Clicky

Not quite ready ompost

A Gardener’s Guide to Compost

You are probably aware of many tips and tricks that help to improve the soil in your garden without the need of making compost. Some of the more common ones include: sprinkling coffee grounds over the soil to add nutrients and increase acidity, and placing eggshells in your garden instead of throwing them away (this add calcium).

However, perhaps the most beneficial thing that you can do to improve soil conditions is to add compost to it.

Adding food scraps and plant materials to your soil can add nutrients, help prevent diseases, and aid the growth of beneficial bacteria and fungi – all of these go a long way to keeping your plants happy and healthy.

Fresh Compost Pile
Adding goodies to a compost pile: Photograph by Joi Ito; CC

Composting is also a great way to recycle leftover food that would have otherwise been tossed in the trash. And it can also help to reduce air pollution — forget about burning dead leaves in the winter – you can add them to your compost pile and save yourself some trouble and breathe cleaner air.

It is virtually free to make compost, doesn’t require much effort, and helps save the environment by reusing materials that would have otherwise been added to landfills.

If this sounds appealing, maybe it is time to clear out a space in your backyard and start building a compost pile of your own.
So, before we get started, let’s clear up a few misconceptions on what compost is, and what it isn’t.

What is Compost?

Quite simply, compost is a mixture of food scraps, garden plant waste, and lawn trimmings that are allowed to decompose together to form a nutrient-rich product that keeps plants and soil healthy.

Anyone can make a compost heap in their own backyard: just find a container, choose an out of the way place to store it, and start tossing in your used scraps and garden waste.

When you start adding compost to your soil, you will probably find that your plants are stronger and healthier, the soil retains moisture better, and your garden attracts many more helpful friends, especially earthworms.

Worms are great for composting
Image by Philip Kindleysides; CC

The making of compost does require some maintenance, but not that much – the main job that you will have to do is to “turn” it once every few days to keep the air circulating. Otherwise, composting is cheap, easy, and beneficial to gardeners across the country.

There are a few misconceptions on what compost is and what it can be made out of. For starters, compost is not fertilizer. While fertilizer gives plants nutrients, compost enriches the soil that surrounds the plants, which creates a healthy environment in the long term.

Before you start using compost, it is important to do your research and figure out the right balance of compost and fertilizer for your garden – so you don’t end up overloading your plants with nutrients (many common garden plants will get outcompeted by weeds in soils that are overly fertile).

Another benefit of compost is that it is also 100% organic, while commercial fertilizer might be made with artificial chemicals. While the use of fertilizers is still an important part of gardening, composting can help to save you money and is much more environmentally friendly.

Another misconception about compost is that you can toss just about anything in the bin.

Some people even think that they can scrape their dinner plate directly into the pile! While you can add organic food scraps like fruit and vegetable trimmings, certain types of scraps should never be added to the pile. Animal products like meat, fat, bones, skin, and fish scales should seldom be added to compost, as they create a foul stench and encourage animals to rummage through the bin.

Dairy products should not be added to compost starter for the same reason. And while made of organic materials, human and animal feces should never be added because of the risk of spreading disease.

You can toss paper products into the bin, but they must be biodegradable such as certain types of coffee filters and cardboard.
As you learn how to make compost at home, you will start to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.

Some people choose to compost their meat and dairy in separate bins that are sealed off to keep them from attracting animals. Others may bury unused meat directly into the dirt to fertilize the soil.

So although it is not impossible to compost these kinds of materials, I recommend that if you are just starting out that it is best to stick with the basics – so you won’t have any dogs or raccoons knocking over your compost bin in the middle of the night. Decaying animal produce is also much more likely to attract unwanted pests, such as black fly and Bluebottles, to the garden.

Many people who have never tried to compost before have the misconception that composing a moldy pile of scraps will attract flies and smell badly, like rotten eggs, in the sunlight. However, if your compost is made with the proper ingredients, it will decompose into a soil-like product that has a sweet, earthy smell.

If your compost starts smelling like a landfill, maybe it is time to re-evaluate what you have been throwing in there. Compost should smell like soil, not rotten food.

How Do I Make Compost at Home?

Making compost at home is a simple process, but it requires a little knowledge to make sure that you end up with the most nutrient-rich product possible.

Before you start, think about what you’re going to add to your pile. The best compost is made from a mixture of “green material” and “brown material.”

  • Green material is anything you get from your garden or kitchen: grass trimmings, flower heads, coffee grounds, weeds, eggshells, kitchen scraps, etc.
  • Brown material is drier, sturdier materials like branches, twigs, sawdust, dead leaves, paper, straw, and bark.

