Making a compost bin

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Compost is decomposed organic material, such as leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen waste. It provides many essential nutrients for plant growth and therefore is often used as fertilizer. Compost also improves soil structure so that soil can easily hold the correct amount of moisture, nutrients and air. It improves the texture of both clay soils and sandy soils, making either type rich, moisture retentive, and loamy.

Compost is one of nature’s best mulches and soil amendments. Most gardeners know the value of this rich, dark, earthy material in improving the soil and creating a healthful environment for plants. Understanding how to make and use compost is in the public interest, as the problem of waste disposal continues to grow.

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A few of the many benefits of compost are:

  • Reduction in garbage volume.
  • A rich, natural fertilizer cuts back on use of chemical fertilizers.
  • Improves soil aeration and drainage.
  • Helps control weeds.
  • Decreases the need for costly watering.

The following tips are from the River Keepers, and for more information on building your own composter, go to riverkeepers.org.

  • As soon as decomposition begins, the volume of the pile will decrease. Don’t be tempted to add more materials at this point, as this resets the clock on that batch.
  • You will maximize your composting efforts if you aerate by turning or mixing the heap about once a week. A garden fork or hay fork work well.
  • Finished compost is usually less than half the volume of the materials you started with, but it’s much denser. When finished it should look, feel and smell like rich, dark soil. You should not be able to recognize any of the items you originally placed in the pile.
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Some common problems to watch for are:

  • If the compost is too wet, turn it more frequently or add dry brown material.
  • If the pile doesn’t heat up, add more green material to the compost; may need to add water; may need to aerate.
  • If there is an ammonia or rotten egg smell, turn the compost or add brown material to dry it out.
  • If large amounts of dropped apples or kitchen scraps attract wasps or other unwelcome pests, turn more frequently.

Here’s some ways to use finished compost:

  • Mix compost into the soil to improve it.
  • Spread compost on lawn to fill in low spots.
  • Use as mulch for landscaping and gardening.
  • Mix compost into potted plants.
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Key materials for composting are nitrogen-rich ‘greens’ and carbon-rich ‘browns,’ water, and air. Examples of greens are green leaves, coffee grounds/filters, tea bags, plant trimming, fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells and fresh grass clippings. Examples of browns are dead plants, sawdust from untreated lumber, twigs, and dried grasses, weeds, straw and leaves. Water allows microbes in your compost to grow and help decompose material. The compost should be moist. Air aids in decomposition and controls odours. A good recipe is one part green to four parts brown.

Some items not to compost are:

  • Meat, fish and animal fats — These materials may attract unwanted visitors to your compost pile.
  • Shredded newspapers or office paper — The paper may contain chemicals that are not good for your compost. Recycle them instead.
  • Ashes from your grill — Wood ashes can be very useful in small quantities, but BBQ grill ashes should NEVER go into your compost pile.
  • Dog and cat feces — These materials can add diseases to your compost, and they have an unpleasant odour. Use chicken, horse, cow, and rabbit manure instead.
  • Sawdust from treated lumber — Sometimes lumber is treated with harmful chemicals.

With a small investment of time, you can contribute to the solution to a community waste disposal problem, while at the same time enriching the soil and improving the health of your yard and garden.

Why should I compost?

There are lots of good reasons to compost. Save money, save resources, improve your soil and reduce your impact on the environment. Regardless of your reasons, composting is a win/win scenario. Good for you and good for the environment.

Adding compost to your garden will not only fertilize, it actually feeds your soil with a diversity of nutrients and microorganisms that will improve plant growth. Chemical fertilizers on the other hand provide a quick burst of a limited number of nutrients that can wash away into our rivers and streams. Compost also increases soil stability, improves drainage and helps retain moisture.

Save Money!

  • No need to buy chemical fertilizers. Compost is free!
  • Compost helps to retain soil moisture so you water less.
  • The nutrients from compost are not washed away by rainfall. No waste!

Save Resources!

  • Keeps a valuable resource out of the landfill.
  • Waste less water since compost helps with moisture retention.
  • Reduce civic costs for waste collection and thereby reduce fuel use.
  • Extend the life of landfills. Remember residential waste is 40% compostable materials.

Improve Your Soil!

  • Compost returns valuable nutrients to the soil to help maintain soil quality and fertility.
  • Compost is a mild, slow release, natural fertilizer that won’t burn plants like chemical fertilizers.
  • It also improves texture and air circulation for heavier soils (like Manitoba gumbo) and helps to increase the water retention of sandy soils.
  • Provides organic matter and nutrients which will improve plant growth and lead to better yields.

Reduce Your Impact!

  • Reduce Green House Gases (GHG’s) in two ways:
  1. Reduce Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from vehicles used to transport waste
  2. Organics in landfills break down anaerobically (without oxygen) to produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas 21 times more harmful than CO2.
  • Reduce the impact of chemical fertilizers that runoff into our rivers, lakes and streams.
  • Buried organics can react with metals in the landfill to produce toxic leachate, a potential source of groundwater pollution.

By composting you complete the cycle by returning what you grow back to the soil to help you grow!

Composting Video

Now that you know all the great reasons for composting, why not learn just how easy it is to do. With the help of a couple of young filmmakers and some funding from Assiniboine Credit Union, we were able to produce this fun video on the basics of composting. Enjoy!

Questions about composting? Call our compost info line:

204 925 3777 or Toll Free: 1 866 394 8880

What Is the Difference Between Compost and Fertilizer?

The simplest way to distinguish between compost and fertilizer is to remember this: Compost feeds the soil and fertilizer feeds the plants.

Fertilizer adds to the soil’s nutrient supply, but instead of feeding the soil food web, the ingredients in fertilizers are intended to meet the needs of fast-growing plants. While recommended amounts of compost can be quite general, fertilizer application rates are based on the needs of plants. Either organic or conventional fertilizers work well for vegetables, but organic fertilizers have been shown to be friendlier to the soil food web. Chemical fertilizer can also feed composting, but continual use may throw soil chemistry out of balance and discourage microbes. See fertilizer to explore your fertilizer options.

Compost and organic fertilizers can work together. The organic matter in compost sponges up the fertilizer nutrients until they are needed by plants. Compost also provides many nutrients that plants need in small amounts, such as boron. You can use fertilizer without compost, but why miss an opportunity to increase your soil’s fertility and its ability to hold moisture? Soil that is regularly amended (i.e., improved) with compost becomes wonderfully dark and crumbly and often requires much less fertilizer compared to soil that has not yet benefited from regular helpings of compost.

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Time or money invested in your garden’s soil always brings the best returns: healthy, vigorous plants and great harvests. And when you keep yard waste and kitchen scraps from the landfill you’re doubly rewarded. You can buy ready-made, organic compost to get a jump start. But it’s easy and inexpensive to make your own with the right materials and good equipment.

Here you’ll find all you need to know about getting started as well as maintaining the process no matter which composting method you’ve chosen. There’s basic techniques and time-tested wisdom as well as guides to compost tumblers and the various compost aides — the best starters, the most functional and efficient containers, and practical, useful tools like compost thermometers — that will make your composting efforts efficient and rewarding. You can also learn a lot by going through Planet Natural’s complete line of composting bins, tumblers and equipment.

3 Elements for Making Perfect Compost

It’s time to let you in on a little secret: soil building done like this is the perfect lazy person’s gardening project. Unlike weeding or double-digging, which take lots of time and physical effort, a compost pile pretty much takes care of itself. Build it right, and it will transform your growing expectations.

1. Start with a container. We’re dealing with decomposing organic material, folks, so the structure doesn’t need to be fancy. You just need some sort of way to hold all of the ingredients together so the beneficial bacteria that break down the plant matter can heat up and work effectively.

