Did you know that composting might be one of the best things you could do for your soil? Too many people nowadays start with poor soil – soil that is either too compacted or lacking in natural nutrients and microorganisms.
But composting does more than lead to a healthy garden. It also will cut back on your personal expenses and save the environment.
You’re already producing the waste necessary for the process. So instead of having it hauled off, why not use it to create a healthier garden?
Today, you will learn practical steps to begin your own compost pile. Before we do, though, you’ll learn the basics of composting and its benefits.
Make sure to keep reading to the end of the article because we have frequently asked questions about specific waste products that can or cannot be used as well as some materials that should never be used.
- The Basics
- Benefits of Composting
- 7 Steps to Get Started
- Don’t Have the Space for a Pile?
- 6 Different Ways to Use Your Compost
- FAQ: What Materials Can You Use?
- 9 Items You Should Never Use
Compost consists of 4 main components that work in unison to produce nutrient-rich material you can use around your home.
These 4 “ingredients” are:
- Organic Matter
- Aerobic Bacteria
There are two different types of organic matter needed in a compost pile. Green organic material and brown organic material.
The green organic material supplies the compost with nitrogen. Nitrogen supplies the bacteria with amino acids and protein. These help to feed the bacteria and speed up the decomposition process.
The green material will also heat the pile, which provides an environment suitable for the bacteria to quickly grow and multiply.
Green material can include (but are not limited to):
- Green Leaves
- Garden Waste
- Vegetable Scraps
- Fruit Peels
- Grass clippings
- Manure (from herbivores only)
- Plants and Plant Cuttings
The brown organic materials are rich in carbon and supply the bacteria with energy. These materials are slower to break down than their “green” counterparts. Brown materials balance the pile out.
The brown materials are usually fibrous and coarse. They will hold their structure longer through the decomposition process. This allows oxygen to flow more freely through the pile and is essential for aerobic bacterial activity.
Brown materials can include (but are not limited to):
- Evergreen Needles
- Dry Leaves and Grasses
- Wood branches
Bacteria break down the organic matter (green and brown material). The byproduct created by the bacteria is what becomes the base of the nutrient-dense compost you use on your lawn and garden.
As bacteria process the organic materials, they release carbon dioxide and cause the pile to heat up. These microbes love the heat. They will work around the clock and continue growing and multiplying so long as the conditions are right.
The oxygen is necessary to support the breakdown of the organic matter by the aerobic bacteria. It also provides the pile with proper ventilation to keep the pile from overheating and killing the bacteria.
Water is essential for the decomposition process. It also serves to regulate the temperature of the pile. It keeps it from overheating and killing the microbes. It creates an environment in which the bacteria thrive.
The decomposition process can take some time. A good way to ensure that it moves along at a steady pace is to break the larger pieces of organic debris down into smaller pieces. It takes longer for larger pieces of matter to break down.
The rate of decomposition is also influenced by how often you mix the compost heap. If you turn it more often, you will speed up the process and finish sooner.
It should be noted that the bacterial activity will slow down in colder temperatures. It is recommended that you stop mixing the debris once the weather turns cold to ensure that the heat does not escape the pile.
Benefits of Composting
There are a lot of great things about composting. This homemade, organic, nutrient-rich fertilizer is known as “black gold” in some circles. Let’s take a closer look at why it earned this nickname.
Reduces Waste in Landfills
We are running out of room to dispose of our solid waste. Landfills will soon be called “landfilled”.
Anything we can do to prolong the life of our planet for future generations is a good thing. It might seem small, but imagine the difference it would make if we all took this simple step.
Improves the Drainage of Your Soil
Whether your soil is made of clay or sand, compost can help improve drainage. Working it into clay soil will loosen it up and make it easier to work with. Less compact soil makes for healthier plant roots.
For sandy soils, mixing it will help by increasing the soil’s water retention. Compost retains a significant amount of water compared to its weight.
Enriches Your Soil
It will provide your soil with essential nutrients and helps it retain moisture. Both of these contribute to healthy grasses and other plants. It will also help to suppress plant diseases and pest invasions.
Compost can also balance out your soil. Whether your soil is acidic or alkaline, adding it will help to normalize its pH level.
Keeps the Chemicals Off of Your Lawn
A pile is an organic, natural way to care for your lawn. By going the organic route, you can keep chemicals out of the equation.
Many of these chemical compounds are caustic and dangerous. This is especially important if you have children or pets.
Helps Control Erosion
Over the last 40 years, 33% of the world’s farmland has been rendered unfarmable by erosion.
Most erosion is caused by excess water in a given environment. Compost is known for its ability to retain water (it can hold up to 20X its dry weight in water). It acts like a sponge and keeps water from eroding topsoil.
Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Most kitchen waste, scraps, and yard waste wind up in a landfill. Here they don’t have the necessary conditions to decompose. Instead, the food scraps and yard waste will rot.
Rotting is different than decomposing. Rotting material releases methane gas and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Composting returns those kitchen scraps and lawn trimmings to the soil through decomposition. This natural process reduces the emission of greenhouse gas into the environment.
Saves You Money
In this country, we waste between 30% and 40% of our food supply. More than 40 million tons of food is wasted every year. That adds up to around $161 million that we, quite literally, throw into the garbage.
Choosing to compost will help reduce cost and waste.
You spend money on all of the food you have in your home. The food and food scraps that you throw away affect your bottom line. You spend money to have those kitchen scraps hauled off to one of your local landfills. You also spend money at your local garden supply store on mulch or fertilizer for your lawn or garden. All that money is flowing out.
Composting puts food to work in your lawns and garden beds. Re-using food scraps will reduce the costs of waste removal as well as the cost of purchasing mulch or fertilizer.
7 Steps to Get Started
So you don’t know how to get started? Here are 7 easy steps.
Step 1: Choose Your Compost Bin
So what will it be? Buy one? Make one? A garbage can? A wooden structure? An open pile? Choose what style works best for you and your property.
Step 2: Choose a Location for Your Pile
The location of your pile should be sunny, flat, and well-drained.
It’s also important to put it in a convenient location for you to reach. Remember, you will be feeding your pile with material and mixing it regularly. You don’t want to have to walk uphill both ways and across a creek to get to it.
Step 3: Layer the Organic Material
The first layer of material in your composting bin should be coarse materials like sticks and twigs to give it some elevation. This is important for proper drainage.
It is best to place alternating layers of green materials and brown materials on the pile at a ratio of 2:1. That said, a big tip for beginners is that you can never go wrong with too much brown material (it will just take a longer time). Too much green material, on the other hand, can lead to fly infestations.
To reduce pests and insects from invading your compost pile, always be sure that you’re putting a layer of brown material on the top of the pile. These materials don’t give off the scent that attracts rodents and bugs. The green materials do.
Step 4: Add Food Scraps and Yard Trimmings as They Accumulate
Use a separate container in your kitchen for the vegetable scraps and other food waste that is going to the pile. Whenever the kitchen compost pail is full of food scraps, take it outside and add it to your pile. Keep this pail well-sealed to prevent attracting pests.
For yard trimmings, dry leaves, grass clippings, and the like, place them into a trash bin and dump them into the pile whenever the container becomes full. As an added tip, keep this trash bin with brown materials next to your pile so that whenever you add green materials, you have easy access to brown materials to top it off with.
Step 5: Continue Layering Materials Until Bin is Full
The pile will shrink as the organic matter starts to decompose. Once the bin is full or the pile is complete, you need to allow the material in the bin to go through the entire process.
Don’t add anything new because they will not finish decomposing at the same time. If you do this, you’ll have finished compost mixed in with materials that are still decomposing.
An easy solution to this is to use a composter with multiple bins. This allows you to continue adding new material to decompose without affecting your finished product.
Step 6: Maintain the Pile
Maintaining your pile is an ongoing process and will require a little attention. For the best results, you need to regularly perform these 3 tasks for proper upkeep:
- Whenever you add fresh materials into the bin, mix them into the lower layers or at least add brown organic material on top. A rake is a good tool for this job.
- Keep the materials in the bin or pile about as wet as a wrung-out sponge. If it’s too wet, add more brown materials to help dry it out. Add water if the pile is too dry.
- Mix the bin or pile once a week. This will keep the temperature regulated and the bacteria happy.
It will also ensure that there’s no foul smell. If your pile has a bad odor, then something isn’t right.
Step 7: Harvest Time
Finished compost will be dark, crumble easily, and smell like the soil. It takes between 3 to 6 months to reach the final usable form.
Remove the finished organic materials, but leave unfinished materials behind to finish decomposing. It’s not uncommon for this to happen.
Don’t Have the Space for a Pile?
Another method for decomposing materials in usable nutrients is worm vermicomposting. If you don’t have a surplus of yard trimmings or you don’t have the room outside, vermicomposting is a simple, less involved alternative.
Vermicomposting is done by using worms to break down fruit and vegetable scraps (not meat or bones). You will use their castings to fertilize the soil. You can do this inside if you choose.
There are some definite differences between the two methods, but the result is the same.
6 Different Ways to Use Your Compost
There is more than one way to use compost around your property. Here are six different applications that you can choose from.
