Composting at home is a simple way to reduce waste that might otherwise find its way to the landfill, while providing you with an inexpensive source of rich compost for your garden. This concise, yet detailed guide can get you on the path to making it on your own in no time at all.

What is Compost and Why Should Start It Now

To define: compost is to examine both what it is—that is, what it is used for—and where it comes from.  Put simply, it is an organic material which you can use to enhance the fertility of your soil to aid plant growth. It can be useful for both vegetable/fruit gardening as well as ornamental gardening.

What makes homemade compost quite different from other forms of fertilizer is the process of obtaining it.  Instead of purchasing it at a garden supply store or the like, you actually make this product yourself.  Even better, you make it from ingredients that would otherwise be thrown away!

If you’ve ever been for a walk in a mature forest, you’re familiar with the layers of crunchy leaves that cover the ground.  You also know that beneath them are older leaves, which are slowly decaying. Below them is rich, black soil that feeds all of the various trees and brush of the forest.

Backyard composting uses straightforward methods to create this type of rich, dark soil by utilizing organic waste like leftover fruits and vegetables, yard trimmings, excess mulch from your mulch pile and the like.  These items are combined, and when carefully tended, will decompose to make rich fertilizer, much like the leaves in the forest do.

What Materials and Waste Can be Composted?

There are a wide variety of different types of waste which can be used for easy composting. Most plant material, for example, is suitable. This includes leaves, grass clippings, yard trimmings, and so on.  Hay and straw can also be used. Wood products, like sawdust and chips, are also great additions. Even most types of paper, including shredded newspaper and cardboard, can be added.

Leftover plant based foods are another great resource. Instead of tossing out that extra broccoli or that wilted celery, you can add it to the compost pile. Even discarded nut shells can work!

There are also some less obvious things that you can add, like woodstove ashes, coffee grounds/filters, teabags, cotton or wool rags, dryer lint, hair/fur, and eggshells.

If you’re thinking to yourself that it sounds like you’ve got plenty of stuff to compost, you’re probably right!

One thing that’s important to know is that not all combinations of these ingredients will work equally well.  It’s important to have a good ratio of a variety of different organic substances. Often, these are categorized as “brown” or “green” ingredients.

“Brown” ingredients include things like dead leaves and dry, dead yard waste. “Green” materials include fresh grass clippings, fruits and vegetables, and even coffee grounds—even though they aren’t green! The color of the material is just a guideline. What “brown” and “green” really refer to is the tendency of that material to release either carbon (brown) or nitrogen (green). The ideal brown/green ratio should be about fifty/fifty.

There’s one final ingredient that everyone composting at home needs: water.

Of course, not everything can be added to the pile. Charcoal/coal products, dairy products, and meat shouldn’t be added to garden compost. The former can contain things that might hurt your garden. When it comes to dairy and meat products, you’re risking attracting undesirable animals and insects to your yard.

If you use pesticides or herbicides in your yard, you’ll have to leave yard clippings and the like out, as well.  The chemicals from these substances can be retained in the final form of your organic compost and pose a danger to your plants or to the helpful organisms that make creating this fertilizer possible at all.

On the same note, you shouldn’t add plants that have been infested with insects or seem diseased to the pile, as they may transfer these pests to your healthy plants even after the compost forms. Likewise, pet waste (including cat litter) is a no-go because of the risk of parasite contamination, germs, etc.

There are even some very specific plants you can’t use, like the leaves, sticks, or bark of the black walnut.  That’s because these plants could contain toxins that damage others or slow their growth.

How to Compost at Home

There are several different methods for making compost, mostly distinguished by the types of devices you use during the process.  Some are more complicated than others, but all follow the same basic guidelines.

These include maintaining an approximate ratio of half brown to half green ingredients, keeping the compost moist, and turning the pile/burying new additions to the pile. The ratio doesn’t have to be perfect—up to 2/3 brown material can be used to make great organic compost!