Compost bins are of two types, stationary and rotating. Both types must have their contents turned periodically to provide oxygen and combine the decaying materials. Stationary bins can be as simple as well-ventilated cage made from wire fence sections or wooden crates assembled from a kit. A well-designed bin will retain heat and moisture, allowing for quicker results. Then there’s compost tumblers, easy to turn bins that speed up the process — compost in weeks, not months or years — by frequent oxygen infusions and heat retention. Select one based on how much plant matter (grass, leaves, weeds, stalks and stems from last year’s garden) you have at your disposal, how large your yard is, and how quickly you need to use the finished product.

When using the stationary bin method, locate the pile in a sunny location so that it has as much heat as possible. If it’s in the shade all day, decomposition will still happen, but it will be much slower, especially when freezing temps arrive in the fall. Compost tumblers can also take heat advantage of being placed in direct sunlight.

2. Get the ingredient mix right. A low-maintenance pile has a combination of brown and green plant matter, plus some moisture to keep the good bacteria humming. Shredded newspaper, wood chips and dry leaves are ideal for the brown elements; kitchen waste and grass clippings are perfect for the green add-ins.

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Skip meat, fish and dairy for outdoor bins because they tend to attract pests like mice, raccoons and dogs. If you can’t bear the thought of sending your leftovers to the landfill, there are clever systems that turn them into superfood for your plants.

If you’re using a simple container, it’s best to start heaping the ingredients right on the ground, starting with chunky material like small branches or woody stems on the bottom for good airflow. Every time you add green material, add some brown as well to keep a good moisture balance and create air pockets.

It’s a good idea to give your new pile a jump-start to get the process started. There are several great activators that are ready to go right out of the box. No need to mix it in well. Fold in a couple shovelfuls of garden soil rich in organic matter and let the natural process begin. (See moisture below.)

3. Remember a few simple chores. Taking care of a compost pile is extremely basic, but a wee bit of care makes a huge difference. Add material regularly to give the happy bacteria some fresh food to consume and enough insulation to keep the process warm.

Turn the pile with a pitchfork or compost aerator every week or two to make sure that all of the materials are blended in and working together. After you’ve mixed things up, grab a handful to see if it’s slightly damp. Too little moisture will slow the decomposition process and too much will leave you with a slimy mess.

In a few months, your finished product should be a dark, crumbly soil that smells like fresh earth.

Avoid Common Mistakes

It’s hard to mess up compost, but we’re happy to offer a little direction so you get off to the best start.

  • Don’t start too small. The breakdown process needs a critical mass in order to do its job. However, certain bins work well for small amounts of material, so choose a product for your specific needs.
  • Keep things moist. It’s easy to walk away and forget that there’s an active process going on, so check the pile regularly, especially during hot, dry weather (see Managing Moisture).
  • Don’t depend on one material. A combination of different textures and nutrients created by the disintegration of many different plants will give your plants a gourmet diet that helps create disease and pest resistance. Think about it — a huge clump of grass clippings just sticks together in a huge mat that hangs around for years. Add some leaves, stir, and natural forces like water, air and heat go to work quickly!
  • Don’t get overwhelmed. This isn’t rocket science, so jump in and try, even if you don’t have a clue. You’ll soon see what works and what doesn’t.

Inspiration

In Montana, where I live, the Holy Grail of gardeners is a homegrown tomato. The optimistic folks who try to outsmart the over-in-a-flash growing season, chilly summer nights, skimpy rainfall and marauding gophers or deer are courageous, indeed. I know a woman who tried every trick in the book to grow tomatoes she could brag about. She started them early, protected them from wind and cold, and staked them up oh-so carefully.

If you’re looking for a fast, convenient way to compost your kitchen throw-outs, grass clippings and organic yard waste, our compact unit is just right for you! The Compact ComposTumbler quickly recycles it into nutrient-rich compost.

No luck. They always turned out puny, mealy and tasteless.

Last year, she decided to focus on the soil instead. After reading up on the nutrients that plants need to thrive, she decided to mix compost into her garden and see what happened.

The experiment was a complete success! The heirloom tomatoes were so luscious and tempting that someone actually stole the crop out of the woman’s backyard. She was so miffed she actually filed a police report about it!

Compost is no guarantee that your vegetables (and flowers!) will inspire theft, or at least jealousy, in your neighborhood But compost rich in organic materials is the fastest ticket to healthy, productive plants that reward your hard work with beautiful blooms and bountiful harvests. And you take control of the compost you spread when you make it yourself: no sprayed grass clippings, no sewage waste (see What’s In Commercial Compost). You can guarantee the quality of your home-made product. We hope we’ve encouraged you get started, if you haven’t already. Compost is your best garden investment.

How to Make Compost

Mangled coffee filters and their kin can be unsightly, however, and aged leftovers sometimes attract unwanted animals and insects in search of food. For these reasons, many composters divert their kitchen waste into an enclosed composter or the chicken yard before they combine it with bulkier pulled weeds, spent crops, and other yard and garden waste in a slow compost pile.

“To keep from feeding critters, our kitchen waste first goes into three black compost containers until unrecognizable. Then we add it to our big fenced-in bin for yard waste. We make pounds and pounds of compost this way,” says reader Mary Conley of Omaha, Neb.

I use the same system at my house, capturing the yucky stuff in a composter and then mixing the transitional-stage kitchen waste into my garden compost piles two or three times a year. I like the “out of sight, out of mind” benefit of an enclosed composter so much that I have two — a black plastic model that sits in the garden and a garbage can peppered with air holes that’s stationed at the corner of my deck in winter, which saves me many steps through ice, snow and mud (see illustration of a free garbage can compost bin).

Other options: On the Gulf Coast, John Burris has a special barrel for composting kitchen waste, but he uses a big outdoor heap to make compost from his yard, garden and pasture waste. In California, Nell Wade puts her kitchen scraps and shredded mail into a worm bin, and she makes slow compost from her garden waste in twin bins constructed from shipping pallets (see the wooden shipping pallets compost bin).

Setting up a two-phase system need not be expensive. I have kept happy composting worms in a modified plastic storage bin, and a garbage can with rusted-out holes in the bottom would quickly become a composter at my house. On the other hand, the expense of building or buying a compost tumbler — the ultimate in enclosed composters — is warranted in some situations, which include heavy pressure from fire ants, or the recurrent presence of unwanted animals such as raccoons, rats or snakes. If nuisance animals have established habitat near your property, the best way to avoid problems is to raise your compost off the ground in a secure container.

“I have a drum composter that is insulated, which results in much higher heat so I can even compost scrap meat and fish. It has a double bin, so I’m always composting. We’re in the far suburbs, and it keeps the rodents away because it’s on a stand,” says Jan Tucker of California. Whether purchased or homemade, off-the-ground drum composters (also called compost tumblers) take a few months to pick up biological speed. After the walls and crevices become well-colonized with microbes, a compost tumbler is quite efficient.

At the other end of the spectrum are gardeners who keep compost super-simple: They let their soil do it. “I keep a coffee can in my freezer and fill it up with whatever is to be composted. When it’s full, I take it out, dig a hole in the garden, throw the whole mess in there and cover it back up with dirt. I call it ‘direct composting,’ and it works for me. I have worms as big as my fingers,” says Roberta Lott of St. Louis.

I, too, participate in direct composting (sometimes called “trench composting”) in fall when I have buckets of fruit waste that would otherwise attract yellow jackets. Buried in my permanent beds in September, the fruit trimmings are gone by the time the soil warms in spring.

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MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long prefers “sheet composting.” “I have a local farmer who brings me free bales of old hay, plus my office mates bring me their bagged grass clippings,” she says. “I use them to mulch the paths throughout the garden. The next spring, the hay and grass have decomposed. I scoop the top layer of enriched soil from the paths into the growing beds and put down another layer of hay mulch.”

As for outdoor bins, your compost won’t care whether the bins are handmade wonder bins, enclosures made from used shipping pallets, or a simple circle of wire fencing. With enough time and moisture, whatever you put in the bin will rot. Giving a compost pile at least one wall, however, goes a long way toward conserving moisture. The wall(s) can be made of wood, concrete blocks or packed earth. One reason pallet bins are so popular is that they retain moisture better than open piles while keeping the composting area free of debris.

