I love two-fers. You know, those things you do, but get double benefits? For instance, I consider house-cleaning to be a two-fer. I do one thing (clean), and I get exercise and a clean house. See? A two-fer. Composting is much more than a two-fer. Composting is a goldmine with a whole list of benefits:
- easier and cheaper than bagging and hauling to a landfill;
- creates excellent soil and fertilizer, which restores depleted soil and makes for healthier plants and more nutritious food for us;
- reduces landfill/waste, thereby reducing the cost and environmental impact of landfills and the hauling of waste to the landfills;
- cleans the soil of toxins and other contaminants;
- helps conserve water, and helps prevent runoff from carrying pollutants to water resources;
- helps prevent erosion and turf loss;
- eliminates the need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers, making you, your yard, your family and pets, and the environment healthier.
Just in case you’re wondering, composting is the way nature recycles all previously living things. Microorganisms, worms, and other “transformers” feed on the organic material, and turn it into rich soil called humus, and nutrients which become food for trees and plants, which become food for animals, and when the plants and animals die, the cycle begins again.
Organic gardeners like to take their cues from Mother Nature, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they love compost. What isn’t there to love about it? It’s perfect! We’ve learned how to use it and even speed it up, so we can grow our gardens the way nature intended—and we call the end product compost or humus.
Even if you’re not a gardener, you aren’t excused from composting. A friend or neighbor who is a gardener would likely appreciate the contribution, as would your local community garden or small farmer. If you want to contribute, but don’t want to compost, you could collect your kitchen waste in a paper bag and keep it in the freezer until you can drop it off or someone can pick it up. Said local gardener/farmer will be almost as happy as if you’d given them the finished product! It might even bring you some tomatoes and squash come summer.
But what about the smell, you ask? Done correctly, there should be no smell. And that’s what you’ll find here: how to do it correctly.
To get started, you need to collect some ingredients. You should only use organic material (meaning nothing synthetic or man-made), which falls into two categories: green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon). Green would include any green plant material, but it also includes manure, which is very high in nitrogen. Most food scraps are “green.” Brown material would be things like straw, dead leaves, sawdust and other wood products, cardboard, paper.
- If you collect yard waste from neighbors, make sure they don’t use weed killers and fungicides—they can cause problems in your compost pile.
- The best manure to use is bat guano, which you can purchase, though it’s a bit pricey. Of course, if you know a place where bats sleep… Other very good manures to use are rabbit, sheep, chicken, cow, and horse. Also, plants love fish emulsion (waste), which is “green.” Remember that manure is “green” compost material, whatever its color. It’s ill-advised to ever use human, cat, or dog feces. A good rule of thumb: only use manure from animals that do not eat meat.
- Other things NOT to include: flour or any product in which flour is a main ingredient; any plant material which is diseased or moldy; viable seeds that might germinate, including plants which have gone to seed; animal products such as meat (except fish, which is very high in nitrogen, so is “green”), animal milk, cheese, etc–although vegan versions of these are fine. I won’t kill fish, but bait shops always end up with dead minnows which they throw out, but will save for me if they know I’ll come collect them. So I occasionally make the rounds collecting their dead ones for my compost. If you have an open compost, however, don’t leave the minnows on top of the pile, or they will attract all manner of food-seekers. Cover them with some brown material or bury them deeper in the pile. And again, no human, dog, or cat feces.
Late summer/fall, when you have autumn leaves and garden leavings, is a good time to start composting, but any time works. If it’s spring, and you’re eager to start now, go ahead; there’s no need to wait for fall.
There are many different ways to make compost. You can purchase a variety of types of compost structures from local garden centers or through garden catalogs, or you can build your own quite easily—or not use a structure at all.
- Turning Units or Tumblers: These are containers with a crank or some way to rotate them. You put your compost materials inside and occasionally turn the compost by rotating the container. They come in all sizes, even small enough to fit under your kitchen sink! They require weekly or bi-weekly maintenance.
- I love this idea: Brace a wooden barrel or something similar, between some concrete blocks, and every week or two, remove the blocks on one side and roll the barrel around the yard for a while to turn/aerate it, and then put it back. Doesn’t that sound like loads of fun?
