An awful lot of people have said an awful lot about composting. Mostly, they make it sound like an awful lot of work. Let me clear the air: composting is easy. And homemade compost is great for your garden. Here’s your “composting for beginners” guide!
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Composting for beginners: What you need to know
You (yes, you) are nothing but a conduit. A middle person, if you will. The compost? It doesn’t need you. You do not have to do anything to turn your kitchen scraps and garden waste into homemade soil amendment. Mother Nature will do it for you. Most gardeners, though, want to generate compost for use in the garden. To benefit from the natural composting process, you’ll need to collect material and gather it in one spot.
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Why composting matters
First, let’s talk for a minute about why we should all be composting.
- Kitchen food waste that is tossed in the garbage ends up in our landfills, taking up space and emitting methane as it decomposes.
- Food waste that’s tossed in the trash wrapped in plastic has a hard time decomposing at all.
- Composting creates terrific soil amendment for use in the garden. Silly to throw away food waste and then go buy compost that’s been trucked in complete with a plastic bag, right?
- Even if you don’t have a garden, there are plenty of people who would be happy to take finished compost off your hands. They might even take your raw kitchen waste.
Passive composting for beginners
Passive composting is an easy way to turn your waste into a useful product without much work on your part at all. You do not have to have a fancy composter. All you need is a place to put your compost pile. And that’s all it has to be: a pile. Dump your kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, and leaves in a pile and forget about it.
Ooh, I can see the die-hard hot compost people cringing now! But think about it. When left to its own devices, forest waste (leaves, needles, branches) eventually breaks down and turns into a lovely compost. That compost (or humus) feeds the forest. The same thing will happen in your pile, albeit on a much slower time frame than if you really worked at it.
You can help the pile to be more efficient by being mindful of what you add. The best pile has two kinds of waste: damp, wet, gloppy kind of stuff (think potato peels, lawn clippings, coffee grounds, and tomatoes) and dry, crunchy stuff (brown leaves, paper, or straw). In technical terms, those are considered nitrogen and carbon. (My definitions are so much more colorful, don’t you think?) Aim for more carbon materials than nitrogen materials; a roughly two-to-one ratio is a good bet.
Passive composting doesn’t require much from you. How’s that for music to your ears?
Containing the compost pile
Now, a no-frills passive compost pile is easy, but it’s not necessarily attractive. If you’d like your pile to look a little neater, you can contain your passive compost pile in a variety of ways.
- Form wire into a three-to-four-foot diameter round to make a simple wire compost bin.
- Use logs to create an edge.
- Line up bricks or concrete blocks to contain the waste as it breaks down.
- Use a ready-made plastic bin.
- Build a two or three section wooden system. Pallets are an inexpensive way to form the sides for a system like this.
No matter how you choose to contain your waste pile, passive composting for beginners is a good introduction to the process without being overwhelming. Just keep adding compostable materials until the area is at capacity and then let it sit undisturbed until it’s completely broken down.
Another composting for beginners tip? Heap compost items on an unused garden bed throughout the winter months and you won’t even have to move it. Come springtime, plant your garden right in the well-amended space.
Surprising items you can compost
You can compost paper items, even takeout coffee cups, but you’ll find that these leave behind a flimsy layer of plastic. Simply lift the plastic from the compost and dispose of it when the compost is done. Other odd items you can add to the pile:
- Dryer lint (from 100% natural fabrics only)
- Cotton swabs
- Toilet paper and paper towel tubes
- Cloth made from natural materials like cotton and wool
- Paperboard containers and cardboard egg cartons
- Hair — both human and animal
What not to compost
There are some things that just shouldn’t be tossed into your waste pile. Here’s your composting for beginners primer in what not to compost.
Meat and dairy products. These can begin to smell and will attract animals. That’s not to say they won’t break down — they will. If you’re not concerned about odor or attracting animals, you can certainly add small amounts of these to your pile. Another way to dispose of meat and dairy that will benefit your garden? Bury it.
Pet waste. While the manure from farm animals is a great boost to compost piles and soil productivity, the waste from dogs and cats should be disposed of in the trash or in a special pet waste disposal system.
Coal ash. Wood ash from your fireplace or wood stove is fine. Coal ash or barbecue waste is not. They’re high in sulfur and iron and can damage plants.
Diseased plants. While a hot compost pile might kill pathogens, it’s just not worth it. You’d hate to spread disease to your garden when you are trying to improve it with compost.
Synthetic and inorganic items. Plastic and tin foil won’t break down in a compost pile. Dryer lint from loads of polyester and synthetic fabrics should be avoided. And synthetic chemicals or plants that may have been sprayed with pesticides are a definite no-no. Some of those pesticides are persistent and will not break down in a compost pile.
