Composting is the process that recycles organic matter into fertilizer which then feeds soil and plants. It provides an ideal environment for bacteria, fungi, and other decomposing organisms to do their jobs. The result is rich “black gold” for your gardens.
Every person who wishes to grow a healthy organically rich self-reliant garden should be practicing the art of composting. In this guide, you will learn everything you need to know.
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Composting vs. Landfills
Composting comes with a plethora of benefits for your garden. One of the most important benefits is that it cuts down on waste, especially food waste that comes from our homes.
When all that organic matter enters the landfill it is buried under layers of other garbage. That water undergoes anaerobic decomposition, being broken down by organisms that can live without free-flowing oxygen. The result is called biogas.
Biogas is 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide. Methane is bad because it traps heat in the atmosphere. These methane emissions are bad for the environment.
By composting all those food scraps we can cut down on the methane gas that gets into the environment and do our part in saving the planet.
Did you know that landfills are the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the United States?
Composting at home for a one-year period can save global warming gases equivalent to all the CO2 your washing machine produces in 3 months!
Benefits of Composting
Besides reducing waste at landfills, composting has many other important benefits to consider. here are a few of the benefits:
- Improves soil and helps prevent erosion – composting provides nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium which are needed for our crops. It increases soil retention which cuts down on erosion also.
- Conserves water – Did you know that a 1% increase in organic matter in the soil will help the soil retain 20,000 more gallons of water per acre?
- Keeps your soils pH in check and surpasses many diseases
Types of Composting
Composting can be done indoors or outdoors. It can be as complicated or as simple as you need it to be. The best way to decide what’s right for you will be based on several factors:
- How much space do you have available?
- How much food waste does your household produce
- The type of organic waste that you produce.
- How much time do you have available to work on your compost?
Hot vs. Cold Composting
There are two types of composting – hot composting and cold composting. When you understand how each type works and what is involved, you will be able to choose which is right for you.
Cold composting is considered passive composting. It slowly breaks down organic matter by allowing Mother Nature to do her part naturally. There is little help from you.
With this type of composting, you don’t need to be concerned with the ratios of the ingredients. You do not need to worry much about moisture levels or aerating your pile.
This type of composting is the best choice if you produce were small amounts of organic waste, do not have the time to “mess” with a compost pile, and if you are in no hurry to use the new compost.
These piles tend to be smelly and wet. It will normally take one to two years for your compost to be garden ready. But beware that a cold compost pile is cold.
That means that the high temperatures found in a hot pile are not present to kill any pathogens that may enter the pile originally. This means a higher chance of weeds and possibly diseases could enter your new soil.
A hot compost pile is much faster but will take more work on your part. The carbon and nitrogen, the two important ingredients you will be adding must be kept at an optimum ratio for the pile to compost properly.
You will also have to make sure the pile is aerated properly and gets the right amount of moisture throughout the entire composting process.
Under the ideal conditions, you could potentially have good compost ready for the garden anywhere from four weeks to twelve months.
A bonus for the hot pile is that the high heat that the pile reaches will kill most weeds, diseases, pesticides, herbicides, and any bug larvae or eggs.
The hot composting method is the best choice for most gardeners and especially farmers as it produces much more organic matter without the issues involving cold composting.
Using the Right Ingredients While Composting
The organisms that break down your organic matter need four key elements to thrive; nitrogen, and carbon. water, and air. If you can maintain the right amount of carbon and nitrogen, mixed with the right amount of air and water, you will have a successful compost pile.
The carbon-to-nitrogen ratio should be 25 to 30 parts carbon for every 1 part nitrogen.
Too much carbon makes for a drier pile and too much nitrogen makes for a wetter pile. Adding the opposite will balance the pile. Carbon is considered the “browns” of the pile and nitrogen is considered the “greens” of the pile.
Carbons or the “browns” of the pile are found in brown plant material. Carbon acts as a food source for the decomposers that work to break down your pile.
Browns are slower to rot, provide carbon and fiber and allow air pockets to form within your pile.
The “greens” of your pile make sure your decomposers can grow and quickly reproduce. It is the basic building block for life for plants and animals.
Greens are quick to rot and provide ample nitrogen and moisture to your compost.
Every living organism needs water to survive. You will need to make sure your compost pile continuously stays feeling like a wrung-out sponge. Including food waste allows more moisture into the pile but you may still have to add additional water now and then.
If your pile feels too dry, water more or add more wet materials. If it seems too wet, add some carbon-heavy browns.
By layering your materials within the compost pile you should be able to achieve optimal airflow into your pile. Turning your pile frequently also allows air to enter.
This aeration doesn’t just speed up your composting process, it also reduces odors. Your pile should be turned every week at a minimum in the summer and once every two to three weeks at a minimum in the winter.
When using hot composting, the ideal temperature of the pile should be between 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, your macro- and microorganisms are able to break down the matter the fastest. This high temperature also kills weed seeds and pathogens or bacteria.
Size and Location
The ideal size for the average property is about 3 square feet. When you make the pile much larger than that, they tend to be harder to turn over and harder to maintain the right moisture and air levels.
The compost location should be dry and shady. If your climate is rainy for a majority of the time you may want to consider moving your pile to a spot where the ground does not become saturated underneath.
Here in central Florida, we have to tarp our compost piles or place them in deep shade due to the high heat. We also must water just a bit more. You need to consider your weather and climate when placing a compost pile.