- Do a YouTube search for “how to make a compost tumbler” to find all kinds of ideas and instructions for constructing your own,
- Holding Units: Create a simple, open container to “hold” the materials while they’re becoming compost. You can take some chicken wire or something similar and form a cylinder or rectangle which sits directly on the ground. Or you can build a simple frame out of wood or wood pallets. We formed an outline on the ground with concrete blocks.
- If you form a cylinder with chicken wire or wire fencing, use chain snaps to hold the ends together, and when it’s time to turn the compost, unfasten the snaps, move the cylinder to the side a few feet, then fork the compost back into the cylinder. Of course, this technique requires that you have enough space to move it from one place to another.
- Vermicomposting is composting with red worms. This method may work more quickly than the traditional methods, and may be a good option if your space is limited and/or for indoor composting. (Yeah, I’m talking about having worms in your indoor space. I know it might sound a little icky, but—are you sure you’re an organic gardener?) If kitchen waste is the only material you’ll have available, use the worms.
- You’ll need red wiggler worms, which you can order online, through most garden catalogs, or you can even trot down to your local bait shop—if they don’t have red worms, they’re a “front” for something 🙂
- Before you order your worms, figure out how many you can feed. You’ll need to feed your worms about one pound of organic material for each pound of worms every day. Save your food wastes for a few days, and weigh it to get an idea how much worm food you’re going to be able to provide. When you’ve figured your average daily provision, buy that amount of worms.
- Keep in mind that worms don’t like “hot” foods, so leave out things like garlic, onions, and hot peppers.
- You’ll also need bedding for the worms (shredded paper works great), a bin to contain them, and compost. Beware: worms have been known to crawl out if the surface of the bedding/organic material is too near the rim/opening of the bin.
- Ideally, the temperature should be kept between 60 and 80 degrees F.
- It will take the worms about three to four months to produce enough castings for you to harvest.
- Heap composting: You pick a place and, with no structure of any kind, start creating a heap until it’s about five feet wide and three feet high. If you need more space, make the heap longer instead of higher or wider.
- Lasagna composting: In this method, you put the organic ingredients directly onto the garden beds, and then in spring, you plant directly into it. Understand, however, that the ingredients will need to “cook” for around six months before you plant anything in it, so make note of when you need to stop adding material.
For most of us, adding waste to compost is a more-or-less continuous process. This means you will always have compost “in progress.” You should only use finished compost in your garden and landscape, so you may want to have two to three bins or piles to accommodate various stages of the composting process. You can manage with just one, but using three will give you one bin for finished compost, one that’s “cooking,” and one that’s “fresh.”
- If you’re using the three bin system, toss the ingredients into the first bin for the first four months. Then, switch to tossing the materials into the second bin for about four months. By the time you start filling the third bin, the first bin should be ready to use. You simply rotate between the bins, keeping the stages going.
- If you want to always use the same bin for finished compost, the same one for “cooking” compost, etc., then when you empty the first bin, shovel the materials from the second bin into the first one, and the material from the third bin into the second one, and start fresh on the third one again. This is more work, but has the added advantage of getting it all turned and aerated in the process.
- Ideally, you’ll start the first bin about six to eight months before you’ll need it. If you need compost before then, you may need to buy it.
- Alternatively, using the one bin method, you can scrape the finished compost out from the bottom of the pile of still-decomposing materials that will be on the top of the pile.
- “Inoculate” fresh compost material with the microorganisms needed for the process by mixing in some old compost.
- It should not be tightly sealed, because compost requires oxygen and air flow. Without oxygen, the decomposition process releases ammonia and methane gas—worse for the environment than carbon dioxide, and also the culprits that cause odors in poorly planned methods—like landfills, for instance. The ammonia and methane, along with some other by-products, are toxic to plants, so if you have organic matter that’s been decomposing without oxygen, (in a sealed plastic container or bag, for instance), exposing it to air for a few days before you use it will make it safe for plants. Here are a few ways to provide the vital oxygen:
- Most compost makers “turn” the materials. This can be the labor-intensive method of using a pitchfork or shovel to pick the compost up and literally turn it over, or otherwise mix or “fluff” it up.
- You can also purchase or make barrels which you turn or roll, which turns the compost which is inside the barrel.