Make sure that the items you add aren’t contaminated in any way. For example, don’t add ash after burning wood treated with chemicals.  Also, your ingredients shouldn’t be too big and bulky. “Green” items should be buried in the compost once it’s been expired. This will help avoid unpleasant smells, and it will also make the compost process more efficient.

Some other tips include making sure to sprinkle clumping materials like grass or hay in thin layers. If you use weeds from your yard or garden, make sure they’ve not yet gone to seed.  After all, you’ll be using the final result in your yard and garden—you don’t want to accidentally plant more weeds!

Composting can be done either inside or outside, depending on which specific method and devices you use for your compost solutions.

Devices for Home Composting

Which device is right for your composting project? There are a few different factors that come into play for choosing.  One is the amount of space you have—and where you have it.  If you’re in a rural or suburban area with plenty of outdoor space, for example, your options will be very different than the options of someone in an apartment with a balcony—or someone in an apartment without any outdoor space.

Another important factor is your ability (and/or inclination) to do the literal heavy lifting. There are methods of composting that don’t require as much turning, or give you some mechanical help.

Keep all of these issues in mind when choosing your solution!

How to Use a Compost Bin

Compost bins are one of the most versatile and practical methods of composting. You can buy pre-made compost bins at very affordable prices, or you can make your own.

These enclosed bins are often the solution of choice for those who have adequate lawn space outside.  They contain the compost and keep it secure from pests. Standard compost bins are bottomless. That is, they resemble a large trash or recycling bin, but they don’t have a bottom.  This allows the compost to be in direct contact with the earth.

However, they do have their downsides.  For example, their relatively small size and immobility means it can be difficult to adequately mix the compost. While this won’t fully prevent compost from forming, it can slow the process down significantly. You’ll also have to be more mindful of how carefully you layer the materials you add, since you won’t have much of an opportunity to redistribute them later.

DIY compost bins tend to be much larger, and have an intact bottom and a secure lid, as they are typically made from large trash bins.  With a secure lid, they can actually be rolled in order to stir up the good stuff!

Both of these solutions require the use of some outdoor lawn space.

How to Use a Rotary Composter

Compost tumblers are a type of fully enclosed compost bin, but they are smaller, and have some unique features that make them more flexible for people with limited space. You’ll still need to keep it outdoors, but a balcony, deck, or rooftop access is sufficient for the most compact models.

A compost tumbler is a bin that is suspended horizontally on an axle. This allows the material to be turned regularly without much effort at all.  They tend to produce usable compost more quickly than standard bins. There are a few reasons for that.

First, the constant turning is great for compost! Second, these bins tend to hold heat better than their standard counterparts—and the heat generated during the composting process is crucial.  That also means they’re more effective in cold climates. Finally, they usually have internal spokes or other mechanisms to make sure you’re not just turning the compost inside, but really mixing it.

Like standard bins, they are also a good choice if you are concerned about racoons, skunks, or other critters gaining an interest in your compost pile.

The downside, when compared to standard bins, is their (typically) much smaller size. Furthermore, while larger compost tumblers are available, they can be more difficult to turn when full.  Some of these larger options do have additional mechanical aids to help turning. As you might expect, however, compost tumblers already tend to be a bit pricier than DIY or standard bins, and this can further up the cost.

How to Use a Composting Bin

If you’re composting out of doors using a pile or an open bottomed bin, you’ll soon find that earthworms have likely made your compost their home.  That’s great! Of course, they aren’t present in closed bins, because standard closed bins and tumblers aren’t built with being a worm hotel in mind.

However, some composting bins are! There are large composting bins for worms in mind, but the most common are quite small. Composting with worms is also known as “vermicomposting.”

In fact, these special bins can be so small and self-contained that they can be used indoors. They’re the best option (and sometimes the only option) for some apartment dwellers. It’s easy to order composting worms online.