Many gardeners make use of the passive soil improvement that occurs beneath compost heaps to prepare future garden space. “I compost my yard waste in an area where I want a new raised bed. I just keep piling it on and it just keeps composting itself,” says Roberta Lott. In the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia, Julie Patrick Clark says she finally got smart after 27 years of making compost. “I started building a compost pile beside each of my nine raised beds. No more hauling compost all over the place.”

Most gardeners would like to make more compost without bringing in risky materials (Keep Your Garden Safe From Killer Compost is about pesticides that persist in compost). One way to add bulk to your compost pile is to grow more cover crops right in your garden. In a hand-tended garden, most cover crops are pulled rather than turned under, and armloads of vetch, cereal grains or buckwheat will transform a sleeper heap into a slow smoker. Also check whether overripe produce is available from local markets or organic restaurants. Extra compostable material is a resource that may become even more valuable when animals enter the picture.

Composting With Animals

Most farmyard animals play key roles in a household’s waste management stream. Chickens find joy in sloppy buckets of kitchen waste, which they peck and shred until little is left. Many growers have figured out how to make compost by letting the chicken run double as the composting area, like the folks at Salt of the Earth Urban Farm in Portland, Ore.: “Our main compost bin is in the chicken run, where the hens snack, scratch and turn the pile — and add their manure to the mix.” Others, like Helen Cano of Ferndale, N.Y., give their girls kitchen waste right in the coop. “What they don’t eat, they mix with the straw on the floor of the coop. By the time this comes out of the coop, it is well-mixed, almost-complete compost. From there it either goes on the garden or into the compost pile for future use,” she says.

Another idea that requires less cleanup is to maintain the compost area as a fenced-in daytime activity area for your chickens. “I just pile stuff on, add some water, and let the chickens into the compost yard every couple of weeks to turn the piles. In no time I have beautiful black gold,” says Kevin Kidd of Valley Springs, Calif.

Mike Warren has found that having his chickens visit his well-managed compost pile works out better than feeding them kitchen scraps in their run, which attracted unwanted varmints. “They still get in there, turning it over while looking for slugs and bugs,” he says.

My research on making compost with companion chickens led me to fear-filled message board threads on chickens picking up parasites from eating earthworms and other moving things, so I called my brother. “In 34 years of veterinary practice, I have never been called to a parasite situation in a home flock,” says Andrew Duke, DVM, of Mobile, Ala. “It’s probably because home flocks are so much cleaner than commercially raised chickens.”

Chickens are great for making compost, and so are other manure-producing animals such as rabbits, goats and even horses. In Virginia, organic farmer Dennis Dove keeps a pastured horse that makes good compost even better. Throwing layers of horse manure on the farm’s veggie-based compost makes the manure go much further than it would if used as a single-ingredient soil amendment.

In the same region, reader Liz Wallace has worked out a plan that makes the most of the manure from her chickens and goats. “I have multiple piles and one big container. The container gets the table scraps the chickens don’t eat and fallen leaves, one pile gets the goat and chicken poop and bedding, and the other pile gets everything else (yard waste other than leaves, small woody stuff, etc.). I do it this way because the goat and chicken poop breaks down and can be used pretty fast, so I don’t want to mix it with things that take longer,” she says. “The table scraps are wet enough that they need dry stuff mixed in with them to decompose aerobically, and I leave the third pile alone to decompose slowly, in about a year.”

At your house, an ideal composting system might include an enclosed composter, semi-permanent bins that can be moved to wherever you’re planning new beds, temporary pens for leaves or other seasonal materials, or perhaps all of the above plus a worm bin, too. Each refinement you make in your composting system should better accommodate your home’s waste disposal needs and give a good return for your soil. Eventually, you will learn how to make compost in ways perfectly tailored to you, your home and your garden.

Sizing Up Composters

Using an enclosed composter is one of the easiest ways to make compost from kitchen waste, and you can choose a model that fits your needs and your budget. If you need something small that can be kept indoors, by all means consider a worm bin. Available in three colors, a multi-tray Worm Factory costs about $100 and is easier to maintain compared with a homemade worm bin. For outdoors, I was able to buy a basic Earth Machine through my local compost education program for $35 — about the cost of a good rolling garbage can. Because the main purpose of an enclosed composter is to capture kitchen waste, it need not be large. In five years, I have never completely filled my 80-gallon composter, and the garbage can I use to collect kitchen waste in winter works wonderfully despite holding a mere 30 gallons.

Many composters lack in the good looks department, but you can easily change that. A friend wrapped her garbage-can composter with a bamboo roll-up shade, and it looked so good she moved the can to her patio. Tired of looking at a plastic tarp, another friend used brocade draperies from a thrift store to artfully disguise her outdoor bin. On a visit to Pennsylvania, I once saw a beautiful bin made from hand-woven willow. If you don’t like the way your composter looks, change it!

Quick Tips for Making Compost

• Any plant material that’s now dead (or needs to be) can be composted. Adding meat and oily food products is not recommended, as they take longer to decompose.

• Leaves, old plants, fruit and veggie trimmings, weathered mulches and pulled weeds provide volume in a compost pile, which needs to be big — at least 3 square feet — to maintain moisture well.

• Veggie scraps are naturally moist, so compost piles that contain a lot of kitchen waste need to be layered or mixed with bulkier stuff to keep them from becoming slimy.

• Turning a compost pile mixes and breaks up materials, which speeds decomposition. When it comes to turning, you can do as much or as little as you like, depending on your desired turnaround time.

• Covering new kitchen waste with 4 inches of plant material works well with little or no turning.

• Keep compost piles moist but not soggy.

• Add a few shovelfuls of soil to your pile from time to time.

Barbara Pleasant is a leading organic gardening expert and the author of The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, which is available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store for 25 percent off until Nov. 30.

7 Easy Steps to Composting

1. Choose Your Type of Backyard Compost Bin.

You can use either an open pile or a compost bin. Bins have the advantage of being neat, keeping animals out and preserving heat. You can purchase compost bins from a variety of garden and home stores, or you can build your own compost bin.The size and type of bin you purchase or build will depend on how much compostable material you generate.

2. Choose Your Composter Location.

You should choose a location which is flat, well-drained and sunny. Most importantly you should find a convenient location. If it is in the back of your yard will you be willing to trudge through the snow to get to it in the middle of winter?

3. Alternate Layers.

Start with a layer of course materials (like twigs) to allow for drainage and aeration. Cover this layer with leaves. Then simply alternate between layers of greens materials (nitrogen-rich material) and browns (carbon-rich material).

Browns Greens Don’t Compost
Evergreen needles Green leaves Invasive weeds gone to see
Dried leaves Garden waste Meat/fish/bones
Paper egg cartons Flowers Fat/oil/grease
Paper towels/napkins Vegetables Dairy products
Dried grass clippings Fruit peels Cooked foods (attracts animals)
Shredded newsprint Scraps Pet waste
Bark Coffee grounds Plastics
Coffee filters Tea leaves/bags Metals
Straw Egg shells Glass
Sawdust (limited amt.) Flowers Toxic material
Dryer/vacuum lint Charcoal
Cardboard (cut into small pieces) Chemical logs
Dead house plants
Shredded brown paper bags

4. Add Kitchen and Yard Waste as They Accumulate.

Collect your kitchen compostables in a container in your kitchen. Find a handy place to store this container container – on the counter, under the sink or in the freezer. When it is full, empty its contents into the compost bin.

Whenever you add food scraps or yard waste, be sure to top it with a layer of browns. If you do not add browns, your compost will be wet and break down more slowly. If possible, collect and store dry leaves in an old garbage in the fall so you can use them in your compost year round.

Depending on the type of compost bin or pile you have chosen there may be specific ways of adding and maintaining compost. Most of the composters you purchase come with instructions; follow these instructions for best results.

5. Continue to Add Layers Until Your Bin is Full.

The bin contents/pile will shrink as it begins to decompose.

