Compost is often called Gardener’s Gold, and rightly so. To a smart gardener, good compost is worth its weight in vegetables and then some. Let’s learn more about home composting!
What is Compost?
Compost is what you get when yard and garden debris, kitchen scraps, grass clippings and other organic materials have completely broken down into a rich, dark, crumbly material.
Gardeners love compost because it is so rich in nutrients and adds so much value when you add it to your soil. Composting is really just nature’s natural process of breaking down dead plant material and turning it back into soil. With this comes a lot of organic matter, which boosts the soil’s ability to grow more plants. When a gardener composts, he or she is just speeding up the natural process through the knowledgeable manipulation of the factors that go into the breaking down of dead plant material.
The factors that break down these materials into compost are: heat, nutrient mix, oxygen, and moisture. Heat is created by the bacteria and microbes as they break down the plant matter. The nutrient mix determines how active and healthy those microbes will be and how much they’ll have to “eat” while the oxygen level will determine how many microbes there will be. Finally, the moisture content will affect all of these things. All four elements working together create a micro-ecosystem that the gardener is attempting to optimize.
The main ingredients, or nutrients, a gardener is adding to the compost heap are carbon and nitrogen (C or N). Most agree that the optimum mixture is 25-30:1 carbon to nitrogen. So for every twenty-five or thirty pounds of carbon, you should be adding a pound of nitrogen. This is easily measured by the type of material you’re using. Some are a roughly even mix, such as grass clippings and sod, while others are weighted in either C or N’s direction. Shredded newspaper is mostly carbon, as are feathers and leaves. Dry manure and urine are heavy with nitrogen, as are coffee grounds.
Carbon rich materials are also known as “brown materials” and nitrogen rich materials are known as “green materials.” Too much brown, carbon rich material slows down the composting process significantly, because the nitrogen rich green materials are necessary to speed things up. Too much green though, and you get a stinky, wet mess.
You’ll want to add all the different types of organic material you can find. Fruit and vegetable waste from your kitchen are not scraps you should throw out, but something to add to your compost pile or bin. Even your coffee grounds, grass clippings and most food waste. Soon it will be finished compost, ready for use in the lawn or garden. Compost is the best soil amendment you can use to radically improve the fertility and health of your soil. Composting your yard waste turns the organic matter into a valuable soil amendment that you’d otherwise have to pay for.
Types of Composting
Compost Bins and Piles
Compost bins and piles are the two most popular ways of composting. They are roughly the same idea, though bins can definitely be a time-saver when composting, while piles can be almost unlimited in size. Both use the same principle of adding material to the compost “heap” (be it in a bin or a pile) and stirring it occasionally to keep it distributing so the central core of the compost heats up and does its composting magic.
Most compost bins or tumblers are built to have the compost contained and then stirred by either turning it over with a pitch fork or by turning the bin itself. Compost piles, similarly, are usually contained in some kind of enclosure, though they can be just heaped into a pile. These are also stirred, usually with a pitchfork. The stirring mixes the air, adding oxygen into the mix, and moves the processed material out and fresh carbon and nitrogen into the center. The middle of a compost pile can be 135-150 degrees Fahrenheit!
The hot process is a batch process that differs from the compost bin or compost pile methods in that it creates one big batch of compost (rather than a continuous trick of usable soil, as with other methods). This method requires more up-front work and planning, but is used by gardeners who want a large batch of compost at a specific time, say spring or fall, in order to prepare bare soil or rebuild a garden. While most home composting often done in bins or large containers, it can also be done in piles.
Hot composting is a good way to break down the materials like fruit and vegetable scraps or other food scraps faster so they won’t attract pests. It’s the fastest way to turn your waste and scraps into soil.
You’ll keep a stockpile of compost ingredients such as piles or bags of leaves, straw, grass clippings and other yard waste, along with food scraps, etc. The hot process usually yields good compost in 2-3 weeks’ time (versus a whole season for piles and bins). Many gardeners have two or three bins they’re composting with in rotation, using the hot process with one bin while stockpiling in another, getting fresh compost weekly.
Layer composting is popular and is often used with the square, stationary bins sold in garden shops and stores. The home owner adds scraps and cuttings to the top of the bin and it slowly breaks them down, in layers, with fresh compost dirt coming out the bottom on a more or less continuous basis. These are the least labor-intensive of the composting methods, but are really only suitable for small-scale gardens (such as herb gardens, pot or bucket gardens, etc.) rather than for family-sized garden plots.
What Not to Compost
Anything organic can be composted. With that in mind, however, there are many things that are not well-suited to the home gardener’s compost bin or heap. Generally, waste from carnivores and omnivores (dogs, cats, humans, pigs) are not a good idea in a compost heap for health reasons. Most meats and meat-based fats should likewise not be composted.
