Getting Started with Home Composting
By Shelly Montgomery, Master Gardener In Carpenter, Wyoming
Have you wanted to start composting but don’t know where to start? Let us help.
Starting a compost pile is a really great idea. A really great, smelly idea.
And here’s why:
- Composting is more than just a way to get rid of kitchen scraps and yard waste. On a deeper level, compost provides your garden soil with crucial nutrients, making it more productive and balanced.
- Compost also bolsters a garden’s ability to retain moisture and can improve soil drainage in both containers and garden beds.
- Whether you mix it into your soil or use it as mulch, compost will make your garden more productive. Click here to read Why Mulch Matters
Convinced yet? Great! Here’s how to start a compost pile in your backyard:
What is Composting, Exactly?
Composting is the process by which healthy microorganisms break down organic materials into a rich soil additive called humus.
Three factors determine how quickly and effectively the composting process works:
The oxygen, temperature, and moisture levels in your compost pile.
By correctly controlling these three factors, organic materials break down into rich, sweet-smelling compost.
Choosing a Container
Let’s talk about compost containers.
Where, exactly, are you going to put this big pile of compost?
Truthfully, tons of containers make great DIY compost bins, but store-bought compost containers are available in almost every shape and size.
Think critically about the yard space you’re working with and do what makes sense for the space you have. Small yard? Start with a 5-gallon bucket method, like this one:
5-Gallon Bucket Compost
You can easily make a small compost container with a five-gallon bucket and a lid. Drill some holes in the top and sides and you are ready to go. Fill the bucket loosely with a mix of green and brown materials. Shake the bucket to “turn” the materials every few days and in about two months you will have about 2 gallons of rich compost.
Do you have lots of backyard space to dedicate to a pile?
Sketch out a simple plan for a larger compost bin or box built out of the following materials that will suit your space requirements:
Remember: Your bin doesn’t have to be a feat of engineering. It just has to hold the compost in place.
Consider this, also: Compost needs oxygen and moisture in order to create a healthy temperature for the breakdown of organic materials. That’s why many people prefer to build two bins side-by-side, so that the compost can be turned from one bin into the other.
What Can I Compost?
In short, you can compost most organic materials with a few exceptions (more on that later).
Generally speaking, “organic” applies to any material that was once alive. Like grass clippings, food scraps, shredded paper, or manure.
A healthy compost heap requires a blend of these “brown” and “green” materials. Brown materials (like manure) provide carbon in the composting process, while green materials (grass clippings) provide nitrogen.
Brown materials include dry stuff like:
- Fall leaves
- Twigs and branches
- Dry grasses and leaves
Green materials include wet stuff like:
- Kitchen scraps
- Grass clippings
- Some animal manures (no pet or human waste).
Start your first compost pile by alternating layers of brown and green materials in a 1:1 ratio.
For example, if you add one bucket full of dry leaves, add one bucket full of fresh grass clippings. Continue alternating until you have the right amount of compost to fill your container.
If your compost isn’t breaking down at all, you may have too much brown or dry material. On the flip side, a moist, foul smelling compost pile has too much green material.
Large materials like branches will take a long time to break down if they are not chopped into smaller pieces before getting mixed into your compost pile.
As a side note, many home gardeners prefer to have two compost piles. The first is built within a few days or weeks then “worked” as is until the compost is ready. The second bin is used for additional kitchen scraps and yard wastes throughout the season.
Working Your Compost
Remember those three magic ingredients, oxygen, moisture, and temperature? Here’s how to get each one in balance:
There are several ways to ensure that your compost receives enough oxygen.
Commercial barrel-type composters and small bucket composters should be turned or shaken every few days to aerate and mix the materials.
Larger loose piles should be “turned” every week or two. If you only have one bin, use a shovel or pitchfork to mix it much like you would a salad.
Be sure to bring materials from the edges into the center. If two compost bins are available, turn from one into the other.
Compost piles should maintain the moisture level of a damp sponge.
That means that during prolonged dry periods, the compost pile may need to be watered.
Conversely, cover the compost pile during rainy days to keep it from becoming too saturated. If the compost pile becomes slimy, or begins to smell foul, it’s too wet.
If your compost looks the same from week to week and never seems to break down, it’s too dry.
If you follow the above guidelines to control the oxygen and moisture content in your compost, the temperature of the pile should remain relatively optimal.
The composting microorganisms you want thrive in temperatures between 70 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
If the temperature exceeds 160 degrees Fahrenheit, microorganisms begin to die, and the composting process will slow down.
If you stay on top of turning the pile regularly, it isn’t necessary to monitor your soil’s temperature daily. Just keep it moist and maintain that balance of brown and green materials.
What NOT to Compost
- Some animal manures
- Dog and cat waste may contain parasites and are not suitable for home composting.
- Human waste
- Human waste contains bacteria that requires a very controlled disposal.
- Some types of kitchen waste
- Dairy products, meat and fish, grease, oils, and bones can cause odor and pest problems.
- Some yard wastes
- Some yard wastes
A Few Final Considerations
Check the pH
While most finished compost is generally neutral, some compost can affect the alkalinity or acidity in soil.
Soil pH below 7 is considered acidic, while soil pH above 7 is considered alkaline. Most gardens do well with a pH range of about 5.5 to 7.5.
A Note on Unwanted Pests
Flies can be a problem in open compost piles. Completely cover the top of your pile with straw or shavings after turning to keep flies out of the pile.
Now is the perfect time to start your own home composting project. The benefit to the soil and your gardening endeavors will far outweigh the effort that you put in.