Are you interested in reducing the amount of waste that is sent to the landfill each week? Want to recycle nutrients from everyday items and kitchen scraps? This is the place for you! I'm going to provide you with all the basics of backyard composting, and although it is only scratching the surface, it will be all you need to get started reducing your carbon footprint!
Composting is the natural process of organic materials decomposing into a nutrient-dense soil enrichment. The result of composting is material that can condition soil to be a thriving environment for plants. Not only is the compost good for your garden, but it helps with moisture retention, reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, and keeps a lot of waste out of landfills, where the individual components would otherwise take up a lot of space and release methane. Kitchen scraps and garden waste combined make up over 28 percent of what we put in our trash. Backyard composting allows us to divert some of that waste from landfills and turn it into something useful for our yards (nrdc.org/stories/composting-101).
A compost bin doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated, it could simply be a trash bin with small holes drilled in for aeration or even a few wooden pallets made into a bin. If you want to save time, you could instead buy an actual compost tumbler. Ideally, a compost bin should be kept in an area with good drainage, with partial sun and shade, easy to get to, and somewhere not around animals (unless your compost bin is animal-proof). Our compost bin is made from pallets and lined with hardware cloth to prevent as many pests as possible from getting in (see video below on how we built our bin).
Before I tell you how to start composting, I want to explain the difference between cold and hot composting. Cold composting is otherwise known as "passive" composting and hot composting as "active" composting. Because I use the hot or active method for my backyard composting, that's what I'll dive into deeper in this post.
Cold composting- Although this method doesn't require nearly as much maintenance as hot composting, organ matter is broken down more slowly. Any organic material will break down eventually, so when using this method, you don’t have to worry about green to brown ratios, stirring or rotating routinely, or monitoring moisture levels. While it doesn’t take as much intervention on your part, it could take up to a year for complete decomposition. Cold composting also doesn’t reach a high enough temperature to kill off harmful pathogens so depending on what your add to your pile, there may be parasites or weeds in your finished product.
Hot composting- This method is much faster than cold composting, but as mentioned, does take more attention. If maintained properly, the high temperature of the pile will destroy most weeds, seeds, and parasite eggs. The optimal peak temperature for hot compost is 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This happens when microorganisms are breaking down waste and reproducing at a fast rate. Using this method (and depending on the amount of compost you have), your compost could be ready to use in as little as 4-12 weeks!
For successful composting, you’ll need a combination of what is called “green and brown” materials. Brown materials add carbon to the pile, allowing water and air to flow. Green materials add nitrogen, which is important for microbial growth. Moisture level also plays an essential role in composting.
Browns- dead leaves, branches, twigs, dried grass clippings, shredded newspaper, cardboard, paper towel/toilet paper rolls, nut shells, shredded paper, sawdust, and pine needles
Greens-fresh grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, crushed egg shells, animal manure, hair and fur, tea bags
It helps to shred or cut items into smaller pieces to allow for more surface area, which helps organic matter decompose faster.
Do not compost- coal, charcoal ash, glossy paper products, dairy products, diseased plants, fats, grease, lard, oils (I don’t compost any cooked/leftover fruits or vegetables because of the oil it was cooked with), meat or fish bones, dog or cat (or any carnivorous pet) waste, human waste, yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides, citrus fruit peels
Here's where the ratio of brown to green comes into play. Two parts brown to one part green is ideal to allow for more aeration and to avoid excess moisture. When you have the right ratio, the pile will be moist, but not soggy. A good way to tell if you have the right ratio is if your compost smells earthy, like dirt. This means your compost is right on track. But if your ratio is off and you have too much green, your compost will smell bad and be soggy and slimy. If you have too much brown, your pile will be dry and take longer to break down.
Let's get started composting!
Here are the 3 easy steps:
1. Start out with a layer of bulky brown materials on the bottom. For example, pine needles or twigs. This provides more room for air and water to flow in the future once the pile starts to grow.
2. Then, add in a layer of green materials, like kitchen scraps. If you have any, you could also add in animal manure at this time to accelerate the heating of your pile.
*Remember to keep pile moist. If it is dry when you add a new layer, lightly water so that it is firm but not compact. If your compost pile is open to rain, be cautious of the amount of water that gets into your pile. If the pile becomes excessively wet or soggy at any point, you can mend this by adding more brown material such as shredded paper or cardboard.
*Also make it a point to stir or rotate your compost pile once a week to every 10 days to allow for faster decomposition as well.
3. Continue these steps, adding layers like a compost lasagna, until you either reach the top or run out of room. When your compost is ready, it will look like dirt and will smell earthy. You can add it straight to your garden, mix it in with the soil before planting, or even add some to a potted plant.
For more information on composting and to see how we built our compost bin from wooden pallets, check out the videos below!