6. Maintain Your Compost Bin.

To get finished compost more quickly, check your compost bin and make sure the following conditions are met:

  • When you add fresh material, be sure to mix it in with the lower layers.
  • Materials should be as wet as a rung-out sponge. Add dry materials or water – whichever is needed – to reach this moisture level.
  • Mix or turn the compost once a week to help the breakdown process and eliminate odour.

7. Harvest Your Compost.

Finished compost will be dark, crumbly and smell like earth. You should be able to have finished compost within four to six months of starting your bin.

The finished compost will end up at the top of the bin or compost pile. Remove all the finished compost from the bin, leaving unfinished materials in the bin to continue decomposing. Be sure the decomposition process is complete before you use your compost; otherwise, microbes in the compost could take nitrogen from the soil and harm plant growth.

Use Your Compost!

  • Sprinkle your lawn a few times a year.
  • Use your compost as top dressing for flower beds and at the base of trees and shrubs.
  • Mix compost in with garden and flower bed soil.
  • Use as a soil conditioner when planting or transplanting trees, flowers and shrubs by filling the hole with half compost and half soil.
  • Make ‘compost tea.’ Fill cheesecloth or an old pillowcase with 1 litre of compost. Tie the top and ‘steep’ the bag overnight in a garbage can filled with water. This ‘tea’ can be used to water plants and gardens.

How to Make Compost

Some common misconceptions of home composting are that it’s too complicated, it’ll smell funny, and it’s messy. These are all true if you compost the wrong way. Composting the right way is a very simple approach: Simply layer organic materials and a dash of soil to create a concoction that turns into humus (the best soil builder around!). You can then improve your flower garden with compost, top dress your lawn, feed your growing veggies, and more. With these simple steps on how to compost, you’ll have all of the bragging rights of a pro!

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Types of Composting

Before you start piling on, recognize that there are two types of composting: cold and hot. Cold composting is as simple as collecting yard waste or taking out the organic materials in your trash (such as fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds and filters, and eggshells) and then corralling them in a pile or bin. Over the course of a year or so, the material will decompose.

Hot composting is for the more serious gardener but a faster process—you’ll get compost in one to three months during warm weather. Four ingredients are required for fast-cooking hot compost: nitrogen, carbon, air, and water. Together, these items feed microorganisms, which speed up the process of decay. In spring or fall when garden waste is plentiful, you can mix one big batch of compost and then start a second one while the first “cooks.”

Related: How to Build a Compost Bin

Vermicompost is made via worm composting. When worms eat your food scraps, they release castings, which are rich in nitrogen. You can’t use just any old worms for this, however—you need redworms (also called “red wigglers”). Worms for composting can be purchased inexpensively online or at a garden supplier.

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What to Compost

Composting is a great way to use the things in your refrigerator that you didn’t get to, therefore eliminating waste. Keeping a container in your kitchen, like this chic white ceramic compost bucket from World Market, is an easy way to accumulate your composting materials. If you don’t want to buy one, you can make your own indoor or outdoor homemade compost bin. Collect these materials to start off your compost pile right:

  • Fruit scraps
  • Vegetable scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Grass and plant clippings
  • Dry leaves
  • Finely chopped wood and bark chips
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Straw
  • Sawdust from untreated wood

Editor’s Tip: Think twice before adding onions and garlic to your homemade compost pile. It is believed that these vegetables repel earthworms, which are a vital part of your garden.

What NOT to Compost

Not only will these items not work as well in your garden, but they can make your compost smell and attract animals and pests. Avoid these items for a successful compost pile:

  • Anything containing meat, oil, fat, or grease
  • Diseased plant materials
  • Sawdust or chips from pressure-treated wood
  • Dog or cat feces
  • Weeds that go to seed
  • Dairy products

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Step 1: Combine Green and Brown Materials

To make your own hot-compost heap, wait until you have enough materials to make a pile at least 3 feet deep. You are going to want to combine your wet, green items with your dry, brown items. “Brown” materials include dried plant materials; fallen leaves; shredded tree branches, cardboard, or newspaper; hay or straw; and wood shavings, which add carbon. “Green” materials include kitchen scraps and coffee grounds, animal manures (not from dogs or cats), and fresh plant and grass trimmings, which add nitrogen. For best results, start building your compost pile by mixing three parts brown with one part green materials. If your compost pile looks too wet and smells, add more brown items or aerate more often. If you see it looks extremely brown and dry, add green items and water to make it slightly moist.

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Step 2: Water Your Pile

Sprinkle water over the pile regularly so it has the consistency of a damp sponge. Don’t add too much water, otherwise, the microorganisms in your pile will become waterlogged and drown. If this happens, your pile will rot instead of compost. Monitor the temperature of your pile with a thermometer to be sure the materials are properly decomposing. Or, simply reach into the middle of the pile with your hand. Your compost pile should feel warm.

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Step 3: Stir Up Your Pile

During the growing season, you should provide the pile with oxygen by turning it once a week with a garden fork. The best time to turn the compost is when the center of the pile feels warm or when a thermometer reads between 130 and 150 degrees F. Stirring up the pile will help it cook faster and prevents material from becoming matted down and developing an odor. At this point, the layers have served their purpose of creating equal amounts of green and brown materials throughout the pile, so stir thoroughly.

Editor’s Tip: In addition to aerating regularly, chop and shred raw ingredients into smaller sizes to speed up the composting process.

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Step 4: Feed Your Garden

When the compost no longer gives off heat and becomes dry, brown, and crumbly, it’s fully cooked and ready to feed to the garden. Add about 4 to 6 inches of compost to your flower beds and into your pots at the beginning of each planting season.

Some gardeners make what’s known as compost tea with some of their finished compost. This involves allowing fully formed compost to “steep” in water for several days, then straining it to use as a homemade liquid fertilizer.

Every gardener is different, so it’s up to you to decide which composting method best fits your lifestyle. Fortunately, no matter which route you choose, compost is incredibly easy and environmentally friendly. Plus, it’s a treat for your garden. With just a few kitchen scraps and some patience, you’ll have the happiest garden possible.

Related: How to Make a Soil Sifter Box for Healthy Compost

  • By BH&G Garden Editors

How To Make Organic Fertilizer From Your Kitchen Waste

Courtney GreeneFollow May 17, 2017 · 3 min read

Nearly all food waste go directly to the trash can or garbage disposal; a practice that is essentially wasteful especially considering that these products can be turned into something really useful: fertilizer.

Food waste is composed of organic matter which can be used for composting to make fertilizer. It is an effective and eco-friendly way of disposing food waste in your kitchen. By using leftovers and other food waste, you can convert these smelly items from the kitchen waste into a highly organic product rich in nutrients that you can use to grow vegetables or flowers with it.

To make your own organic fertilizer from your kitchen waste, follow the steps below:

1. Go through your kitchen waste.

Vegetables and fruit peelings are the number one food remnants you should keep aside. Keep over-ripened fruits and vegetables, nuts, and egg shells. However, do not include grease, oils, fatty meats, and milk products in your composting materials since they will make your compost pile a wet mess and produce an annoying odor. Put these items on a well-drained, level, and open area and sprinkle some wood ash to boost the composting process.

2. Add other organic materials to the compost.

Aside from wood ash, you can also add sawdust to the compost to help speed up the composting process. If you have some livestock, you can add the excess manure to the compost. If you don’t have sawdust or manure readily at home, you can buy them from a gardening supplies store.

3. Collect some garden waste.

To come up with a nutrient-rich fertilizer, you will also need to add some natural waste to your compost. You can do this by collecting grass clippings and leaves from your lawn. When you mow your lawn, all the organic waste will be sucked and mixed inside the lawnmower bag. Remove all the contents from the lawnmower and place them into your compost bin.

4. Create the compost.

Add the prepared kitchen waste to the garden waste already in the compost bin. The compost bin should have a handle you can use to turn as you rotate the compost for thorough mixing and to incorporate oxygen into the mixture. Also, make sure the bin has some holes on the side to enable excess moisture to escape as you spin the compost. Lawn care experts recommend spinning the compost bin 2 to 3 times a day for best results.