You can also use them outdoors, of course, but be careful of freezing temperatures, overheating, or too much rain as they can kill your worms.

Homemade worm bins generally consist of at least one large plastic bin. Storage totes are often a good choice to start with. Then, holes are drilled in the bottom for drainage as well as along the sides/top for air flow.  You’ll need to set the tote up on blocks over a tray or extra lid to capture any drainage.

You’ll also need to provide “bedding” for the worms—usually shredded newspaper. This will also help provide enough carbon to offset your “green” table scraps. Keep your new friends nice and moist. A large piece of dampened cardboard over the worms, scraps, and bedding (but under the lid of the tote) will help.

Add your scraps in small piles just under the bedding. Before you know it, you’ll have a full bin of compost!

If you don’t feel like building your own worm composting bin, there are plenty of premade options out there, some much fancier than others. They’ll have specific directions for the style of bin, but the overall process is always very similar.

How to Use a Compost Pile

Perhaps the easiest method, for those who have plenty of outdoor space and aren’t as concerned about animal pests, is a simple compost pile. It’s easy composting with a pile. You simply start your heap on the bare ground. It’s a good idea to collect plenty of “brown” materials for some time before you start, to make sure you can adequately layer the compost (this will also make turning it easier, or in some cases, unnecessary).

If it gets too dry, make sure to add some water. You don’t need the pile to be soggy, but you’re trying to cultivate a happy little colony of beneficial microorganisms—and they need water, too! Covering your pile with a tarp or plastic sheeting is helpful in retaining moisture and keeping the rain from washing it away. It’ll also help retain heat.

You won’t need to turn it as much if you have plenty of aerating materials to help keep airflow through the pile, but you should take the time to turn it in every week or three with a compost aerator tool. Your friendly microorganisms need air as well as water to do their work.

How to Make a Compost Bin at Home

For those who are interested in making their own compost bin, it’s often the most frugal solution.  Start with a heavy duty garbage can, and make sure to find one with a very secure lid if you are considering rolling as a turning method.

Then, you’ll need to add holes for airflow to ensure that the compost is getting enough oxygen.  A drill is the easiest way to accomplish this. You want the holes to be about half an inch in width, and spaced about ten inches apart, in rows, over the entire surface of the can.

That’s it! You’ll probably want a good sturdy pitchfork or pointed shovel to help you turn the compost, too.

Advantages of Composting and Where it May be Applied

The most obvious advantage of the compost you create is its fertilization properties. The type of dark, loamy soil that results from compost is called “humus” and it’s simply fantastic for growing plants.  You can use it for your lawn, ornamental plants, fruit plants, or in your vegetable garden.

Even if you don’t have a lawn or garden, you can use it for indoor herb gardens and indoor plants, which often rely on expensive soil mixes and fertilizers that compost can easily replace.  You may even be able to donate your compost to a community garden!

Humus adds lots of necessary nutrition to the soil to help your plants grow healthy and strong. It’s also beneficial in that it traps moisture in the soil which might otherwise evaporate away. Furthermore, the friendly microorganisms you’ve cultivated will keep your soil well aerated, and drive out less friendly microorganisms that could be responsible for disease or other problems.

It’s also a great way to cut down on other lawn chemicals, since you won’t require chemical fertilizers. That means a healthier lawn and less polluted run off into the water supply as well.

And composting is good for the environment, as well.  Instead of sending your organic waste to the landfill, where it takes up much needed space and can decompose in a way that creates harmful emissions, you’re recycling it. Landfills in many parts of the world aren’t just limited. They’re actually filling up. That’s bad news because, of course, that waste has to go somewhere.  More landfills mean less green spaces for everyone.

Not to mention that organic waste is often up to a third of a household’s overall waste—so you’re really reducing your carbon footprint.

There’s really no downside to composting! It’s a win for everyone (and plant!) involved. Now that you know the basics, why not get started today?


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