Compost - A Guide to Composting
Create Your Own Compost at Home
Whether you’re a gardener looking for inexpensive compost, an urbanite searching for ways to cut down on the stink coming from your trash can, or an environmentalist seeking out ways to reduce your carbon footprint, composting is the solution! This humble material made from your table scraps and yard waste is a solution that solves many problems simultaneously. And composting can be a lot of fun!
Benefits of composting
- The benefits of composting are simple: it’s good for your wallet, your garden and plants, and the environment. This all-round hero has amazing powers to solve some complex problems! Landfills are economic losers, but composting is cost-effective for individuals and communities alike.
- Creating compost from your own food and yard waste will save you money by reducing the amount of fertilizers and pest control chemicals you need.
- The process of composting organic waste results in little to now methane emissions—methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its ability to trap heat in our atmosphere and is a huge problem in landfills.
What goes into the compost bin?
There are two general categories of materials that are put into compost bins:
- Greens are those materials that are high in nitrogen. These act as a source of protein for microbes that do much of the work in your compost pile or bin. They include things like table scraps, leaves and stalks, grass clippings, coffee grounds, and even pet hair.
- Browns provide the carbon to the pile, which is the energy source needed by microbes. Browns generally appear “dead” and can include things like cardboard and paper bags, newspapers and egg cartons, straw, wood chips, dried grass, bark, sawdust, and pine needles.
Compost bins and piles require an ideal ratio of browns to greens in order to produce the right amount of heat and moisture to keep the system going and to prevent pests. Although experts will tell you that the ratio will depend somewhat on the type of system you use, in general if your composter is fed a 2:1 browns to greens diet, it will function very well.
But there are many things you don’t want to put into your compost bin. Unless you’re able to maintain an extremely high temperature in your compost bin (high enough to kill off the spores of weeds and viruses found in some of these materials), we recommend that these do not enter your compost system:
- Animal feces, including human waste
- Bleached paper
- Coal ash
- Colored paper
- Diseased plants
- Materials with high levels of pesticides and other chemical treatments (treated wood, for instance)
- Meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and fatty foods
- Weeds that have gone to seed
- Wood ash
Adding these things to your bin can not only increase the chances that you’ll attract pests, but it may also result in compost that isn’t usable in your vegetable garden because of the risk of dangerous bacteria and viruses. For more information check out our article on what to put in a compost.
How to compost
Composting can be done by anyone. Whether you have a backyard or not, whether you have a garden or indoor plants, and whether your budget is big or small. There are numerous solutions regardless of your circumstances. The basics of composting are as follows:
- Add organic matter in a good greens to browns ratio
- Ensure proper aeration of the material to maintain a thriving decomposition process
- Maintain optimal moisture levels
- Turn occasionally, if desired, to speed up the composting process
- Harvest mature compost
Despite the fact that the steps are relatively simple, there are many ways you can produce compost, with options for nearly every situation.
Types of composting systems
Traditional composters come in one of two configurations: continuous or batch:
- Continuous composters: These produce compost on a gradual but regular basis, allowing you to harvest mature compost throughout the growing season and beyond. They are generally slower but are very low maintenance and highly practical for those wishing a solution that will provide compost year-round. In this category are the one and two bin systems, both of which produce compost constantly. The one bin system is the simplest and requires the least maintenance, while the two bins system is a bit more work, but can result in faster processing times.
- Batch composters: Instead of supplying you with a steady stream of compost, batch composters have beginning and ending dates and can produce mature composter in eight weeks or less. You simply add all of your saved-up organic matter at once, then provide daily aeration by tumbling or spinning the bin to stimulate bacteria activity and maintain a high internal temperature. They’re great if you want results fast, but will require that you either have storage for organic waste between batches, or that you have more than one bin going at the same time.
You may also wish to build your own compost bin, and today, there are plans online for virtually every style of compost bin around. Consider these options to see whether DIYing your way to a compost system is for you:
- 1 or 2 bin backyard composters and wire mesh compost bins - Reduce.org
- The prefect compost bin - Composting101.com
- Jim Barry’s collection of compost bin building plans - Woodworkers Workshop
- How to build a compost bin - DIY Network
- Build a compost bin - MasterComposter.com
- Constructing a garbage can compost bin - University of Kentucky College of Agriculture
- How to build a compost tumbler - ToBuildAGarden.com
- DIY compost tumbler - Astounding.org.uk
Urban composting solutions
A common misconception is that urbanites are excluded from the list of those able to compost. But this is a myth! Today, there are several really great and convenient options that work superbly in urban areas (even the corporate office), whether you live in a tiny apartment or a house with a postage-sized backyard.
