Composting allows gardeners to turn kitchen waste and lawn clippings into fertilizer for their gardens. It builds the soil in your garden by adding rich organic matter and encouraging earthworms who benefit your plants. Plus, it reduces your kitchen waste by reusing many scraps that would typically be thrown in the trash.

Turning scraps into a soil amendment is an easy process, but it can take some time.

When you learn how to start composting, it’s important to understand the general rules involved. You’ll need to understand what can and cannot be composted, some issues to look out for, and the optimal temperature for decomposition.

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Let’s take a look at a look at some of the general guidelines so you can learn how to compost.

Compost Definition

According to Dictionary.com, compost is:

A mixture that consists largely of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizing and conditioning land.

Compost uses bacteria, worms, and insects to help break down organic matter until it becomes a product that can be used by plants.

Its incorporation into soil adds nutrients, retains moisture, and improves texture.

Hard, compact soil will become more loose thanks to increased organic material and earthworm activity.

Sandy soil will retain more moisture and nutrients through the incorporation of organic matter.

Ways to Compost

Compost Pile

A compost pile is basically just a pile of compostable materials, though it is commonly kept in a compost bin to keep it contained.

It will need to be turned by a tractor or pitchfork.

Compost piles are easier to use if you need to maintain large amounts of compost.

Through their direct contact with the ground, compost piles attract more earthworms and microorganisms from the soil.

Add your materials to the pile and turn at least weekly. Covering the pile with a tarp will help hold in heat and moisture while also keeping out animal pests.

Compost Tumbler

A compost tumbler is good for smaller amounts of compost.

They are easier to turn than compost piles and tend to break down faster.

Because compost tumblers are easy to turn, they can be turned every time new materials are introduced.

Compost tumblers come in various sizes, so you should try to find one that will hold enough compost to meet your needs.

Compost tumblers are an enclosed system, equipped to keep out pests. They are ideal for composting on your deck or patio.

Vermicomposting

Vermicomposting uses worms to break scraps into worm castings.

Worm castings can be used similarly to compost in the garden and are rich in nutrients.

There is little concern with incomplete composting with vermicomposting.

Vermicomposting uses red wiggler worms in a worm bin to break down compostable materials. Red wigglers are selected because they are more active and break food down more rapidly than other worm varieties.

The bin itself can be made from a plastic container with a lid. Drill holes into the bottom and sides, then set the bin inside of another plastic container.

The bottom container will catch the liquid from the compost, which can be used as a liquid fertilizer in the garden.

Inside of the top bin, layer shredded paper and food scraps for your new worms. Make sure the top layer is shredded paper because worms do all their best work below the surface. The shredded paper will also help maintain moisture levels inside of the bin.

Feed kitchen scraps and shredded paper to your worms at least once a week. Make sure scraps are always buried under the paper.

Do not feed meats, oils, or dairy products to your worms, which can attack flies and throw off the moisture balance in the bin.

Worms do best at temperatures between 55 – 77 degrees Fahrenheit, although they can tolerate temperatures up to 95 degrees or between 40 and 55 degrees.

Extremes above or below either of these ranges will kill your worms.

Worms will slow down outside of their ideal temperature range and eat less.

You can monitor the temperature of your worm bin with a soil or compost thermometer.

When it is time to harvest your worm castings, move all your fresh scraps to one side of your worm bin. The worms will move towards the fresh food and you’ll scoop worm castings out of the other side of your bin in a few days.

You’ll need to sift through your harvested castings to remove any worms or uncomposted materials to add them back to the bin.

It will take your worms approximately 3 – 6 months to break down the food and produce a decent amount of castings.

Learn More: How to Build a Worm Bin

What Can be Composted?

A compost pile is made up of what is referred to as green and brown materials. These compostable materials will feed the organisms that help them break down, but they also provide a balanced nutrient rich food for your plants later on.

Green Materials for the Compost Pile

Green materials are high in nitrogen and contain a lot of moisture. They feed the microbes which in turn tends to add heat to the compost pile.

If your compost pile is staying too dry or not getting hot enough, it needs more green matter.