5. Apply the fertilizer.

Wait for your compost to achieve a soil-like mixture that is dark in color. Once the compost reaches this appearance, it is ready to be spread. Use a garden fork to spread the compost on the garden fields you want to fertilize. Apply the right amount of compost and wait for the fertilizer to seep in and see some effect on the areas applied before you adding more.

Composting your kitchen waste offers several benefits which include getting rid of unwanted rubbish and having some fertilizer you can use on your lawn. Before throwing your leftovers and other food remnants, determine if they will work great as compost materials first.

Professor Rot says:
One of the recent raves in gardening is the use of Liquid Gold — a mild organic liquid fertilizer made right at home.

Compost tea is a great way to love your plants naturally.

Compost Tea is a Liquid Gold fertilizer for flowers, vegetables and houseplants. Compost Tea, in fact, is all the rave for gardeners who repeatedly attest to higher quality vegetables, flowers, and foliage. Very simply, it is a liquid, nutritionally rich, well-balanced, organic supplement made by steeping aged compost in water. But its value is amazing, for it acts as a very mild, organic liquid fertilizer when added at any time of the year.

What is so wonderful about Compost Tea is that it can be made right at home from your own fresh, well-finished compost. The only requirement is that the compost you use is well broken-down into minute particles. This usually means that the organic materials have decomposed over a period of time so that their appearance is very dark with the texture of course crumbly cornmeal. Oh, and the fragrance is like that of rich soil in a forest.

Don’t have such compost yet? Well, dig deep down inside your bin, near the bottom. This is where organic material will be most decomposed and fresh. All you need is a good shovelful for a 5-gallon bucket of Compost Tea.

This page gives you some tips and instructions for “brewing” your Liquid Gold.

COMPOST TEA MAKES YOU GREEN ALL OVER!

Leachate is actually a by-product of composting and worm composting. It is a liquid that forms in the bottom of most bins, most likely unseen by you (unless collected from a worm bin), but well-known by all the microbes and critters, including worms, who live at the bottom of your pile and in the soil. This stuff is like a fantastic smoothie or a good cup of espresso to them!

A fairly new phenomenon to gardening is the deliberate creation of Liquid Gold: Compost Tea. Researchers have determined exacting and scientific ways to brew it. The result has been the creation and promotion of Compost Tea brewing equipment, available at fine garden centers or on the internet. Some garden centers, in fact, have begun “brewing” the tea in large batches so that customers can draw-off what they need by the gallon.

The homeowner is not obligated to use exacting methods to get some very fine tea. On this website we offer a very simple, practical, and fast way to make up a batch. All you need is a couple of buckets, a shovelful of fresh finished compost, water and a straining cloth such as cheesecloth or burlap.

6 Good Reasons to Use Compost Tea

  1. Increases plant growth
    It is chock full of nutrients and minerals that give greener leaves, bigger and brighter blooms, and increased size and yield of vegetables.
  2. Provides nutrients to plants and soil
    The fast-acting nutrients are quickly absorbed by plants through their leaves or the soil. When used as a foliar spray plant surfaces are occupied by beneficial microbes, leaving no room for pathogens to infect the plant. The plant will suffer little or no blight, mold, fungus or wilt.
  3. Provides beneficial organisms
    The live microbes enhance the soil and the immune system of plants. Growth of beneficial soil bacteria results in healthier, more stress-tolerant plants. The tea’s chelated micronutrients are easy for plants to absorb.
  4. Helps to suppress diseases
    A healthy balance is created between soil and plant, increasing the ability to ward off pests, diseases, fungus and the like. Its microbial functions include: competes with disease causing microbes; degrades toxic pesticides and other chemicals; produces plant growth hormones; mineralizes a plant’s available nutrients; fixes nitrogen in the plant for optimal use.
  5. Replaces toxic garden chemicals
    Perhaps the greatest benefit is that compost tea rids your garden of poisons that harm insects, wildlife, plants, soil and humans. It replaces chemical-based fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides. And, it will never burn a plant’s leaves or roots. Finally, you save money.
  6. Makes you a “Green Planetary Citizen”
    Compost tea is just another way to feel good about respecting the earth in your own yard and garden. It allows you to be less a consumer of harmful products and more a resourceful gardener.

6 EASY STEPS TO MAKE HOMEMADE COMPOST TEA

Step 1
Fill a bucket 1/3 full of quality finished compost

Step 2
Add water to the top of the bucket (unclorinated is best, or good well water).

Step 3
Let the mixture steep for 3-4 days.

Stir it now and then.

Step 4
Strain the mixture through cheesecloth or other porous fabric (burlap, old shirt) into another bucket. Add the remaining solids to your garden or compost bin.

Step 5
Dilute the remaining liquid with water so it’s the color of weak tea (use a 10:1 ratio of water to tea).

Step 6
Use tea immediately for optimal absorption into the soil around plants.

For Potted Plants

For young delicate or potted plants dilute the tea.

Around Root Systems

For hardy shrubs, trees, or established plants in the vegetable garden, simply pour the tea from the bucket around the root system at the base of the plant.

As a Foliar Spray

You can also use it as a foliar spray on plants. Add 1/8 tsp vegetable oil or mild dish-washing liquid per gallon to help it adhere to leaves.

TEA MAKING TIPS

The following factors will determine the quality of the finished tea:

  1. Use well-aged, finished compost
    Unfinished compost may contain harmful pathogens and compost that is too old may be nutritionally deficient. COMPOST TEA and MANURE TEA ARE NOT THE SAME THING! Manure teas may be made in the same way but are not generally recommended as foliar sprays and are not as nutritionally well-balanced.)
  2. Using well-made, high quality compost you can brew up a mild batch in as little as an hour or let it brew for a week or more for a super concentrate.
    A good median is to let the tea brew for 24-48 hours. When it begins to smell “yeasty” you can stop and apply it to your plants.
  3. Recent research indicates that using some kind of aeration and adding a sugar source (unsulphered molasses works well) results in an excellent product that extracts the maximum number of beneficial organisms. This aeration is crucial to the formation of benefical bacteria and the required fermentation process. For the simple bucket-brewing approach, simply stir the tea a few times during those hours or days it is brewing.
  4. You can add all kinds of supplements like fish emulsion or powdered seaweed
    This turns the tea into a balanced organic fertilizer.

HOW TO USE COMPOST TEA

  • AS A ROOT DRENCH
    Can be used unfiltered by applying directly to the soil area around a plant. The tea will seep down into the root system. Root feeding is not affected by rainy weather.
  • AS A FOLIAR SPRAY
    Strain tea thru a fine mesh cloth (cheesecloth, burlap, even an old shirt). Then dilute it with dechloronated water, if possible, or good quality well water. Use a ratio of 10 parts water to 1 part tea. The color should be that like weak tea. Add 1/8 tsp vegetable oil or mild dish-washing liquid per gallon to help it adhere to leaves.
    Method of application and weather – A pump sprayer or misting bottle works better than hose-end sprayers for large areas or for foliar feeding as they don’t plug up as easily. The beneficial miroorganisms are somewhat fragile so it is important to note you should avoid very high presure sprayers for appliction. Re-application after rain is necessary and one should avoid applying to the leaves during the heat of the day.

Let’s start by dispelling a crucial myth about compost: compost is not smelly! Truly, if you are properly tending your pile, you should have nothing but a deep, rich earthy smell wafting off of your compost. Besides having a pleasant smell, compost is one of the most valuable additions to any garden. With its high nutrient density, it helps alter the natural structure of your garden soil and convert it into something that friable and fertile.

And a little bit goes a long way! Any addition of the composting process to a garden will introduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to make a balanced, pH neutral soil in which to plant. Plus, adding backyard composting to your garden helps with water retention, suppresses plant diseases, and promotes the health of animals within the environment.