With home composting, very thick and heavy waste matter (wood chips, cardboard, office paper, etc.) is also not a good idea in a compost heap unless you plan to allow a lot of time (possibly years) for it to break down into soil through the decomposition process.
What is the Best Method of Composting?
The best method is really the method that’s most convenient for you. Although you can make finished compost faster with hot methods, it takes more work to carefully mix the write ratio of carbon and nitrogen rich materials, and making sure there’s enough water and moisture for optimal break down. Most people don’t want to go to all this trouble.
The most convenient method is to simply buy a bin and add all your materials to it. Over time, everything breaks down. If you look inside and everything is wet and slimy or stinky, then you need more brown materials to balance it out. If it’s just a dry pile of brown things, then you need more nitrogen rich materials like vegetable scraps and fresh green grass clippings to heat it up. That’s all there is to it!
Backyard Conservation: Composting/a> from the National Association of Conservation Districts
Compost Instructions, a complete guide.
Penny Bruce says
I have q tumbler type compost bin. Have been trying to find out if it should be located in the sun or shade?
Vincent Huying says
With a well insulated tumbler, it doesn’t matter, even when it freezes your compost will reach 28° centigrade, if your mixture is correct. Don’t know about uninsulated tumblers.
i have mine in part shade first time i have had one
Locate it in the sun
I have been composting for quite some time now. I use 2 bins alternately, when one fills up I leave it and start filling the other. I use all raw vegetable and fruit peels and occasionally water it. I leave the bins once they are full for at least 4 months before mixing with the soil. Is there any way to find out when the compost is ready and in what proportion to mix it with soil?
Pete Redmon says
Composting leaves is a great way to save $$, but if you just rake them up and make a big pile, it can take a very long time. I have a good mulching mower. When a sufficient number covering my yard, I mow them, first with the clippings port closed, then, again with the bag attached. This way you will get leaves that decompose much more quickly (with added nutrients from the grass) and a much smaller amount. Those mulched leaves can be ready for use a year sooner than the “raw” leaves. If you usually bag your leaves for curbside collection, you’ll save a lot because it takes a lot fewer bags, In addition, the finely chopped leaf scraps that you leave in the grass, will help enrich your lawn.
My black plastic bin is effectively a wormery, and works in a completely different and much quicker way. Initially it was “seeded” with small Bramling worms which were found where I used to put rabbit droppings years before. After about 3 months (summer), 6 months (winter), I simply remove the top uncompleted 10cm or so. Under this will be tens of thousands of worms. About 2/3 are put direct on the garden for soil aeration and food for the birds. The remainder, together with the uncompleted material goes back in the Base of the bin after the rich odourless compost has been removed.
Julie Jones says
Have been told not to add onions or citrus, is this right
Shannon Sevey says
Julie good question I have the same one and hope to see comments
Very good question which is often commented about in compost literature. Personally what I read is unless an entire orchard is going into the pile, the worms don’t really like the citrus. So I chop well and spread out the introduction of the peels.
I compost egg shells, used coffee grounds, all vegetables peels, dryer lint, shredded paper, grass clippings and leaves. We have a compost tumbler in mostly sun. Try to turn it a few times a week. Love it
I soak my household scraps in yeast water. It seems to speed up the process.
I have been told not to put grass clippings containing weeds or weeds themselves in the compost heap? Also not woody sticks. Does not leave so much to compost from a small garden?
Noxious weeds need to break down hence if your compost pile gets above 150 degrees, more likely to kill the seeds.
After thirty years composting I invested in a thermometer and enjoy identifying what affects the speed of the breakdown: more turning does.
Do I need to purchase earth worms for the 65 gallon composter (totally new to this) or will they naturally come to the composter on their own? Also, how much water is a good amount without over watering? Thanks.
So my presumption is your composer is on the ground? Layering the base of the new pile with twigs, broken up creates more breathing space. The worms do come.
Utilizing compost across the property over the years , worms are now in all the gardens.
Re water, the rule of thumb is water like a damp sponge: I turn my pile first so water can get in between the layers. Either with a hose or a couple of buckets of water works.
One year my pile went dry because of not living in the house due to remodeling: then the vermin find it attractive. The vermin do Not like a wet or damp pile!
Is it helpful to blend the vegetable scraps( pineapple, banana peals) to speed up the process?
Niki Sidorchuck says
3rd paragraph, 1st sentence: “you” and “when” are swapped. Should be “when you” , not “you when”.
Why are there three section to traditional composting bins and how are they used?
Judy MacDougall says
I have been composting for a number of years. I have always had a composter that sat on the ground in my garden and moved it each fall to a new corner. I cover my garden waist and the compost and it is perfect the next spring when I till. I do not drink coffee, are the coffee shops willing to give their grounds away? I plant my banana and egg shells in with the roots of my tomatoes.