How to Compost: A complete and thorough guide
What is Compost
Compost is the best fertilizer for any type of gardening and the only one that will provide your garden with everything it may need. It is a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers and the easiest and cheapest way to enrich the soil in your garden.
Imagine this: by composting you turn garbage into a useful, fertile matter! Which, otherwise, you would have to pay for!
About one third of your household waste will become valuable organic material. Globally speaking, one third of landfill waste is made up of compostable materials! Only in the U.S. nearly 26 million tons of waste is generated out of food scraps.
It is estimated that a typical modern household throws away almost 500 pounds of food each year, which is about 1.5 lbs per persona.
Compost is the way to recycle that enoromous amount of wasted food.
Today, we are witnessing the great wave of home and municipal recycling and it is certainly a path that leads to the prosperity and health of our planet. And of its inhabitants!
What does Compost consist of?
The main elements compost must contain are nitrogen and carbon, and two main sources of those elements are so called green and brown matter. Green matter (nitrogen) activates the heat process in the compost. It supplies most of the nutrients that will build your compost and fertilize your garden. Green matter consists mostly of wet or recently growing materials. Some examples of green matter include: grass cuttings, fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and tea leaves, cut flowers, vegetable plant remains, young weeds.
Brown matter (carbon) serves as „fiber“ for the compost, it adds bulk to the compost pile and help allow air to better get into the compost. Brown material consists of dry or woody plant material, autumn leaves, hay, dead plants and weeds, sawdust straw, old flowers.
Some find it easier to define those two components as wet (green) and dry (brown).
When starting your compost, you may use a small amount of garden soil or recently made compost between layers of green and brow material. It is not necessary, but it can help to introduce the right type of bacteria and speed up the composting process. A layer of soil can also mask any unpleasant odors. You can also use compost starters. They can be more encouraging for inexperienced garderner beginners.
What to compost (in alphabetical order):
- cardboard (brown)
- chicken manure (green)
- coffee grounds (green)
- comfrey leaves, green (green)
- corn cobs and stalks (brown)
- cotton clothing*
- dryer lint*
- eggshells (neutral)
- flowers, cuttings (green)
- fruit scraps (green)
- grass clippings (green)
- hay (brown)
- leaves (brown)
- paper* and newspaper, shredded (brown)
- pine needles (brown)
- sawdust* pellets (brown)
- seaweed and kelp (green)
- shrub prunings (brown)
- straw (brown)
- tea leaves (green)
- vegetable scraps (green)
- weeds (green)
- wood ash (brown)
What not to compost (in alphabetical order):
- banana peals*
- bones (attract pests)
- bread (doesn’t break down easily, can hold up the rotting-down processes)
- citrus fruit*
- cooked food (doesn’t break down easily, can hold up the rotting-down processes, attracts pests and animals)
- cooking oil (attracts animals, can upset the moisture balance)
- dairy products (attract pests)
- diseased plants (can spread disease to the soil)
- fish scraps (attract pests)
- manure of any animal that eats meat, pet or human feces (can contaminate the soil with foodborne illnesses)
- meat (attracts pests)
- orange rind*
- paper, heavily coated or printed (magazines, printed cards, wrapping paper…)
- pasta (doesn’t break down easily, can hold up the rotting-down processes)
- perennial weeds (can be spread with the compost)
- personal products (used bandages, tampons, diapers, items soiled in human blood or liquids are a health risk)
- rice, cooked or raw (cooked is breeding ground for bacteria, raw attracts vermin)
- sawdust* (if it contains chemicals and glue)
- walnuts (contain substance toxic to some plants)
Additional tips and suggestions
(considering materials from the above lists marked with asterixes):
Some gardeners avoid composting banana peels and orange rinds, because thay are (probably) contaminated with pesticides, as well as highly acidic citrus fruit. Others, on the other hand, suggest that even dryer lint is a good compost material, although it contains particles of detergents and other chemicals. There are similar differences of opinion about about saw dust and paper, cotton clothing, paper towels, paper bags etc.
Personally, I prefer a moderate cum grano salis approach: I do not want to poison my plants, but I also believe that the proces of composting „cleans“ the used material: compost is not only the mixture of its ingredients, but a new substance, organic and vital.
