If you haven’t already begun composting at home, there are many reasons to get started – and it is easier to do than you might think. A small shift in how you dispose of organic materials can contribute to the betterment of the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency has assessed that food scraps and yard waste together currently make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away – which could easily be repurposed as compost.
Let us explore the benefits and foundational information to get you started with composting:
Why should I start composting?
- Improves your soil health and structure, helping you yield better growth and quality results in your garden.
- When we dispose of food scraps in a standard trash can, it goes directly to a landfill. This takes up additional space in landfills and, when mixed with other garbage, can produce harmful substances such as leachate and methane which can be harmful to the environment.
- Compost reduces the need for fertilizing, as compost itself is a natural source of many of the nutrients plants need to thrive.
- Soils that have been exposed to toxic materials (such as pesticides or fuels) can return to form as a healthy soil faster with the addition of composted soil.
- Compost helps save you money by reducing the need to use synthetic or store-bought fertilizers because compost naturally provides essential nutrients for the soil.
- Because soil helps retain moisture, you will need to water your plants less frequently and can reduce your water bill.
What food can go in a compost bin?
The scraps of food that you don’t eat can be directly contributed to your compost bin to create a nutrient-rich soil additive, however not all food scraps should be included. Scraps to avoid include dairy products, meat, bones, and fat (including butter and oil), as they may not only disrupt the natural balance of your soil but can also attract pests or leave an unpleasant smell lingering.
Now that we know what not to compost, here are foods that will make a great addition to a thriving compost pile
- Produce scraps: Consider composting fruit and vegetable waste such as cores, peels, and seeds, or even full pieces that have become over-ripe or moldy.
- Breads and grains: Breads and grains can be welcome additions to a compost mix, as most food products made with flour are fair game. This includes bread, crackers, pasta, rice, and more. The caveat with breads and grains is that they will need to be significantly buried in your compost pile (as they can also attract unwanted animals), but as a nutrient source they are good to include.
- Coffee or tea waste: Throwing used coffee grounds in the trash is truly a waste, as they are a powerful addition to any compost bin. Coffee grounds contribute nitrogen, minerals, carbohydrates, and vitamins to the soil. Loose tea leaves and tea bags can also be utilized in your compost, but just be sure to not include any tea-bag staples along with it.
- Egg shells: While eggs alone should not be added to your compost, rinsed and dried eggshells will add more value to your pile. Because they are made of calcium carbonate and also contain nitrogen and phosphoric acid, eggshells can help to balance your soil and help your plants build stronger cell walls.
What is the best method of composting?
While there is a litany of modified composting techniques, the two primary methods used to compost at home are backyard composting and indoor composting. The method you choose to use will likely be dependent on the space you have available. Because any composting is better than adding more to landfill piles, whatever method you can maintain and suits your lifestyle will be best for you.
If you have a shady and dry spot in your yard that is close to a water source, it could make for a good location for a backyard compost pile or bin. As suitable organic materials are collected, just add them to the compost pile. You can moisten dry materials as they are added if necessary. As the compost pile has had time to establish, you can begin to mix in grass clippings and other green materials. As food scraps are added, bury them under 10+ inches of compost material for better decomposition and to not attract pests.
For this method, you may want to invest in helpful gardening tools (if you do not already have them) such as a square-point shovel, water hose with a spray head, and a pitchfork. It should also be noted that bin composting can be utilized outside as well, which reduces the need to provide adequate shelter for the space.
The end product of backyard composting will give your soil a natural boost and serve as a fertilizer for your garden. Compost will also improve the overall texture of your soil, and improve its ability to drain and retain water more efficiently.
Others may not want to sacrifice space in their well-maintained yard, or will appreciate the convenience of having an indoor composting bin that is easily accessible and close to the food-prep area. These special types of composting bins can be purchased at gardening supply or hardware stores if you are not interested in building one yourself.
A notable advantage of indoor composting is the climate is relatively controlled in your home. This makes it easy to compost year-round at a consistent temperature. Outdoor compost piles should have protection from direct sunlight and rainfall, and the composting efficiency can slow dramatically during the prolonged cold periods.
How to make compost
Making compost is a relatively simple process once you have determined your preferred method and have dedicated a location to start a compost pile. Regardless of how you approach composting at home, you should follow the guiding principle of including three basic ingredients:
- Brown materials: These are carbon-based or carbohydrate-rich materials such as dead leaves, branches, twigs, wood chips, sawdust, corn stalks, straw, shredded newspaper, and torn cardboard. Not only will these materials provide a food source for your compost’s microorganisms (beneficial bacteria), it will also add bulk and assist in providing airflow through your pile.