Using a compost drum (easy for beginners!)
While I’ve got a number of compost piles, a worm bin, and chickens to work through much of my waste, I have a problem with invasive weeds. Living in the tropics means lots of vines, and tossing those vines in a compost pile? Is just like planting them. They root easily and quickly. We decided to experiment with a compost drum to dispose of invasive weeds without having to haul them off-site.
Over the course of a month or so, I stuffed a compost tumbler with the invasive yard waste that I won’t add to my regular compost bin. Because the materials are contained and up off the ground, they can’t send out roots. The materials kind of collapsed after a few days in the tumbler and as there was room, I added more.
Five months later I “harvested” the homemade compost. There were still a few pieces that were a bit big, but I just tossed them back into the tumbler for another round.
Compost turner success
So, did it work? It did. The weeds I put in the tumbler broke down into a nice, earthy compost that I can use in my yard without fear of introducing invasive weeds. The size of the tumbler and the length of time it took to break down is a big drawback, though.
In my year-round growing climate, I generate way more waste than I can feasibly process through this tumbler. In a smaller yard, though? And one that has fewer invasives to deal with? It could solve the problem of disposing of green items that might threaten to root in a compost pile.
A cheaper alternative to a compost turner
A compost drum that spins allows for the easy turning of the contents, but you don’t necessarily need one. If you’re a little bit patient, you can use the method outlined above in a simple trash can. Fill it with yard waste until you can’t add any more material, then set it aside. Check it in six months or so, and that yard waste will have transformed into a lovely, rich homemade compost. This is the primary method I use these days for dealing with weeds that I’d like to compost. [Check out the finished product here.]
Eliminating pests in the compost
Beginners often ask about the creepy crawlies that appear in their piles. They’re to be expected!
Food waste in a compost pile may attract a variety of pests. If you’ve got raccoons or neighborhood dogs that might be tempted to dig in, you’ll want to protect the pile somehow. Fruit flies, too, can be a problem. To reduce their population, try to keep dry, crunchy stuff on the top of the pile. Use a garden trowel to lift the top layer and tuck any kitchen waste underneath.
If you are really concerned about keeping animals — say bears — out of your compost, the easiest solution is to use only yard waste in your compost pile. Kitchen scraps can be composted in a worm bin.
Use your blender for small scale waste
What if you don’t have a lot of space? Your leftover salad greens, apple cores, egg shells, and gnarly vegetarian leftovers can go straight to the root of your garden when you use this method, which is ideal for urban gardeners. Toss compostable items into your blender so that it’s about a third full.
Fill the container with water and blend until very finely chopped. Walk out to the garden and with a trowel, dig a small hole alongside a garden plant and pour the contents of the blender in. Cover with dirt and let the worms and microbes go to work. One blender full will fill three small holes (or, of course, one larger one). It’s so easy, I even did it single-handedly (LEFT-handedly) so I could take a video:
Note: Only you know what your blender can handle. If you’re not sure if yours will tackle a whole, wilted sweet potato, you should probably skip it.
If you cannot have a pile above ground (see: bears), trench composting is another option. It’s just what it sounds like: Dig a trench or hole in the garden, right where you’d like to improve the soil, add kitchen waste, and bury it.
Hot composting: an explantation for beginners
Active composting is often called hot composting because the internal temperature of the materials when it’s being actively worked can reach temperatures of 120-150 degrees Fahrenheit. This heat kills weed seeds and any disease that might be present and assures a fast breakdown of materials.
Hot composting requires more effort, but results in a usable product in about four to six weeks.
Making an active pile
Combine carbon and nitrogen materials in a pile at a 2:1 ratio. For every two pitchforks of carbon materials, add one of nitrogen. For the fastest results, start with materials that are chopped into small pieces. Leaves and grass will break down more quickly than whole apples and branches. Sprinkle the pile with water as you build it, aiming for a pile that is moist but not wet, much like a wrung-out kitchen sponge.
In order for a hot compost pile to remain hot, you’ll need to make sure that the pile is a minimum of one cubic yard in size. Once a week, use a pitchfork to turn the pile. The easiest way to do this is to shift the pile over. Pitchfork the material from the top of the pile so that it’s adjacent to the first pile, and continue dismantling the old pile and building a new one right next to it. Sprinkle with water to maintain moisture if necessary.
Other methods of composting for beginners to consider
If you keep chickens, be sure to let them help! Here’s how to put your hens to work in the garden. Vermicomposting utilized worms to break down food waste. It’s easy to make a worm bin and it’s a great way for apartment dwellers to deal with kitchen waste. You compost right in place when you create a lasagna-style garden bed.