The ratio of green and brown
It is of the utmost importance to have a proper ratio of green and brown in order for your compost pile to work properly. Otherwise, it may not heat up, may take too long to break down and start to smell bad. The ratio depends on the quantity of nitrogen in the green materials and the quantity of carbon in the brown. A good proportion of green and brown in your compost is anywhere between 4:1 browns to greens up to 1:1. If you find that your compost pile is not heating up, than you may need to add more green material to the compost. If you find that your compost pile is starting to smell, you may need to add more browns.
The layering or mixing of these ingredients is just as important: alternate layers of green and brown ingredients in your compost pile or compost bin so that they come into contact with one another, avoid any large clumps, especially of green material, because they can rapidly become anaerobic.
If possible, start with a layer of lightweight brown material, such as leaves, to help keep enough air near the bottom.
Besides green and brown material, your compost needs water and air. Sprinkle each layer of compost with water. The amount of added water will depend on various elements: climate, season, temperature, humidity, number of rainy days; type of bin; variety of green stuff, etc. The pile should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. It is easy to recognize whether the pile is too dry or too wet. If the pile gets too much water, it can not get enough air, the bacteria will suffocate because the air can not circulate. If it is too dry, the bacteria can not thrive.
It is possible to compost without air (anaerobically), but the material will decompose more slowly. Moreover, anaerobic decomposition will smell very stinky (a sour smell like vinegar) and it may also attract flies or take on a matted, slimy appearance.
That is why your compost pile shoud be properly aerated. You give air to the pile by turning it. Turn your pile regularly, once every week or two.Turning the pile helps to encourage the growth of the right kind of bacteria and makes for a nice, sweet-smelling pile that will decompose faster. In the beginning, you may need to do it every few days, depending on how fast is the heating proces (which depends on the piled material, temperature, humidity etc.). Usually, the compost should become hot after two weeks. The heat will drive out moisture and potrošiti zrak: when that happens, its time to turn it.
If your compost pile is large, move the entire pile to the clear spot, and when its time to turn it again, move it back to the original spot. If you are composting in a composter, turn it upside down or tumble it.
Many people neglect turning the compost because it is neither very pleasant nor an easy task. That is why some people use some of the various types („winged“ or „corkscrew“) of compost aerating tools. The compost is ready when it has a pleasant, sweet earthy smell and its components are no longer recognizable. Worms are a good sign that the compost is mature.
Once your compost is ripe and ready, do not add any new material, either green or brown, but start a new composting process.
The temperature of the compost pile is very important because it is an indication of the bacterial activity of the decomposition process. The simplest way to track the temperature inside the heap is by feeling it with your hand. If it is warm or hot, everything is decomposing as it should, but if it is the same temperature as the surrounding air, the bacterial activity has slowed down and you need to add more materials that are high in nitrogen.
Most often asked question – and most difficult to answer – is how long does it take to make compost. It depends on a number factors: how large is your pile or composter; types of green and brown material, climate and season.
We may say that it takes anywhere between two weeks and six months. In average, it can take not more than a month to mature, if you make an effort to create the right conditions (chop the material into small bits, mix the green and the brown stuff in proper proportions and in alternate leyers).
The size oft the pile should be large enough to preserve heat, and small enough to be properly aerated.
If you have a large garden and a place for ground compost, a good size for a pile is about one cubic yard or one cubic meter, though a pile can go larger than this and smaller-scale composting can be made to work as well.
Bear in mind that very fresh compost can grow plants, but it can also rob the soil of nitrogen as it continues to break down. If you are not sure that it is not all the way done, either leave the compost in the bin for a while longer or spread it in your garden and let it sit there for a few weeks before planting anything in it. You can safely leave the compost to wait, or collect underneath the pile for this season and leave the rest for the next.
But, it is good to know that it takes only one compost to get experienced! After your first compost, you will be know when it is ready.
Once you learn how to transform your kitchen scraps into a healthy, rich and smelly food for your plants, you will never want to return back to the „before composting era“. It is enough to imitate nature in the cycle of creating and recreating, and composting will become the most natural part of your gardening.
Remember this: it is worth every effort to be able to harvest your compost and spread it on your garden beds!
Trench composting is a whole new chapter, especially for balcony and back yard gardeners. Yes, balcony as well!