1. As a Top Dressing
Use the organic matter as a top-dressing in your flower beds or gardens and around the base of your shrubs and trees.
2. Feed Your Lawn
Sprinkle it on your lawn a few times a year to feed the soil and the grass. This will also help to balance out the pH level of the soil.
3. As a Soil Conditioner
Use it as a soil conditioner when planting trees, shrubs, or flowers. Fill ½ of the hole with soil and the other ½ with your finished product. This will provide the plants going into your garden with the nutrients they need to establish healthy root systems.
You can also work the it into the soil of your lawn or garden or even build your own soil with it. This will supplement proper drainage and help with the pH balance.
4. Brew Compost Tea
Make compost “tea-bags” using a pillowcase or a cheesecloth. Fill either with your decomposed organic material and let it steep overnight in a container filled with water. The “tea” you have made can be used as a fertilizer to water your plants and shrubs.
5. Nourish Fruit and Vegetable Roots
Feed the fruits and vegetables in your garden with your nutrient-dense finished product.
Fruit and vegetable roots love nitrogen. Compost is nitrogen-rich and has many other micro and macronutrients.
6. Use as Mulch
It can be mulched around your flower beds and trees. It has a deep rich color that helps the colors of your plants and flowers pop.
You can also mix the it with wood chips. Mixing it with wood chips creates a nutrient-dense mulch that is aesthetically pleasing as well. Compost crumbles easily and the chips will give it more structure.
FAQ: What Materials Can You Use?
Some ingredients are crucial to healthy compost, and some materials do not belong anywhere near a bin. There are also some oddities that you can use that might surprise you.
So let’s address some of the common questions about what you can and cannot compost.
Can You Use Dryer or Vacuum Cleaner Lint?
Lint is a combination of dust, hair, skin-flakes, clothing fibers, small food scraps, and other dirt. It may sound nasty, but they all will decompose.
Can You Use Coffee Grounds and Filters?
Adding coffee grounds is a good idea.
Coffee grounds is recommended because they are a good source of nitrogen. It does not matter whether the ground are brewed or not.
As for the filters, you will need to determine if they are made of biodegradable materials. The biodegradable filters will use natural fibers like paper or cotton.
Can You Use Brown Paper Bags?
Paper bags will decompose quickly. They don’t have to be brown.
They are considered brown material (not because of their color). They will add carbon to balance out the nitrogen-rich green material.
However, some bags are laminated or coated with wax. If your bag is covered in one of these elements, don’t put it into your pile.
Can You Use Banana Peels?
Using banana peels is also recommended. As the peels break down, they will provide a nice dose of potassium. This will help solidify the NPK content of your finished product.
An alternative use for banana peels is as a way to attract fruit flies and keep them away from your pile. Simply put peels in a coffee can and poke holes in the top. The flies can go in but have difficulty coming out.
If you’re going to use banana peels in the pile, or any other food scraps, you need to push them into its interior. This will make it more difficult for flies to reach their food source and prevent your from amassing a horde of flies around your pile.
To speed up the decomposition process, cut them up into pieces before you add them to your pile.
Can You Use Orange Peels?
Orange peels are rich in nitrogen and are good to have in your pile. In addition to the nitrogen, the orange peels can also speed up the activity of the microorganisms that aid in decomposition.
Do not throw the peels in whole. They will take forever to decompose. So take the time to break them up into smaller pieces before you throw them into the pile.
Can You Use Bread?
This is one of those heavily debated ingredients. Some say it’s perfectly fine. Some disagree. I tend to believe that as long as you’re composting properly, you’re in the clear with this one.
Bread will decompose quickly and is a good source of nitrogen. However, as with any kitchen scraps, it may attract pests to the area.
Can You Use Weeds?
You can use weeds as long as two conditions are met.
First, make sure that your heap is hot enough to kill the roots and the seeds of the weeds you want to add. Otherwise, you’re essentially just planting weeds in your garden when you put down the compost.
Second, make sure that the weeds have not been treated with any chemical insecticides, herbicides, or pesticides. These chemicals will destroy the bacteria that are the essential of the decomposing process.
The weeds must also be free of disease, so they do not spread it to the pile.
Can You Use Dog Poop?
Manure from all types of animals has been used as a fertilizer for ages. Right?
Wrong. Manure from herbivores has been used as fertilizer for ages.
Dogs eat meat, and so do cats. Neither of these should go in your pile.
Dog and cat poop can both carry parasites that will kill the beneficial bacteria. To kill these parasites, the temperature of the pile would have to be 165℉ for five days straight. This is hard to achieve for most compost piles.