- Electric hot composters: These compact little devices use electricity (5 kWh) to create heat which stimulates the decomposition process to transform food waste (including meat and dairy) into compost. NatureMill is the only company producing such consumer composters at this time.
- Microbe composters: Otherwise known as Bokashi composters, these utilize the power of added microbes without electricity and can accommodate any manner of table scraps, including meat. Just do a quick search online to find the many companies selling these compost systems.
- Urban tumblers: Compost tumblers take up much less space than regular compost bins, and by allowing you to tumble or turn the compost, you’ll be able to increase the temperature in the bin and speed the amount of time it takes to get to mature compost. They’re a lot of fun, even for the kids! Install one on your little patio or porch or have the kids roll one of the rollers around in the backyard for a little exercise.
If you’re not much into making your own compost, you may consider donating your organic waste to someone who is. Do you have a neighbor who’s got a compost bin? Or is there someone at your local farmer’s market who’d be willing to take your scraps? Sometimes cities even recycle organics and produces compost for use in public spaces. We think it’s important that we all compost our organics, and so hope you’ll find a solution that works well for you, regardless of your situation. Dive deeper on the subject with our urban composting article.
Here’s another great composting solution for urbanites, but also accessible for country dwellers. Worm composting, also known as vermicomposting, puts red wiggler worms to work on organic wastes. These worms will eat your organic waste and produce worm castings (yes, these are actually worm poo), which is then used as compost for indoor and outdoor plants alike. This type of composting has so many benefits it’s hard to remember them all, but we’ll try:
- It produces some of the most nutritionally-dense compost possible (better than backyard bins and kitchen composters) with high levels of water-soluble nutrients and minerals.
- The finished compost is also high in good bacteria and microbes which is great for plants.
- The natural mucous deposited by the worms with their castings give a slow-release characteristic to the nutrients, giving them superior nourishing ability for plants.
- They take up very little space and can be used in virtually any home or office.
- Worm composting produces finished material faster than most other types of composting.
- Like regular composting, it helps to prevent methane greenhouse gas emissions so it will shrink your carbon footprint.
While there are many configurations and styles of worm bins, the important things to remember about vermicomposting are that you provide the most important ingredients for a thriving worm colony, which include:
- Bedding (newspaper and leaves are best)
- Aeration (to keep adequate levels of oxygen)
- Moisture (worms breathe through their skin)
- Temperature (between 15oC and 20oC)
- pH (ideally at about 7)
- Food (a good mix of browns and greens that’s 50% water by weight; no meat, dairy, or fat)
The size of your worm bin will depend on how much organic waste you produce in an average day. Generally, worms can eat half of their own body weight, so if you produce one pound of waste daily, you’ll need two pounds of worms to consume it all. With a little care and adjustment, you’ll soon find a wonderful rhythm with your worms so that you’re meeting their needs, and they’re meeting yours. Have fun!
For more information check out our worm composting how to guide.
Battling compost pests and rodents
There are some basic techniques you should use regularly to avoid suffering through pest problems with your composter. Follow these and you’ll be well on your way to preventing problems before they start:
- Avoid certain foods: Generally, you should keep things like dairy, meat, greasy foods, fish, and poultry out of your composter as these will attract pests.
- Hide food waste: Always bury your food wastes as deeply as possible in the center of your composter. If storing your food waste before adding it, freeze it to avoid fruit flies, and then put it in a sealed container.
- Seal your bin: Outdoor composters should provide no open spaces through which pests can infiltrate your composter. You can line the bottoms, sides, and lids with mesh and other materials to keep pests from finding their way in.
For more information check our our overview on battling compost pests and rodents.
If you are faced with pest problems, of which there can be many, do a quick search online to find some tips, or consult guides such as these for additional advice:
Tips for avoiding compost odors
As with any compost problem, prevention is the best medicine for keeping your composter free from unpleasant odors.
- Make sure you have a good balance of browns and greens. And overabundance of either will result in a slower composting process which can result in odors as wastes rot in place.
- Ensure proper oxygen levels by aerating the bin or pile, keeping the mix well-balanced between greens and browns, and ensuring the moisture levels aren’t too high.
But at times, you’ll find yourself with a smell issue and will want solutions! For these, we recommend you consult our article on preventing compost odors.
For additional information our friends at EarthEasy have put together a great resource on composting.
1 Common Myths About Recycling. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2010, from Harvard University - Recycling & Solid Waste Removal: http://www.uos.harvard.edu/fmo/recycling/myths.shtml