- Green materials: These are nitrogen-based materials you discard, such as fruit and vegetable waste, plant and grass clippings, coffee grounds, tea bags and leaves, eggshells, manure, and recently pulled weeds. These items help the microorganisms in your compost grow and multiply quickly.
- Water: This aids in the decomposition of the compost and helps to keep the pile’s temperature regulated. Water also helps the organisms that help turn your scraps into compost to thrive.
The combination of these materials will serve as a host for the compost microorganisms that will work constantly to break down matter. Their efforts create carbon dioxide and heat, which must remain between 90 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit to maximize their potential.
Much of learning how to compost comes down to developing a sense of the ratios needed for the materials you are using. Having roughly three to four parts brown materials to every one part green materials in your pile or bin is recommended. It is also helpful to alternate layers of this organic matter within your pile whenever possible. You will have signs to determine if your current ratio is appropriate or not. If your compost pile is not heating up enough, you can add more green material to the compost. If your compost pile is giving off a foul odor, you likely need to add more brown material.
Water is an essential part of your compost and the mini-ecosystem within it. Compost piles should be about 40 to 60 percent water, and you should aim for your compost to have the consistency of a wrung-out wet sponge for adequate moisture content of your batch.
While not an essential “ingredient” per se, air is also a factor of an efficient compost effort. Because some of the beneficial bacteria in your compost need oxygen to stay alive and keep eating, make sure to assist with airflow by turning your compost or poking holes through your pile on a regular basis.
Regardless of the composting method you use, providing it with a covering will aid the composting process by helping with moisture and heat retention. If you have gone the backyard composting route, a cover will also prevent your compost pile from being over-watered by rainfall.
The success of your efforts to compost at home will largely depend on your ability to incorporate these factors together to create an ideal environment for breaking down organic matter.
How long does it take to make compost?
Timing to make compost is largely dependent on your method of composting, the types of materials within the compost pile, heat, and moisture. If you are backyard composting, you will know that your compost is ready to use when the material at the bottom is dark and rich in color. This can occur anywhere between two months and two years to achieve. If you are using an indoor compost bin, your finished compost should be ready to use between two and five weeks.
Regardless of the method you use, composting takes patience and persistence to achieve. However, a successful end result is certainly worth the wait.
How to start a compost bin
Hopefully, you are now inspired to start composting and now feel like some of the mystery of how to compost has faded away. Getting started is as easy as repurposing the waste you are already generating. Resist the urge to overcomplicate your process, and follow these quick steps to get your compost operation going.
- Decide on a method: Determine whether you want to begin composting inside or outside. This likely depends on your lifestyle and the space you have available.
- Determine your type of compost container: Whether you are purchasing a container or making your own, get a dedicated receptacle for your compost. Even if it is a standard box or bin, the most important thing is that it is easily accessible for you. A specialty bin may offer helpful features that assist with airflow, heat, turning, and dispensing – but these features are an added bonus.
- Gather and accumulate materials: begin to set aside materials (such as food scraps, yard waste, and grass clippings) as they accumulate with the intention of using them in your compost pile. This extra step of managing your scraps can help you regulate the ratios of materials you are contributing to your pile to help make it as effective as possible.
- Layer and manage: Add waste to your compost pile in layers that help meet the three or four parts brown materials to every one part green materials. As you go on, monitor moisture and heat levels, and enhance airflow by turning your compost or creating holes within the batch.
- Create a finished product: After all those food scraps, grass clippings, and various waste items have yielded a finished compost product, it is time to put it to work in your yard. But how do you know when it is ready?
- The pile should be cool to the touch. If you have an outdoor pile, the presence of insects or earthworms is a good indication that the pile has begun to cool down. When it has completely finished, the temperature of your pile should be similar to the air outside.
- The compost should be dark brown throughout with a soft, crumbly texture with none of the original food scraps and organic materials recognizable. Note that wood products often will not decompose quickly and may be salvageable for your next pile. It can be helpful to sift your completed compost to separate any larger wood debris or stubborn pieces.
- Make sure the smell of the compost is earthy and sweet. If it still has unpleasant odors, it is likely that the compost needs more time to fully process.
- Utilize and repeat: Put that compost to use. A completed compost will be rich in beneficial organic nutrients which it will slowly release over time to any soil it is added to. It will also improve the disease resistance of your plants and help balance pH problems. You can also use your compost as mulch, potting soil, or to rejuvenate an aerated lawn. Compost is truly a sustainable and environmentally friendly way of repurposing scraps for the greater benefit of your plants, lawn, and garden. Now that you have completed your first batch of compost, it is time to start a new one.