By Sam Wasson
Updated Oct 14, 2022
Backyard composting is a fantastic way to help revitalize your garden by adding valuable nutrients and organic material to your soil. This eco-friendly practice also helps reduce the amount you contribute to landfills by recycling kitchen waste, garden waste, yard trimmings, and certain kinds of trash. By composting, you can reduce the garbage your household generates by up to 25%. It also helps you steer clear of harmful synthetic fertilizers and methane-producing manures.
While home compost is undoubtedly great for your garden and the environment, there are some easy mistakes you can make once you begin. Factors like your bin placement, what the bin is made of, what materials you put into it, and a material’s moisture can all affect the quality of your compost. Even worse, food waste like meat and grain can attract harmful pests, causing serious problems for your backyard. We want to help you avoid these all too common pitfalls with the top do’s and don’ts of composting.
When creating your compost pile, you want a diverse range of materials to create a balanced, nutrient-rich mixture. Composting materials are broken down into two broad groups, green and brown. Green materials are filled with moisture and are nitrogen-rich, mostly comprising foodstuffs, eggshells, fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, and grass clippings. Brown materials are drier and filled with carbon, including dry leaves, sawdust, hay, mulch, newspaper, napkins, and paper towels. A balanced 60% brown and 40% green materials are needed to create a mix filled with all the nutrients and organic matter needed to promote healthy plant growth.
To ensure proper aeration and moisture control, you’ll need to layer your compost pile. Think of this as making a compost “sandwich” with the different materials we mentioned earlier. Start with coarse materials like sticks, corncobs, etc., at the bottom. This bottom layer will allow air and water to pass through easily. This coarse material will be the foundation of the compost pile and should be around 6 inches deep. Next, you’ll begin adding the proper layers of the pile, and you’ll want to have a ratio of one-third green material to two-third brown material. This ratio will be represented in the thickness of your layers, as all green layers will be 3 inches deep, and all brown layers will be 6 to 8 inches deep. Once your foundation is set, directly add a 3-inch layer of green material, followed by a thin layer of topsoil. Next, add your 6 to 8-inch layer of brown material, followed by a “layer” of water. Repeat this layering process (excluding the base layer) until you’ve run out of materials.
Moisture is a necessary part of the composting process. If your mixture is too dry, brown materials won’t break down quickly, taking up to two years to break down fully. If it’s too wet, it will turn into a sludge-like mess. You’ll want your pile to be damp but not soggy. When you check your pile, if it’s too dry, be sure to add water; if it’s too wet, hold off on adding water. If you’re in an area with consistent rainfall or high humidity, you’ll likely not need to add water very often.
Ensuring that your compost pile is aerated is essential for good decomposition. Your compost bin turns organic matter into fertilizer through microbes that break down materials. These microbes require moisture and oxygen to survive, and if your pile does not contain a healthy amount of both, they will die, and your decomposition rate slows. To keep your bin filled with oxygen, you’ll need to turn your compost pile about once a month. Some compost bins can flip the barrel upside down (this device is called a tumbler), making turning an easy task. For those with DIY plastic bins, or literal piles, you’ll need to remove and manually flip the layers — this is often done with a shovel or pitchfork. Some gardeners keep two bins or pile locations to empty one into another, making the process quicker and easier.
When creating your pile or placing your bin, you’ll want to ensure it has access to the ground. Earthworms, certain insects, and other microorganisms from the soil greatly improve the quality of your compost and make your materials decompose faster. Having your pile make contact with the ground makes it easier for these subsurface waste control specialists to get into your compost heap. If you use a DIY plastic bin, all you have to do is cut out the bottom and remove the wheels (if it has any) so the bottom layer of the pile touches the soil.
To help maintain ideal temperatures and moisture levels, you’ll want your pile to be just the right size. If your pile is too big, it will dry out too quickly, and if it’s too small, it will become too hot and hold too much moisture in the center. Your compost pile should be 3 feet on each side and between 3 to 5 feet high.
Even in ideal conditions, composting takes time. Bins and piles can take two months to over a year to produce finished compost. So while composting is well worth the effort, you’re in it for the long haul.
While worms might be great for your compost, not all insects are as beneficial. If left open and exposed, your compost bin can attract pests like flies, gnats, fruit flies, and earwigs. While these creepy-crawlies won’t damage or otherwise weaken your compost, they certainly won’t help it. The true problem arises from these pests infesting other locations on your property, like your home, lawn, or garden, after the compost heap has attracted them. An open bin also makes your compost heap accessible to larger critters like raccoons, who won’t hesitate to rummage around and leave a huge mess. A compost bin with a strong, preferably lockable lid is typically ideal to avoid these problems.
The most important thing you should know about composting is all the different materials you can add to your heap. Here is a quick list of commonly composted items:
When creating a composting bin or pile, you’ll want to choose an ideal location. It should always be at least 30 feet away from your home, as many of the insects it will attract would be more than happy to migrate indoors. Most gardeners recommend placing your compost heap right next to your garden.
Adding the wrong materials is just about the worst thing you can do to a compost pile. Adding kitchen scraps like meat, cheese, and grains can result in extremely foul odors, molds, and the attraction of pests. Here is a list of all the things you never want to add to a compost pile:
Composting is a fantastic way to produce protein-rich fertilizer for your vegetable garden while reducing your impact on landfills. While creating a compost heap isn’t terribly difficult, there are plenty of common mistakes you can make along the way. As long as you remember some of the tips and advice on this list, your compost pile should be healthy, efficient, and produce high-grade fertilizer in no time.
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