Composting at Home

By: Christine Hennessey Environment, How to, Organic
Plastic composter in a garden - filled with decaying organic material to be used as a fertilizer for growing home-grown, organic vegetables (shallow DOF)

There’s a reason seasoned gardeners refer to compost as black gold. Rich and dark, this earth-like substance composed of decayed organic material is a powerhouse of nutrients. When incorporated into the soil, plants are healthier, flowers bloom brighter, and pests don’t stand a chance. The best part? Compost can be made at home from ingredients you were planning to throw away, which means it’s not only good for the garden but environmentally responsible as well.

  • It enriches the soil, adding nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen to your garden.
  • When added to loose or sandy soil, it helps your garden retain water. When added to heavy soil, it helps with aeration.
  • It’s an ideal breeding ground for beneficial bacteria and fungi. These produce humus, a rich organic material full of nutrients widely considered the secret to great soil.
  • It helps prevent erosion and protects roots from damage caused by the elements.

Composting is neither complicated nor expensive, and all it takes to start is just a few materials and the right combination of organic matter.

What to Put in Your Compost Pile

Composting requires three ingredients.

  1. The first is brown material, which includes dead leaves, branches, and twigs. These provide carbon.
  2. The second is green material, such as grass clippings, vegetable scraps, and used coffee grounds. These provide nitrogen.
  3. The final ingredient is water, which delivers the moisture needed to break down organic matter.

Get the ratio of materials right—too many scraps and not enough leaves, and your compost will turn into rotting sludge. The ideal ratio is two parts brown to one part green. Make sure materials you add to your compost pile are in the smallest possible pieces. Chop vegetable scraps, shred newspaper, and chip twigs and branches. This increases the surface area and helps materials break down faster.

When building your compost pile, avoid meat, bones, or fatty foods. These require very high temperatures to decompose and can harbor unhealthy bacteria.

Bio-waste for composted earth.
Composting the Kitchen Waste in a plastic compost bin

Tools of the Trade

Kitchen scraps and dead leaves are really the foundation of a compost pile. Still, there are a few tools that will speed up the process and make the endeavor easier.  

Building a Backyard Compost Pile

1. Pick a spot

Find a dry, shady spot for your compost pile, ideally near a water source or within reach of a hose. Place your compost pile directly on the earth—asphalt or concrete will inhibit the flow of oxygen.

2. Set a date

You can start a compost pile at any time of the year. If possible, fall is ideal. It offers easy access to an excellent balance of materials, such as grass clippings (for nitrogen) and fallen leaves (for carbon).

3. Measure it out

Composting is an aerobic process, which means it needs oxygen. It also produces heat as materials break down. If your compost pile is too small, it won’t heat up, and if it’s too big, it will be difficult to manage. The ideal range is between 3×3 feet (by 3 feet deep) and 5×5 feet (by 5 feet deep).

4. Kick it off

To spark the composting process, throw in a few handfuls of garden soil or finished compost.

5. Mix it up

Compost isn’t a set it and forget it endeavor. About once a week, mix the pile with a shovel or pitchfork. This allows more oxygen to flow through the pile.  

6. Keep it moist

Add water to your compost pile as needed. It should be damp to the touch, but not soaking wet.

7. Be patient

Depending on the size of your pile, it can take anywhere from six months to two years to finish the composting process.

8. Use it up

To add your black gold to the garden, simply work it into the soil a week or two before planting, or spread it around your plants.

Natural, processed homemade compost in a plastic barrel with visible earthworms and the remains of waste. Horizontal full frame composition

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