The Design of the Compost Pile
There are many ways to build a compost area. From a commercial compost tumbler to an open bin the possibilities are many. Other people prefer trench composting. You can even use a vermicomposter.
For this guide, we will choose a pallet composter. But I will explain the others first so that you can make the best decision for you.
Closed Bin Composting
This is an enclosed structure that helps retain heat and moisture. These bins are placed on the ground directly over the soil. For this reason, they have open bottoms.
These bins range from 3x3x3 to larger. They can be made at home or purchased in gardening stores and online. Garbage cans can be used for this type of composting, but you may have to drill some holes in the sides for air.
Open Bin Composting
These are the ideal bins for composting as they require much less maintenance. These bins, however, may attract critters though, due to the addition of food scraps. These bins are more suited for yard waste than food scraps.
Again these types of bins can be purchased or made at home. Driving a few poles in the ground and wrapping some fencing around three sides will make a decent bin. Just make sure to keep it in the 3x3x3 size if possible.
These bins are also made from pallets because of the already-sized 36″ pallet. Simply drive some fence poles into the ground and slide the pallets over the poles until you form your bins. You can continue to add as many new bins as needed.
Tumblers are sealed containers, usually made of plastic that is built on an axle to allow you to simply crank a handle and turn your compost as needed.
These tumblers can produce compost in as little as three weeks and are great for smaller composting needs. these bins can also be bought online and in-store.
Trench composting allows you to bury all of your ingredients directly in the ground. Basically, you dig a hole 12″ – 24″ deep, dump in your browns and greens, make sure it is pretty moist, and cover it up.
A bonus to this type of composting is that it can be done year-round in many places as long as the soil is pliable. This method is only good for one-time or small amounts of compost. You won’t want to keep digging up your property.
This is a cold composting method so it will take more time. The normal time to ready-compost is about 12 months. This compost is not harvested though it is meant to be done where the compost is needed.
Digging a small hole near or under where you will plant is doing the same thing. Many people who grow an edible yard will dig the ground around their plants and bury their food waste directly in the hole.
Vermicomposting also called worm composting or worm gardening is a great option to make compost indoors. It can be done year-round in your garage or a basement. It can also be done outside if the climate allows it.
This type of composting produces natural, odorless castings (worm poop), in around three to six months with minimal maintenance. It uses Red Wigglers.
Vermicomposters can be bought online or in stores, but it is just as easy to make a vermicompost bin yourself.
What Can Be Composted Safely
Basically, the rule of thumb is that anything that comes from the ground can be composted. I will split the composted items into browns and greens for you to make it easy.
- Carrot tops
- Citrus peels
- Grass clippings
- Soft prunings
- Plant debris
- Vegetable peelings, pulp
- Tea bags and leaves
- Coffee grounds, filters
- Animal manure with straw
- Wood chips
- Yard trimmings
- Hair, fur
- Fireplace ashes (from natural wood only)
- Fruits and Vegetables
- Shredded newspaper
- Paper (uncoated)
- Comfrey Leaves
- Vacuum cleaner contents
- Used kitchen paper
- Natural corks
- Cotton towels
- Fall leaves
- Egg boxes and fiber egg crates
- Cotton wool
- Paper Bags
What Should Not be Composted
There are certain things that should not be placed in your compost bin.
- Coal ashes
- Cat litter
- Soiled tissues
- Olive oil
- Meat and fish scraps
- Plastic bottles
- Dog or cat feces
- Cling wrap
- Drink Cartons
- Glossy paper
- Diseased plants (unless you can guarantee a high enough temperature in the pile to kill pathogens)
Some matter can be composted but only under certain circumstances and conditions. Dairy and other animal products fall under this umbrella.
These materials can create odor problems, and attract flies and rodents to your pile, otherwise, they are actually safe to add. Keep in mind that if the animal or product carried any pathogens or bacteria and viruses you could potentially transfer them to you and your family.
Potential Issues of the Compost Pile
In a perfect world, we could add our browns and greens, water it a bit, turn it weekly, and have super organic, rich compost for our garden with no issues whatsoever. However, that is not the case.
The biggest battle you may fight will be fruit flies or flies in general. After all, there is a rich source of attraction for those pesky flies.
Those pesky flies are not too much of a problem, but eventually, they can reproduce and take over your yard if you allow it.
To eliminate or at least minimize fruit flies do some of the following:
- Increase the amount of carbon in your pile, or bury the greens under the carbons. Flies are attracted to wet greens.
- Make a fruit fly trap.
- Boil all food scraps before placing them in your pile.
- Wait for those pesky flies to leave before adding more greens to your pile. They will leave in a few days without a food source.
Identifying When Your Composting is Complete
Once your bin is full and all that is left is to turn your compost frequently, you will stop adding material and allow your pile to finish itself. But how will you know if it is ready for your garden?
Finished compost is smooth and crumbly, smells a lot like a rich, forest floor, and is dark in color. Any foul smells mean that the pile is not finished. Turn it again, and wait a bit longer.
Don’t try and rush the process. The rewards you will receive will be worth the waiting time. And your plants will prove it to you at harvesting.
Using Your New Compost
So all of your hard work has paid off and you have been blessed with rich, organic matter that can now be used in your gardens. Here are some ideas of where to use your compost:
- Can be fed to potted plants
- Spread it out over a lawn
- Worked into your vegetable and herb beds
- Mix it with your potting soil
- Use it around trees
- Layer it like mulch
Now you should have the knowledge to start composting on your property right away. Click the graphic image below to download the free infographic and get started composting right now.