For a quick refresher, compost is decayed organic material that becomes plant fertilizer. You can compost everything from eggshells to coffee grounds to food scraps and food waste that easily break down in the composting bin.

So now the question is, how do you find this magically finished compost? Well, the good news is that you can easily and cheaply make it yourself at home.

To Compost in a Bin or Out in the Open?

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Your first decision after you’ve settled on the idea of making compost is to elect whether or not to use a fully enclosed bin for home composting. Although bins aren’t necessary to decompose your organic waste, they do have their upsides for collecting kitchen scraps and yard waste.

Namely, they are aesthetically more pleasing if you have nearby neighbors and they make it easier for you to contain your pile in one place. Perhaps the best argument in favor of using a bin, however, is that it helps prevent critters from rooting around in your compost materials while the bunch is still decomposing and tracking scraps all over your yard.

On the other hand, if none of this concerns you, you can opt for another composting method such as an “open” compost pile that is built directly on the ground. This method, although not beautiful, is dirt cheap (pun intended) and makes it easy to turn over your compost pile to monitor its progress.

Carbon, Nitrogen, Water, and Oxygen

Fix

Outside of a spot to store your compost you only need four things:

  • Carbon organic material (Brown materials such as sawdust, paper towels, cardboard, and egg cartons)
  • Nitrogen organic material (Green materials such as plant trimmings, vegetable scraps, tea bags, and houseplants)
  • Water
  • Oxygen

Yes, it’s as simple as that because compost is created from basic organic matter, which is essentially a composition of carbon and nitrogen. The key is simply to know how much of each to use. To start off, understand that “brown” means predominantly carbon and “green” indicates materials that are heavier in nitrogen.

For compost, you need approximately an equal ratio of nitrogen to carbon to create a healthy mix. Everything from grass clippings to tea leaves to wood chips is excellent compost starters. Nature will help direct you as to whether or not you need more of either at any given time. You will just need to pay attention to how your garden beds respond to your composting materials.

Water and Oxygen

Besides carbon and nitrogen, the only two other ingredients you need to make rich soil are water and oxygen. If you add these two essential ingredients in the right proportions, you can have an active compost pile that can be ready in as little as four weeks.

To guide you in your watering efforts, make sure that your compost pile doesn’t get any wetter than a wrung-out sponge. If you are able to squeeze a little drip of water out of the compost at the center of your pile then you’re right on track.

You’ll know, however, if your pile gets too damp as it will begin to smell. To fix that, simply turn over your oxygen-starved pile to aerate things and you’ll be good to go.

Common Compost Problems

Fix

My compost is too wet

Compost can become soggy if you over water of add too much nitrogen. Thankfully, this is an easy fix. All you need to do is add some brown (carbon) and turn your pile to allow oxygen to circulate.

Once your pile is back to 40 percent moisture or about the dampness of a wrung-out sponge, you’re good to go.

1. I have pockets of nitrogen.

You’ll know when you have a pocket of nitrogen when your compost begins to stink. Take a pitchfork and break up the clump and add in some extra carbon-rich material.

2. I accidentally threw in the wrong thing.

If you accidentally threw in an undesirable organic material like meat, fish, dairy products or grease, it’s not the end of the world! Fish it out if you can. If you can’t, cover it with brown material and turn it into the pile where it will break down.

Is My Compost Ready?

You’ll know when you can introduce your organic material into your garden (or give to friends in your community garden) when the compost is a dark, crumbly, earth-smelling pile. For vigilant composters, this can occur in as little as four weeks, but for those who just want to let nature take its course, it may end up being six months to a year before you have your hands on gardening gold.

All it takes is time.

Watch: 7 Edible Weeds in Your Backyard

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Home Composting Made Easy

2. Good compost can be either hot or cold. Most people who carefully manage their compost piles for a balance of ingredients are trying to produce hot compost, which heats up or “cooks” as the materials decompose. Hot compost is the fastest type of compost to produce, but it’s not necessarily better than compost that rots slowly without heating up.

High temperatures in the compost heap are generated by bacteria as they work high-nitrogen materials, so hot compost that’s protected from leaching may be a superior source of this essential nutrient. But there’s a trade-off: Intensively worked hot compost that’s produced in only three to four weeks ranks pretty low in terms of microbial diversity.

If you want the best compost, you want cured compost. This is mature compost that is set aside in a covered place where it can age for at least a couple of months. Microorganisms continue to work as the compost cures, including a special group of bacteria that produce compounds thought to “prime” plants to do a superior job of defending themselves from pests and diseases.

I often use the last weeks of mild fall weather to finish off a really nice batch of compost, which I sift through half-inch mesh plastic hardware cloth and put into plastic bags or storage bins to cure. In spring, I have the perfect base for making potting soil for the next season’s plants.

3. Small or large — any size pile will work just fine. Compost manuals frequently promise that if you build a nicely balanced heap of well-moistened materials at least 3 feet high and wide, it will heat up and start cooking within days.

You can be absolutely sure that your compost will eventually rot, but super-sizing a heap offers little insurance that it will get off to a smoking start. You can save yourself a lot of trouble by simply piling stuff together until the heap is big enough to merit some attention. Then, one day, when you’re in a composting mood, pick up a digging fork and spend some time setting the heap to rights by mixing the materials in the pile and adding water to keep it moist.

4. Turning compost is optional. Many books warn that heaps will not get enough oxygen unless they are turned. This may be true of a heap that’s kept too wet, but most compost heaps aerate themselves as they shrink. Better reasons to turn compost include achieving a good mix of materials, discovering dry pockets in need of moisture, and satisfying your curiosity as to what’s happening in your heap. And, as the composting process advances and the materials become more fragile, turning and mixing breaks them into smaller pieces, which helps push almost-done compost to full maturity.

5. You can gauge the moisture level of your compost pile by its fragrance. When you dig around in a heap and don’t smell the desired earthy fragrance, lack of moisture is usually the reason. Dryness is a big challenge in the fall, when most gardeners make new compost piles from leaves. Shredding the leaves before composting them will help them break down faster, but they’ll need time and an amazing amount of water before they start breaking down.

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To make it easier to keep these piles wet, I arrange a soaker hose in a figure 8 pattern, with about 4 inches of mower-shredded leaves and weathered hay between each layer of hose. I’ve found that hay vastly improves a leaf heap’s ability to retain water, and until the weather gets too cold to use it, there is no easier way to moisten the inside of a dry heap than by using a soaker hose.

Unpleasant odors in compost can be caused by the materials themselves (for example, broccoli stems or rotten oranges), but even smelly things won’t stink if they are buried a few inches deep. However, enclosed compost can go stinky if it’s too wet, which is easily fixed by adding dry material or simply letting it dry out. If you’re using a plastic bin or tumbler, do pay close attention to water, because it’s easy to add too much.

6. Compost need not be a secret. A compost bin or pile is only ugly if you make it that way, so there’s no need to hide compost in a remote corner. Carrying stuff across the yard to a hidden heap is a waste of time and energy. Locate compost as close as possible to where the materials are generated and/or where the finished compost will be used. Visually speaking, using a black or dark green enclosure will help a compost heap blend into a shady background. Or, you can use painted posts or fencing to make your setup a more colorful, great looking bin.

My yard includes four areas of working gardens, so I always have at least four heaps going — each within pitching distance from the garden beds. Those heaps will be turned three or four times, so I plan ahead for them to “walk” toward their final resting place with each turning. For example, a 5-foot diameter heap that starts out 15 feet from a garden plot will arrive at its destination after its fourth turning (the math allows for shrinkage). It’s a slow trip that starts in November and ends in June, but that’s how it is when you’re composting slow-rotting oak leaves.

7. You can compost diseased or weedy plants. Many experts recommend keeping seed-bearing weeds and diseased plants out of the compost heap so as not to reintroduce them into your garden. This makes sense, but what are you supposed to do with the stuff? I suggest giving these bad boys their own heap. Later on, after mildewed squash vines and seed-bearing crabgrass clippings have been given a few months to shrink to a more manageable size, you can cook the half-done compost to kill diseases and weed seeds.

