composted but there are exceptions. Those exceptions are:
- Dairy products
- Diseased plants
- Fats or oils
- Fowl (including chicken or turkey)
- Peanut butter
- Pet droppings, especially pet droppings with litter
- Sawdust or wood shavings from wood that has been painted or treated with chemicals
- Spreads of any kind
- Weeds that have gone to seed
Many of these things cannot be composted because they can lead to foul smells or can attract animals to your compost pile. It may seem like a long list but there are still lots of things you can put in your compost pile. First, let’s talk about green materials.
Green materials are rich in nitrogen and are perfect for composting. Most of these things are commonly found in the average kitchen and all of them are able to be tossed into your compost bin or your compost pile. These materials include:
- Coffee filters
- Coffee grounds
- Egg shells (must be crushed)
- Fruit and vegetable scraps or peelings
- Gardening materials
- Grass clippings
- Paper towels
- Tea bags
- Weeds that have not gone to seed
You can also compost brown materials. Brown materials are rich in carbon and are also great for your compost. Once again, these brown materials are things commonly found in and around the average home. Brown materials include:
- Cardboard (shredded)
- Dry leaves
- Egg cartons (shredded)
- Paper (shredded)
- Sawdust or shavings from paint/chemical free wood
- Wood chips (must be finely ground)
As long as you stick with the things you know you can compost and avoid the things you cannot, you should have a healthy, beneficial compost heap that requires only basic compost maintenance, doesn’t smell terrible and doesn’t attract animals.
How to Compost: A Step by Step Guide
To start, you’re going to want to pick a good location for your compost heap. It should be somewhere that is accessible year round but offers a little shade. You also need to make sure your compost heap is able to drain properly so look for a spot that offers good drainage. Once you’ve picked out your spot, you’re ready to begin.
Step One: Loosen the top soil for your compost heap. You want worms and insects to be able to move up into the compost heap to do their jobs and loosening the soil makes that easier for them.
Step Two: Put down a 4cm layer of materials from the brown materials list above. Because you’ll need a decent quantity of this material to make the full layer, you should consider using a mix of brown materials although shredded paper, shredded cardboard or dry leaves will work well if you have enough on hand.
Step Three: Add a 6cm layer of materials from the green list. Grass clippings can be a great option here. Spread this material evenly over the brown material layer you put down in step two.
Step Four: Add another layer of brown material. This time, you’ll want a thicker layer, at least 10cm. If you already have composted material, you can add that material for this step instead of another layer of brown materials. Adding a layer of already composted material gives you a head start as it will already have some of those helpful micro-organisms that help compost your brown and green materials. If you don’t have any composted material, you can use soil or you can stick to the layer of brown materials. Use what you have at your disposal. This layer helps tame odors and wards off fruit flies that may be attracted to the green materials layer.
Step Five: Fill up your compost bin (or pile) by adding layers of brown and green materials, alternating layer for layer. In other words, a brown layer always goes over a green layer and a green layer always goes over a brown layer. Finish off the layers with soil or composted material (or brown materials if you have no soil or composted material).
Step Six: When your pile is full, it’s time to turn. This is one of the most labor intensive parts of composting and it is a process you will have to repeat every two weeks. You need to turn it to make sure the materials have enough air to compost properly. You can use a turning tool or a garden fork, depending on the size of your pile. Continue turning until everything is mixed well.
Step Seven: Turn your pile every two weeks and keep an eye on the moisture of the pile. You want it to be damp but not wet. It should be about as moist as a sponge that has been wrung out. If your compost it too wet, you can remedy the problem by adding some brown materials. If your compost is too dry, add a little bit of water to have it the moisture it needs.
After roughly 8 to 10 weeks (or 3 to 4 turns) your compost should be done. It will have an early odor and will be dark brown in color. It will feel somewhat crumbly and moist if you handle it. You’ll need to let this material mature for a month or two before you use it in your garden.
Questions about compost, composting or how to compost? Ask them in the comments section at the end of this article. I’ll do my best to answer any questions you may have in an upcoming article. Thanks for reading and happy composting!