You can buy bags of compost, but why? It’s so easy to make compost at home.
Gardeners call compost “black gold.” It creates rich humus that provides nutrients for plants and helps soil retain moisture. And it can divert as much as 30% of household waste from landfills.
In a compost pile, aerobic bacteria break down organic matter quickly. Landfills, on the other hand, are anerobic environments. Anaerobic bacteria break down organic material more slowly and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Two basic kinds of materials belong on a compost pile. “Green” matter (lawn clippings, green leaves, a lot of kitchen waste) provides nitrogen. “Brown” matter (twigs, dried leaves, woody materials such as saw dust or ash, paper, coffee grounds, and more) provides carbon. A good compost pile needs about twice as much brown matter as green matter.
For a more detailed list of what belongs in your compost—and what does not—read “What to Compost at Home” on this site.
As for how to compost, there are two broad categories. Cold composting simply means piling up materials and waiting for them to compost. It can take a while. Hot composting requires mixing green and brown matter and then turning the compost regularly. You can only do hot composting in warm weather, but the compost will be ready in three months or less. It’s hot composting that requires instructions
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You will mostly make compost from yard waste and kitchen waste. You can also add hair and nail clippings to your compost pile. If you do any kind of woodworking or use a fireplace, you can compost the sawdust and ash. When you shred documents, put the shreds in your compost.
Collect kitchen scraps in a compost pail. You can choose from different materials, such as stainless steel or ceramic. They come with filters to cut down on odors.
In my experience, mold soon grows in them. I live alone, so the pail doesn’t fill as quickly as it would in a family. Therefore, I don’t empty it as often. I have started to let thing dry out on the counter before putting them in the pail. (As I said, I live alone. I have no wife to tell me I can’t do that.)
Slow drying stuff like melon rinds or corn cobs gets moldy on the counter. I just toss them behind shrubbery in the back yard. If you guess that I make composting as easy on myself as possible, you would be right. But take heart. I have consulted with experts to give the more ambitious of you thorough instructions.
I have used the term “compost pile.” Indeed, you can make compost simply by making a pile on bare ground. Most people prefer to use some equipment. A compost bin sits on the ground and encloses the pile. In either case, you have to turn the content from time to time with a pitchfork.
Earthworms greatly help compost piles and compost bins. Vermicomposting encloses compost and worms in a bin that does not sit on the ground.
Therefore, people who have no yard space for a compost pile can put a worm composter on a patio or porch to make compost at home. Or even inside. Vermicomposting requires a particular kind of worm. You can find them at a garden supply store or online, and they don’t cost much.
You can also make compost in a rotating tumbler. It’s above ground, so you don’t need to be concerned about critters getting into it. It’s also great if you don’t want to turn a pile manually with a pitch fork. Plus, it doesn’t take much space. It’s another alternative for people with little yard space.
A composting tumbler also provides some insulation against the cold, so you can compost all year round. The bacteria in the compost will keep it warm with that much help. Just make sure not to pack it too full. There should be plenty of room for everything to fall freely and mix.
How to choose what method to use
What composting system works best depends on where you live, what you want to compost, and whether you will turn it manually.
If you compost mostly kitchen scraps—and have a yard—you can use either an enclosed bin or a tumbler.
What if you have little or no outdoor space, as in an urban apartment? You can get a worm bin and do vermicomposting. If you at least have a balcony or patio, either a worm bin or tumbler will work well for you.
You can also get a countertop “composter.” It even lets you add meat, dairy products, and small bones. You just need to chop everything very finely to provide plenty of surface area for the bacteria. It will grind and dehydrate your food waste in as little as three hours. Then you can bury it beneath the surface of the soil, where the decomposition will happen.
In case anyone wonders why an apartment dweller would want to compost, the houseplants will like it. Put some of the output from your countertop composter in a pot and then add potting soil on top of it.
Composting yard waste means you have a yard. Find a shady place that gets some rain but drains well for an enclosed bin. Or use a tumbler.
If you have a large yard or live in a rural area, you can use an open pile instead of buying or building a bin.
How to make compost on the ground
You can make compost on the ground with or without a bin. If you use a bin, start the compost on bare earth. You want worms in your compost pile. Their casings form an important part of the finished compost.
Standard instructions say to start with a layer of twigs or straw a few inches deep. They will aerate the pile and make water drain away faster. Then add layers of different materials—wet and dry, green and brown—on top.
It seems to me that these instructions contradict other standard advice—often found in the same sources––to mix everything thoroughly. In any case, you’ll need to turn the pile with a pitchfork every few weeks. It aerates the pile and to gives everything a chance to be in the center where it’s warmest.
Your compost needs water, but not too much. It should be moist but never soggy. If you use a compost bin, the lid will retain heat and moisture, but then, a solid lid will keep rain away. You’ll have to water it with a hose more often.
If you compost weeds or anything else with seeds in it, make sure everything spends some time in the center of the pile, where the bacteria generate enough heat to kill the seeds. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself planting weeds as you use the compost.
It helps to maintain two or three piles. When you start a compost pile, it makes little sense to mix fresh new materials after it starts to work. So at that time, start a fresh pile. So you’ll have one pile of fresh materials, one pile where composting is making good progress, and perhaps a third one with finished compost you can use.
How to make compost without a compost bin or pile
Some homeowners’ associations don’t allow compost bins or piles. That doesn’t have to stop you from making compost at home.
In any case, if you don’t want to turn compost and don’t want to buy a tumbler, you still have alternatives. You can simply dig a hole and bury your kitchen scraps. Then pile the soil you dug up on top of everything.
The next time you empty your kitchen compost pail, you just have to remember where you buried the last batch and dig somewhere else. Besides being less work, it has the additional advantage that you can bury pet poop and other materials that don’t belong on a standard compost pile. If you compost meat and bones in a hole in the ground, make it so deep that critters won’t smell it and dig it up.
For serious gardeners, trench composting is a more strategic alternative to simply burying stuff. You will be digging your holes in the garden. Don’t put plants directly over the compost. Their roots shouldn’t get into rotting material.
Instead, conceive of three kinds of rows in your garden. One has the plants. Another serves as the path. Dig your holes for making compost in the third. The following year, use the old path as the new trench area. Plant over last year’s compost. Use last year’s planting row for this year’s path.
Here’s an interview with me on the Starting Sustainable podcast,
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Composting: how to make nutrient-rich, garden ‘gold’ in the composter that will help your garden thrive / Eartheasy
How to compost without a compost bin / Jonathon Engles, One Green Planet. [April 2016]How to make compost / Better Homes & Gardens. August 10, 2020