In other words, brown materials are typically what you’ll have strewn across your lawn during the autumn months.

Your compost should have an equal ratio of browns to greens, so keep track on what you’re adding to your composting bins.

Before you start, you will need a good container for your compost.

You can buy composting tumblers or bins online or at your local farm supply store. Some people also use containers they have lying around the house, but make sure they can be sealed off so animals can’t dig through them.

  • Ideally, your bin should be placed in a dry, cool area that doesn’t get hit with constant direct sunlight.
  • Once you’ve got your container ready, it is time to start adding some scraps!
  • Save the eggshells, coffee grounds, fruit peels, and vegetables trims that you’d normally throw away and add them to the pile.
  • When you mow the lawn, throw a few handfuls of grass trimmings into the bin.
  • Add a few twigs and branches that you found lying around in the woods.

Everyone’s environment and living situation is different, so use whatever you have got available to make a rich, diverse compost.

Depending on the environment, compost can take anywhere from one to three months to fully break down.

Some gardeners add earthworms to their compost to speed along the process.

When it is done, the finished compost should resemble soil and have an earthy smell, indicating that the compounds have completely broken down.

You may wish to sieve your compost before you use it, this will remove larger difficult to decay objects such as bones and fruit stones. The end will result be a fine compost that can be easily mixed with your garden soil.

Compost Sieve, image by SuSanA Secretariat; CC.

What is a Good Compost Recipe?

The exact materials that you have available will vary, but a good compost recipe mixes equal parts kitchen scraps and grass clippings with brown materials like twigs and dead leaves.

Add a little water to keep it moist, but make sure you don’t add too much! The last thing you want is a soggy environment that makes a home for insect pests such as mosquitoes.

Keep the ratio of brown materials vs. green materials as even as possible: if you have too much of one or the other, then the compost might not break down properly.

When it is done, store the compost for several weeks, turning it once every few days to keep the air circulating.

What Kind of Compost Bins Can I Use?

Just about anything can be a compost bin if it is stored and sealed off correctly. But for best results, consider purchasing a commercial compost bin.

Compost bins are strong and durable, and they help to keep the compost sealed away in a cool, dry environment.

If you have a large garden, then larger bins will allow you to store larger amounts of kitchen waste and garden waste without overflowing. They are also typically affordable (especially when you consider the costs of buying nutrients, manure, straw etc., to help improve otherwise poor soils), and many brands are made from environmentally-friendly products.

If you do a lot of cooking, consider investing in a kitchen compost bin. A kitchen compost bin makes it easy for you to dispose of food waste without throwing it in the trash.

Instead, you will be collecting organic materials that you can use to nourish your garden and keep your plants thriving. These bins are typically smaller and more compact than the traditional compost bin, making them easy to store and easy to clean.

Just make sure that they are sealed off – you don’t want to attract flies to your kitchen!

A compost tumbler is a great option for people who may find the compost turning process difficult or otherwise don’t enjoy doing the turning process (let’s be honest, it’s not the most pleasant job).

This kind of compost tumbler is a barrel-shaped device that turns the compost for you without any extra effort on your part.

Turning compost might sound like a simple task, but it can be quite laborious if you’ve got a large bin full of thick, heavy compost.

Unfortunately, these products tend to be more expensive than the traditional bins, so if you do not want to spend the extra money, you may be better off turning compost by hand.

The Rewards of Making Compost

Now that you know how to make compost, you are well on your way to enriching your plants with rich soil that helps retain moisture and provides a healthy soil composition.

The composting process might sound a little overwhelming at first, but all you need to do is gather the right scraps to push your compost in the right direction. Nature does all the work; you can just sit back and enjoy the rewards.

And when you learn how to make compost, you will be able to save money by spending less on expensive fertilizers. Instead, you can feed your garden with your own organic stock.

Compost is called “black gold” for a reason. It is easy to make, doesn’t attract pests, and turns kitchen and yard waste into a wonderful source of nutrients.

If you want to instill a love of gardening in your own family, start by teaching them to make compost of their own. With a little knowledge, the right expertise, and a lot of patience, they will be opening their compost bins at the end of the season and reveling in the beautiful, nutrient-rich product that they can add to their soil.

There are farmers in this world who would pay top dollar for that kind of product, and you essentially made it for free.

I hope that you enjoyed this article on how to make compost. Be sure to check out some of my growing guides, such as this one on How to Grow Beetroot and this one on Meconopsis Plants.