- If you have physical limitations (or are just lazy), you can do what we do: just throw it in an open bin and let nature take its course—although it’s a good idea to mix naturally fluffy ingredients like straw and leaves with denser, heavier ones like most food scraps and manure.
- It also needs moisture. It shouldn’t be too wet, though. It should resemble a wrung out sponge, as far as moisture content is concerned. Too much moisture interferes with oxygen flow; too little makes the microorganisms less efficient.
- If you don’t use a container, you should probably cover with a layer of organic materials (leaves, grass cuttings, etc) to help prevent drying out.
- Putting a screen floor in a container, or a layer of gravel in the bottom of one situated directly on the ground can help keep excess moisture drained out.
- Try to include equal amounts of fresh and dry materials.
- Temperature: It works best if it’s kept between 54-65 C or 140-160 F. Although it needs heat, it should be out of direct sunlight.
- It should have an opening convenient for turning and for removing the finished compost.
- Ideal size is three cubic feet (3’x 3’ x3’). That’s large enough to maintain internal temperature, but small enough to allow air flow. No need to be OCD about the size, though. Thirty inches each direction is good enough. Minimum size would be one cubic foot.
- The ratio of brown to green material can determine how efficiently you make compost, with the ideal ratio being thirty brown to one green (in weight), but any ratio will make compost sooner or later—as long as you have some of each. Six parts brown material to four parts green works well. Or five parts brown to one green. Personally, I don’t worry about it. We just add whatever material in whatever amount we have as it’s available.
- Covering food scraps with a layer of brown material can help avoid attracting pests.
- If you use a heap or method in which your compost is directly on the ground, but you have nearby trees or shrubs that want to send up shoots into your compost, try lining the bottom with plastic sheeting or even an old shower curtain.
Now that you’ve got some nutrient-rich compost, what are you going to do with it?
- Mixing it with your garden and landscaping soil will give your plants a feast to grow on and will help fix the structure/texture of even the poorest dirt.
- You can also shovel it onto the ground around trees, shrubs, and established flower beds, but don’t put it right up to the trunks and stems. Leave some space.
- One of my favorite ways to use it is to make compost tea and water plants with it. Take some cheesecloth, put some compost in the middle of it, pull the sides and corners up to make a pouch of sorts and tie it closed. Submerge it in a five gallon bucket of water and leave it overnight or even for a couple of days. Then water your garden and landscape with it.
- You could even turn it into a side-line business, if you’re so inclined. Get the local stores, schools, restaurants, caterers, to save their scraps for you. Set up a regular “pick-up” schedule when you go around and collect the probably free goodies, and then go turn it into compost. When the compost is ready, bag it and sell it. I imagine you could find plenty of customers at the farmer’s market!
Get some more ideas and info from these sources:
- How to Compost
- Composting–Clemson Cooperative Extension (Includes a good trouble-shooting guide)
- Composting 101: How to Compost with or without a Yard (Has great section on composting without a yard)
- Master Composter
- Composting in Washtenaw County (Great info, even if you don’t live in Washtenaw County!)
- Composting pdf (Excellent source of info published by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture)
Some GREAT Videos: (Although there’s some redundancy of info, each of these includes something different and important, if you’ll hang in there.)
- Compost Guide (Includes a video)
- Composting 101: Stupid-Easy Compost Making in Piles and Bins
- How to: Making a Compost Bin for Your Garden for Only about $20
- How to Make Compost the Easy Way
- #1 Reason Your Compost Is Not Composting
- Complete Guide to 6 Week Foolproof Compost in 6 Easy Steps
- Create a Multiple Compost Bin System for Efficient Composting
- Trash Can Compost Bin
- This Might Look Crazy But Actually Works
- No Rules Compost
- Lazy Way to Garden Compost in Place, No Moving, No Turning
- Lazy Man Compost
- How to Make Compost in the Winter Using the Sun, Leaves, and a Black Garbage Bag
- Winter Composting! A Gardener’s Best Friend!
- 5 Tips for Winter Composting
And you can also follow Color Us Empowered on Facebook where I share the best articles, videos, and other information about all aspects of gardening (among other things) that I can find.
And you’ve been throwing those valuable scraps in the landfill! Aren’t you glad you know better now?