It requires minimum effort, knowledge and expences, no turning and aerating, you don’t have to moisture it, it is not detectable by smell and can be made in the smallest garden as well as in pots.
All you have to do is to dig a hole or a trench approximately 12 inches deep, fill it by half with the compostable materials, and bury them with the soil you dug out of the trench or hole.
Composting in trenches produces no odors, because the waste is burried deep enough and covered with several inches of soil. Just remember where you dug the hole! If there are more, mark them. If you are trench composting in the garden, you can dig holes between rows of planted crops. That way the composting material will nourish the plants nearby even during the proces of breaking down and maturing. You can divide your garden into several zones according to the time of breaking down the composting material you dug into the trenches.
If your garden is larger you can divide it into two parts: one with composting trenches or hole, the other with growing plants, and excange them each year. The easiest way that can be practiced even in the smallest backyard gardens and balcony pots is to dig a hole whenever you collect an amount of kitchen scraps, the same way we described before: a 12 inch deep hole, filled with waste about 6 inches, covered with soil iste debljine.
Knowing that the basic idea behind composting is how to give back to earth what we got from it, it is obvious where composting starts, especially for small home gardeners: in the kitchen. Once you start composting your kitchen scraps, you will stop producing unnecessary waste. And it feels good. It is not easy to collect kitchen scraps: it is messy, smelly and with unconcievable results. That is the point where you need help. And it comes in the form of kitchen composters. Whatever the selling or producing companies claim, do not expect to get ready, mature compost out of any kitchen composter. It is just a „transitory“ tool to prepare the food scraps, shred them, diminish in volume and dehidrate, for just another phase of composting. That is why it is better to call them kitchen compost bins than kitchen composters. Composters are another story and we well get to them later. There is a huge number of various kitchen compost bins, and one certainly needs a guide through that forrest of products.
But, the good news is that there are only three main cathegories of compost bins, and here are some general notions you should bear in mind before choosing each of them:
Small kitchen counter compost bins should be easy to use with one hand so that you can put the scraps with the other. Or, if you hold a handful of scraps, and your other hand is occupied holding a knife, you would want a bin you can opet with a slight touch oft the back of your arm. You would also want it to look good in your kitchen. Plasant ambient is a great energizer. Its capacity should be približno količini otpadaka pripremanja jednog obroka. If you consider buying a counter composters with a shredder pay attention to its strength: many of them are, as customers complain, just plastic boxes with a handle that can shred nothing harder than a strawberry.
Under-sink compost bins should be larger in dimensions and capacity than the ones you keep on the counter, not only because you would not want a counter compost bin to dominate in your kitchen, but because you don’t want to go outside to empty it while preparing one bigger meal. Most of them are somewhere about 1,5 gallons.
They don’t have to be especially good looking.
They should have either a lid koji se čvrsto zatvara ili filtere koji će spriječiti mirise, jer ćete u njoj držati otpatke možda i nekoliko dana, depending on the next stage of your composting process.
The next stage and final as far as bins are concerned is outdoor compost bins or composters.
Whether you are using a composting bin or a kitchen composter, it will probably be full several times a week and its contents will still be, as we said before, far from compost.
A composter is a vessel in which you will finally produce your own compost, combining your kitchen scraps with other composting materials.
Outdoor composters should be durable, heat and cold resistant and easy to manipulate. In average, their capacity is somewhere around 35 gallons, so they should be made in that way that thay can be easily moved around. That is why some of them come on wheels.
As you have learned by now, compost must be regularly turned, therefore you have to be able to turn your composter over easily. That is why some people choose tumbler composters. You also have to make sure that the shaft of the composter is large enough, so that you could take the contents in and out with a shovel or some other tool, and that there is enough space between the shaft and the ground so that you can fit a surface to take your compost out on.
Generally, you should consider a composter that doesn’t look ugly in your garden, that’s easy to handle, that’s easy to empty and turn upside down. It should also be durable, high heat and cold resistant, and easily transported.
Now that you know all the things you should look out for when buying a composter, you are probably close to giving up before you even got started. Don’t give up! We will help you choose the most useful and efficient combination of compost bins.
The thing you must remember when it comes to composting is that in the end it will pay off magnificently by providing you with healthier food and saving you money.