FYI – This goes for your poop too. Not sure if it was in anyone’s thought process, but I need to cover all bases.
Can You Use Paper Towels?
Paper towels will provide a good source of nitrogen. They will also break down quickly.
Before you add them, you have to ask yourself one question: what did you use them for? If they were used to clean up oil, butter, or grease, then you should not use them.
Adding towels soaked in oil or grease can force air out. This can create an environment susceptible to anaerobic bacteria problems.
Not only will these problems kill your compost, but also make the pile stink to high heaven.
Can You Use Cardboard?
As long as the cardboard is broken down into small pieces and layered thinly, it will make a fine addition to your heap.
It will serve as brown material to balance out the green.
However, if the cardboard is laminated (fast food paper cups) or non-biodegradable (pet food bags), they should not be used in the pile.
Can You Use Fish Bones?
You can use fish bones, but it requires a lot of work beforehand.
You can use fish bones only if you grind them up first. They will provide nitrogen and other trace minerals.
Even if you do all of the prep-work, there is no guarantee that you won’t be bombarded by pests.
You also run the risk of the foul odor associated with decomposing seafood.
You have to do a cost/benefit analysis on this one. Personally, I wouldn’t do it.
Can You Use Egg Shells?
Egg shells can be used. They are an excellent source of calcium that will help your plants build stronger cell walls.
You can add the shells whole, but they will break down faster if you crush them up before putting them into the bin.
To speed up your shells’ decomposition rate, dry them out in your oven or set them out in the sun for a couple of days.
But what about salmonella? While research shows that salmonella can be transferred to the egg-shell, the heat produced in the composting process is enough to kill that pathogen.
Can You Use Fireplace Ashes?
Yes. Fireplace ashes do not contain nitrogen and will not burn plants. It can be a valuable source of potassium, lime, and other trace elements.
However, don’t use coal or charcoal ash as it has harmful substances.
Can You Use Dairy Products?
You can add dairy products, but you might not want to.
These products will not only attract pests to the bin but can also cause it to smell.
Besides, adding dairy can slow down the bacteria’s activity. This will slow down the rate of decomposition.
I imagine I don’t have to remind you what sour milk smells like, right?
9 Items You Should Never Use
Here is a list of items that need to go to the landfills or burn piles. Keep them away from your compost bin.
1. Diseased Plants and Grass Clippings
Whatever disease or diseases, these materials are carrying can spread to your pile and infect it as well.
Whether the rice is uncooked or cooked does not matter. Uncooked rice will attract rodents to your property. Cooked rice can lead to the growth of unwanted bacteria.
3. Sawdust From Treated Lumber
It’s been shown that arsenic from the lumber can leach into both your compost pile and the ground it rests on. This is unhealthy.
If you’re confident that the lumber hasn’t been treated, sawdust is rich in carbon. It is so rich that you may have to add some nitrogen to the pile to balance it out. Even if the lumber is untreated, you need to use sawdust with caution.
4. Soiled Diapers
Some diapers are eco-friendly and biodegradable. If the diaper is unsoiled and will decompose, you can add it.
However, while the diaper itself may be able to decompose, what that diaper was designed to carry will not. This goes back to the dog poop question. We’re carnivores, and our droppings can carry parasites that will harm the compost.
There are some rare circumstances where you can add diapers. But it begs the question, why would you throw away an unused diaper?
5. Black Walnut Tree Leaves or Twigs
Every part of the black walnut tree produces a chemical called juglone. This is devastating to most vegetable plants. The organic material in your pile will be decompose the way it should, but when you add the finished product to your garden, it will make it go barren.
If you are using your compost exclusively on your turfgrass, then it will be fine. Black walnut residues can be beneficial to your grass, but you must be sure that’s the only place you’ll use it.
6. Coal Ash or Charcoal Ash
The ash of coal and charcoal can contain metals and other minerals that are harmful to your pile. Those hazardous metals and minerals would eventually end up around your lawn and garden as well.
7. Grass Clippings and Other Vegetation Treated With Chemicals
Anything that you treat with an insecticide, pesticide, or herbicide should stay away from your pile. The remaining chemical residue will leach into your compost and compromise its health and kill the beneficial bacteria.
8. Fats, Lards, Oils, and Grease
The residue of cooking oils will not only slow down the decomposition process, they’ll also carry the scent of whatever food they were used to prepare. This scent will bring rodents and insects in droves.
9. Meat, Fish, or Poultry Scraps
As these animals’ flesh breaks down, they bring with them anaerobic bacteria that will create a foul odor that attracts pests, maggots, and flies.
Also, some scraps are so high in nitrogen that they facilitate the breaking down of the pile. Not in a good way.