For this job, I use a solar cooker made from a 20-inch cardboard box lined with aluminum foil. (You can find plans for simple solar cookers at the Solar Cooking Archive; be sure to search for “eye safety” and read the precautions for shielding your retinas from superintense light.) When I have compost from diseased and weedy plants, I take a 3-gallon heavy plastic pot filled with damp compost, enclose it in a clear plastic bag and place it in the cooker in direct sun. You can use an oven thermometer to find out how hot your cooker is. Two hours at 140 degrees kills most weed seeds and soilborne pathogens.

8. With a worm bin, you can even compost indoors. Composting with captive earthworms, called vermicomposting, is a great way to compost paper products and food waste from your kitchen. Vermicompost bins can be kept indoors or outside, but they work great indoors in winter, when outdoor heaps often freeze. Add vermicompost to planting holes, mix it into potting soil, or use it to top dress container-grown plants. Vermicomposting is great fun, and not at all messy. You’ll need to buy or build a special worm bin and fill it with bedding and food for the worms. Worm bins are also a great place to put any compost you’ve cooked in a solar cooker, because the worms and their entourage of springtails and mites quickly replenish the compost with fungi and bacteria. For more about how to get started, see Starting a Compost Pile or Worm Bin.

9. You can safely compost livestock manure. This biologically active material is a terrific soil amendment, and composting livestock manure makes it safe to use in the garden. You should use caution with animal manures because many do contain diarrhea-inducing E. coli bacteria, but making and using manure-enriched compost won’t make you sick unless you’re careless or impatient.

The E. coli present in most types of animal manure is slowly eliminated by more competitive microorganisms as compost matures. Using fresh, uncomposted manure near growing food plants is risky, as is consuming unwashed vegetables that grow within mud-splashing range of recently manured soil. But if you allow the compost to mature before applying it to your garden and always wash your produce before you eat it, you need not worry about this problem.

Many folks think that “teas” brewed from compost do good things when sprayed on plants, but nature’s version of compost tea — rainwater filtered through composting mulch — is much simpler and safer. Any tiny traces of E. coli are quarantined in the soil, where they meet their destiny with death. In contrast, brewing manure-based compost and spraying it on your food just doesn’t seem like a good idea.

10. There are good uses for immature compost. Beyond composting in aboveground heaps and containers, you can make compost in excavated holes or pile up stuff in layered beds, and then plant right into the compost-in-progress. Peas, beans, potatoes and squash are especially well suited to growing in compost-filled trenches. In my garden, I use edible legumes as the first plants in new garden space, which may or may not get dug up before I layer up half-done compost with soil and whatever else I can find — grass clippings, weathered sawdust or horse manure from a friend’s barn. Some people call this lasagna compost. If you top off the layers with burlap or some other water-permeable cloth, you can call it Interbay compost, named after the innovative gardeners at Interbay Community Garden in Seattle, who reuse burlap coffee bags to cover layered compost. I call it comforter compost because it’s such a good way to tuck in soil for winter, or begin the healing process for soil that’s been neglected or abused.

As for squash and potatoes, they have taught me that they are perfectly happy growing in compost, so I keep them in mind as I create new heaps in the fall. In my tight mountain clay, these crops do especially well in “dugout” beds that are filled with layers of soil and raw compostables. Even if the compost is not completely rotted by spring, potatoes and squash can’t tell the difference.

Every gardener wants to make great compost, and experience is the best teacher. Just know this: you cannot fail, because compost knows what to do. As eloquently noted by longtime MOTHER EARTH NEWS reader Wayne Morris of Bloomingdale, N.Y, “The beauty of compost is that it only needs to be as much of an art or science as we wish it to be. It’s like walking. You can train for a marathon or you can simply put one foot in front of the other, and eventually you will get where you need to be.” Trust the composting process, follow nature’s lead, and things will grow up great in the end.

To Learn More

Worms Eat My Garbage
by Mary Appelhof

Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator: Edible Essays on City Farming
by Spring Gillard

Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.

While composting, you create the perfect conditions for decay and rotting processes of plants and other stuff naturally. It includes an organic waste (kitchen waste, grass clippings, leaves, pieces of wood, newspaper), soil (as a source of bacteria and fungi), air (as a source of oxygen), and water.

The purpose of this article is to show you the way how a regular compost bin works and why composting is so important for you and your family, as well as the whole community.

Why Composting Is Essential

People in the US generate approximately 260 million short tons (236 million metric tons) of garbage every single year, which is the world’s record. In other words, just 4% of the world’s population produces more than 30% of total waste on the planet.

More than 57% of this trash goes to municipal landfills, and just 27% of it is recycled (mostly glass, plastic, paper, metals, and yard waste).

We will talk about the yard and kitchen waste here. Composting is an excellent way of treating solid waste from your household and using that organic material to enrich the soil.

The process itself is quite simple. Microorganisms will quickly break down your waste if there is enough oxygen and humidity. The benefits of composting are enormous, including smart handling with scraps and protection of your environment.

Types of Compost Bin

Probably the first way of composting in history was a compost pile placed in the yard which was turned over manually. Nowadays, you can choose the best method that suits your needs the most.

  • Compost tumblers – I prefer these plastic, barrel-shaped or rounded units I can quickly rotate and effortlessly aerate and mix my compost. Plus, they are elegant and can be a decorative part of the yard.
  • Beehive composters – This type of composters is popular in the UK, but many Americans have accepted these convenient units in recent years. It is actually a series of bins you can place one upon another. While the amount of your compost ‘grows,’ you can use mature stuff from the bottom levels.
  • Worm composters – Vermicomposting is the method of using red worms to create compost.
  • Bench-top (kitchen, countertop) composters – These indoor compost bins are quite practical for making compost indoors. There are two versions of those bins. The first one is a traditional, aerobic composter that needs to be aerated and heated.

The second one is an airtight container where compost is made in anaerobic conditions (without oxygen). However, you need to add a mix of bacteria in it to support the process of composting.

Determine the Appropriate Ingredients

The ingredients you should add to the compost pile

  • Kitchen waste

Before putting these scraps to the compost heap, you need to grind or chop them up. That way, these ingredients will break down quicker. The same procedure applies to various parts of fruit and vegetable such as their skins, peels, leaves, and seeds.

  • Meat, fish, and dairy

Since these products contain a high level of fat and cause an unpleasant odor, most people prefer avoiding them. The truth is that adding those ingredients to a passive pile or poorly active compost heap is not a good idea. However, they are not a big problem if your pile is hot and you turn it over regularly. To get better results, try to run this type of waste through a food processor. By reducing their size, you will speed the process of their decomposition, and prevent undesirable side effects.

  • Eggshells

Before adding them to the pile, you need to crush them. Keep in mind that they are neutral and won’t affect the C : N ratios of your compost.

  • Coffee grounds

Just spill it over the pile.

  • Tea bags and paper napkins

Before adding them, you need to cut those materials into small pieces.

  • Grass clippings, weeds, sawdust, straw, hay, and the fall leaves

After mowing and collecting those materials, mix them with existing components without additional processing.

  • Corncobs

Shred them as much as possible before adding, to make the process of breaking down this ingredient quicker and easier.

  • Pine needles, newspaper, cardboard, and woody materials

In smaller quantities, these ingredients are beneficial for your compost, but you need to cut them to the smallest possible pieces first.

  • Seaweed and kelp

Use those nutrient-rich materials if you have them in your disposal. Before adding stuff into the pile, you need to soak them in fresh water to rinse excess salt.

The ingredients you shouldn’t add to the compost pile

  • Human waste and pet litter

Due to possible infestation with parasites and awful odor, you should avoid them.

  • Diseased garden plants

When you suspect that your garden plants are infected, you mustn’t add them to your compost pile. They will influence the rest of the heap and cause troubles in your garden after applying mature compost around.