Green materials include:

  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Coffee grounds and tea bags
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Trimmings from plants and flowers
  • Weeds that haven’t set seed
  • Herbivore and omnivore manure (no human, dog, or cat manure)
  • Egg shells
  • Seaweed

Brown Materials for the Compost Pile

Brown materials are dry and tend to balance out the moisture levels in your compost. They should make up the bulk of your compost with approximately two parts brown matter for every one part green matter.

Brown matter keeps your compost loose and allows for more oxygen and air flow for microbes.

If you find your compost pile is getting and staying too wet, you need to add more brown matter. You should also add more brown matter if your compost pile smells.

Brown matter will break down to provide phosphorus to your plants, necessary for setting fruit.

Brown materials include:

  • Dry leaves
  • Pine needles
  • Twigs and bark
  • Straw and hay (avoid hay with seed heads)
  • Sawdust
  • Dry corn stalks
  • Paper without a glossy finish
  • Dryer lint
  • Cotton fabric
  • Corrugated, uncoated cardboard

What Should not be Composted?

There are some food scraps and other items you should avoid putting in your compost bin. Let’s take a look at some of those items and the reasons why they should be avoided.

  • Weeds with seeds – it can be difficult to avoid seeds in the compost bin, especially when you consider how many seeds are in many of the vegetables that may land in there. However, weed seeds can quickly take over your garden and choke out your plants. To improve your weed control and reduce the spread of noxious weeds in your garden, avoid composting weeds that have gone to seed.
  • Diseased Plants – Diseased plants run the risk of passing on disease and fungal issues to future plants grown in your compost. It is never a good idea to add diseased plants or cuttings to your compost pile. These plants should be disposed of in the trash.
  • Human and carnivore manure – human and carnivore manure run the risk of spreading diseases and parasites to you when you use them in the soil around your edible plants. While there are composting systems that allow you to use it around non-edible plants, you shouldn’t mix it with any compost that may be used in your vegetable garden.
  • Coated paper and cardboard – synthetic materials like that found on shiny paper and cardboard does not break down into compost. We want to use organic materials that will benefit the soil and that worms and bacteria can use as food.
  • Fat or oil – fat and oil in the compost bin displaces that water needed for decomposition. It can actually slow down the composting process.
  • Meat, fish, or dairy – While these could technically be composted in small amounts, they tend to increase smell issues with your compost and attract pests like flies, raccoons, and bears.

How to Compost

Composting is not an exact science.

We’re going to go into some more technical aspects of composting, but I think it’s important to start by letting you know it’s okay if it isn’t perfect.

You don’t need to measure your scraps every time you add them to your compost.

You don’t need to continuously monitor the temperature of your compost.

Composting is a natural process. It happens daily on the forest floor without monitoring or the addition of additives.

However, there are certain ideal conditions that can speed up the composting process.

Collecting Your Green Matter

You’ll want to have a way to collect your kitchen scraps that won’t attract flies and gnats.

I prefer to use a countertop compost bucket.

The bucket has a charcoal filter in the lid that keeps smells to a minimum and helps keep out flies.

However, I have found that determined gnats will try to make their way into the filter and lay eggs.

For this reason, the bucket should not go more than a day or two before being emptied into the compost bin outside.

Materials will break down faster if they are cut into smaller pieces. Rough chop your kitchen scraps before adding them to your compost bucket to speed up your composting process.

Ratio of Browns to Greens

Your compost pile should consist of approximately two parts brown matter for every one part green matter.

This means if you spent the week adding vegetable scraps and coffee grounds from your kitchen, you need to add twice as many raked leaves over the weekend.

Introducing Microbes

The most important aspect of your compost pile is bacteria or microbes.

These microbes can be introduced in 3 ways:

  1. Add soil from your garden
  2. Add compost from an existing pile
  3. Purchase compost starter

Any of these options should introduce the needed microbes, but the purchased starter tends to deliver the most consistent results.

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Environment

The microbes in your compost need oxygen to breathe, and they get this when you turn the compost pile.

Turning the compost introduces oxygen and distributes heat, creating an aerobic environment.