  • Plant material treated with pesticides

Pesticides are harmful to the microbes which allow the process of composting. Also, they will probably become a part of your pile and end up in your garden after spreading compost.

  • Invasive weeds

Believe it or not, most of seeds and spores of invasive weeds will survive the process of composting. By spreading mature compost over your garden, you will actually plant weeds all over it.

  • Charcoal ashes

Unlike other types of ashes, this one is toxic to microorganisms in the soil, including beneficial ones.

The Process of Composting

Basically, the process of composting implies the activity of microorganisms from the ground. They use the organic, carbon-containing kitchen waste and break it down into pieces.

As a result, we get humus rich in fiber, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. To do their job well, those microorganisms need enough oxygen which you need to provide by turning the composting material in your compost bin.

Table 1 – Which type of composter will suit you the best

Where do you live

The material you want to compost

Kitchen waste mostly Kitchen and yard waste Yard waste mostly
An urban area without outdoor space Worm bin / /
An urban area with a balcony or patio Compost tumbler or worm bin Compost tumbler /
A suburban area with yard Compost tumbler or enclosed bin Compost tumbler or enclosed bin Enclosed bin or DIY bin
A rural area with yard Compost tumbler or enclosed bin Compost tumbler, enclosed bin, or open compost pile Multiple enclosed bins or open compost pile

To get high-quality compost, you need to provide balanced conditions or efficient decomposition, which includes:

  • Proper carbon to nitrogen ratio – I can’t emphasize enough the importance of carbon/nitrogen ratio. To get the best possible compost, you need to calculate the proper ratio of those two elements which is always between 25:1 and 30:1.
  • Plenty of fresh air (oxygen) – Oxygen is an essential element for the aerobic microorganisms to survive and work successfully. To provide excellent aeration, you need to turn over your pile daily, or at least once in two days. This job will be more comfortable if you use a compost tumbler with a handle.
  • Keep in mind that, without proper aeration, the ingredients will break down too slowly, and you will find yourself stuck with a stinky heap.
  • An adequate amount of water – You need to determine the level of moisture of the composting material. Your heap needs to be well moist, but not too wet. Water is essential for the microorganisms working in the compost pile. However, if you add too much water, the material will become slimy and smelly. On the other hand, you shouldn’t allow that content becomes too dry because lack of moisture will kill the bacteria and you will stay without compost.
  • An adequate amount of soil – Adding the soil to the compost heap is the best way to provide enough bacteria and fungi which will enable the smooth running of the process.
  • The size of tiny particles – The essence of the composting process is breaking down big pieces of ingredients to smaller particles and getting basic nutrients your plants can use for healthy growing.

Table 2 – How to classify your waste for composting

Type of material*

Carbon Nitrogen
Wood chips and pellets Kitchen waste
Wood ash Tea leaves
Shrub pruning Coffee grounds
Corn cobs Grass clippings
Pine needles Fruit and vegetable waste
Straw Weeds
Leaves Flowers
Shredded paper Seaweed
Newspaper Chicken manure
Cardboard
Dryer lint

*Crashed eggshells are neutral

Microbes Which Make the Composting Process Possible

There are two general classes of microorganisms which allow the composting process goes smoothly.

Aerobes – These microbes work just in the well-aerated environment with the necessary level of oxygen. Since they are highly active in compost tumblers, worm composter, compost piles, and heaps, you will use them for aerobic composting.

Anaerobes – These microbes work better in the absence of oxygen. You will use them if you prefer composting in the sealed containers.

Which one type of microbes you want to encourage will depend on the composting process you want to force.

No matter what type of composting you choose, you need to know which components and microbial type of action are necessary for the smooth running of the process.

For aerobic composting you will need:

Organic materials + water + oxygen = carbon dioxide + energy + water

For anaerobic composting you will need:

Organic materials + water = carbon dioxide + energy + hydrogen sulfide + methane

The System of the Aerobic Composting Process

The secret how to get excellent compost effectively is to create an ideal environment for the beneficial microbes to thrive. They need enough nutrients, warm temperatures, plenty of oxygen, and adequate moisture. There are three stages in the process of composting which include different types of microorganisms.

The first stage – It lasts approximately just a few days. During this period, your compost pile develops the temperatures from 68 to 113 F (20 – 45 C). It is an ideal environment for the activity of mesophilic microorganisms to start breaking down the biodegradable compounds physically. As a result of their work, the production of heat increases and the temperatures rise over 104 F (40 C) quickly.

The second stage – With starting the activity of thermophilic microorganisms, the second stage of composting begins. Microbes will break down the organic matter, including complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into more delicate pieces. This phase can last just a few days, but it is possible that you need to wait for several months before it finishes.

You can expect the temperatures continue to increase. Therefore, you need to turn over your pile regularly to avoid overheating and killing beneficial microbes. With proper aeration, you will keep temperatures below 150 F (65.5 C), which will allow thermophilic microorganisms to work without disturbance.

The third stage – This stage begins when microbes use up all nutrients available, and it usually lasts a few months. You can expect the temperatures start decreasing slowly.

When your pile becomes cool enough, mesophilic microorganisms will take over the material again and finish the process of breaking down the remaining organic matter.

The System of the Anaerobic Composting Process

This way of making compost is not too widespread since it is slower than the aerobic one and produce foul odor as well. Basically, you just need to put your waste into a sealed composting system without aeration and let anaerobic microorganisms finish their work of breaking down of organic material.

At the end of that process, you will get usable compost which will be soupy, rich in acids, and have bad-smell of rotten eggs thanks to released hydrogen sulfide.

Conclusion

Nowadays, the choice of bins on the market is really great. However, you can make one by yourself by using or even combining various materials, including lumber, stone, plastic, ceramic, cinder blocks, and wire fencing.

Composting At Home

  • What To Compost
    • Fruits and vegetables
    • Eggshells
    • Coffee grounds and filters
    • Tea bags
    • Nut shells
    • Shredded newspaper
    • Cardboard
    • Paper
    • Yard trimmings
    • Grass clippings
    • Houseplants
    • Hay and straw
    • Leaves
    • Sawdust
    • Wood chips
    • Cotton and Wool Rags
    • Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
    • Hair and fur
    • Fireplace ashes
  • What Not To Compost and Why
    • Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
      – Releases substances that might be harmful to plants
    • Coal or charcoal ash
      – Might contain substances harmful to plants
    • Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs*
      – Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
    • Diseased or insect-ridden plants
      – Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred back to other plants
    • Fats, grease, lard, or oils*
      – Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
    • Meat or fish bones and scraps*
      – Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
    • Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)*
      – Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses harmful to humans
    • Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
      – Might kill beneficial composting organisms

      * Check with your local composting or recycling coordinator to see if these organics are accepted by your community curbside or drop-off composting program.

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Benefits of Composting

  • Enriches soil, helping retain moisture and suppress plant diseases and pests.
  • Reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.
  • Encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create humus, a rich nutrient-filled material.
  • Reduces methane emissions from landfills and lowers your carbon footprint.

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How to Compost at Home

There are many different ways to make a compost pile; we have provided the following for general reference. Helpful tools include pitchforks, square-point shovels or machetes, and water hoses with a spray head. Regular mixing or turning of the compost and some water will help maintain the compost.

Backyard Composting

  • Select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin.
  • Add brown and green materials as they are collected, making sure larger pieces are chopped or shredded.
  • Moisten dry materials as they are added.
  • Once your compost pile is established, mix grass clippings and green waste into the pile and bury fruit and vegetable waste under 10 inches of compost material.
  • Optional: Cover top of compost with a tarp to keep it moist. When the material at the bottom is dark and rich in color, your compost is ready to use. This usually takes anywhere between two months to two years.

Indoor Composting

If you do not have space for an outdoor compost pile, you can compost materials indoors using a special type of bin, which you can buy at a local hardware store, gardening supplies store, or make yourself. Remember to tend your pile and keep track of what you throw in. A properly managed compost bin will not attract pests or rodents and will not smell bad. Your compost should be ready in two to five weeks.

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