It also distributes the microbes and worms in the compost pile and introduces them to fresh sources of food.

An aerobic environment is ideal for microbe activity. Maintaining an aerobic environment in your compost pile will speed up decomposition and produce compost faster.

An anaerobic environment is created when the oxygen in the pile is exhausted.

Oxygen in the pile will become exhausted if:

  • The pile is kept too wet.
  • There is too much green matter.
  • The microbes have consumed all their available food.
  • The pile gets too hot.

Microbes begin to die off in an anaerobic environment, which will slow down the decomposition process.

The pile will become heavy, compact, and begin to smell.

It can be corrected by increasing the balance of brown to green matter and frequent turning.

Turning Your Compost Pile

To maintain an aerobic environment in your compost pile, you’ll want to turn it at least once a week.

I like to turn the pile every time I add more materials to the compost. It incorporates the materials into the pile, and allows them to start breaking down right away.

Compost tumblers make turning the compost easy. The barrel rotates on a frame, so you can add the materials, close the door, and turn the drum.

Compost bins need to be turned with a broad fork. It can be difficult to get all the way to the bottom of the pile, but it’s important to at least pull from the middle and mix in the top and outer edges of the compost pile.

Vermicomposting doesn’t necessarily need to be turned, but new scraps should always be buried in shredded paper. It relies upon earthworms instead of microbe activity. The worms will aid in mixing the compost and turning it into worm castings.

Temperature of the Compost

Microbes increase the temperature of the compost as they feed and break down materials.

The ideal temperature of compost is 113 – 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Temperatures of 140 – 160 degrees will help kill weed seeds and pathogenic organisms, but also risk killing some beneficial microbes in the compost.

Note: These temperatures will also kill any worms in your compost.

A temporary high temperature period is essential to killing seeds and pathogens in your compost bin.

The compost pile cannot sustain high temperatures for more than a few days. The microbes that are producing those temperatures feed very quickly and will run out of food. The pile will need to be turned to introduce more food and redistribute the microbes.

You can monitor the internal temperature of your compost with a compost thermometer.

Learn More: Common Composting Questions

Rotating Compost Piles

In order for everything in your compost pile to break down completely, there will need to be a period of about 4 – 6 weeks when you do not add anything to the pile and only turn weekly.

It can be difficult to not add to your pile during this time.

The best option is to have more than one compost bin or tumbler. Once the first bin is full, you can start to add materials to the next available bin.

Remember to add a scoop of warm compost from your existing bin to introduce microbes to the new bin.

How to Tell When Your Compost is Done

Compost that has completely broken down should not resemble any of the materials that went into making it. It should closely resemble thick, coarse soil.

It shouldn’t be overly moist or dry. It should form a loose clump when squeezed together.

It shouldn’t smell. It should have an earthy, humus smell.

If you still have some large pieces in your compost, you do have the option of filtering them out. However, you should keep in mind the composting process was incomplete. This may mean more seeds and fungi growing in your garden.

Fungi in your garden is not a big deal. They are a sign your soil is active.

Seeds in your compost means you’ll be pulling out weeds later on down the road.

How to Use Your Compost

There are 3 ways you can use compost in your garden:

  1. Mix compost with your soil – compost can be mixed with your container or raised bed soil at a ratio of one part compost and one part soil.
  2. Top-dress compost around your plants – compost can be spread around the base of your plants as a top dressing. Every time you water your plants, it will draw nutrients into the soil.
  3. Make compost tea – Compost tea can be used as a liquid fertilizer or as a foliar spray for your plants. It will fertilize the plants, but can also be used as a spray to suppress disease and improve plant health.

Learn More: How to Make and Use Aerated Compost Tea

Composting is a natural process we can use to our advantage in the garden.

It is free fertilizer with enormous benefits.

By repurposing scraps from your kitchen, you can produce a rich, organic material that can build your soil, benefit your plants, and increase your production.

Need more compost than what you have readily available? Check out 5 Little Known Ways to Find Cheap Compost.


Worms in compost - Composting 101 - How to Start Composting
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