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Home Composting 101

Why and How to Begin Composting

Home composting is one of the greenest things you can do because the benefits are twofold: a reduction in the amount of waste sent to landfills and the creation of rich organic, soil-stabilizing fertilizer. According to the EPA, yard trimmings and food waste make up 26% of municipal solid waste in the U.S. Most of that is good compostable material, which means there’s an opportunity for Americans to reduce what we send to landfills and improve the health of our gardens at the same time.

Compost materialComposting is nothing more than the decomposition of organic matter, and it’s been happening on its own all over the Earth since plant life began. Microorganisms like bacteria and fungi (or earthworms, if you’re vermicomposting) are the labor force for your compost operation, and a successful compost pile is all about keeping these guys happy. Just like us, they need oxygen, water and a balanced diet in order to thrive.

Where to Pile Your Compost

A compost pile can be nothing more than a heap on the ground. But for best results, use some kind of an enclosure to better preserve heat and moisture. Either a compost tumbler or an open bin will work well. Building a bin can be as simple as unwinding and staking some chicken wire or snow fence. Nailing some 2x4s or pallets together in a split-rail “livestock pen” fashion is another simple (and more durable) option. Wherever your composting will take place, shoot for a pile between 3’x3’x3’ and 5’x5’x5’ (compost tumblers often hold less). In this article, the term “compost pile” will broadly refer to a compost collection in any setup.

Feeding Your Compost Pile

Carbon and nitrogen are two elements found in all organic matter and are essential for the microbes doing your home composting. You’ll often hear compost material referred to as BROWNS (high in carbon) or GREENS (high in nitrogen). It’s important to have a good mix of both in your pile – you want a ratio of between one and two parts GREENS to one part BROWNS (avoiding the things that should not be composted). This 1:1 or 2:1 ratio should make for a good carbon/nitrogen relationship, but can always be adjusted if necessary.

Examples of BROWNS:

  • Ash
  • Wood chips
  • Cardboard (shredded)
  • Sawdust
  • Leaves
  • Pine needles

Examples of GREENS:

  • Grass
  • Food scraps
  • Coffee grounds, tea bags
  • Weeds
  • Manure
  • Hay

When adding new organic material to your compost pile, remember that smaller pieces break down faster and more evenly than whole vegetables or tree branches. So if you’re going for maximum composting efficiency, be sure to shred, dice, mulch or otherwise break down material before it goes to the pile.

Aerating Your Compost Pile

Decomposition uses up oxygen and that oxygen needs to be replaced. Without it, anaerobic microbes will take over, composting slower and producing bad smells. Fortunately, aerating your compost is as easy as turning the pile over with a pitchfork or shovel a few times a month. Oxygen will be depleted faster at the center of the pile where temperature, moisture and decomposition are highest, so swapping the material in the center for the material around the edges when turning the compost is a good way to keep conditions uniform throughout. Aeration is another reason you want your compost bin’s walls to be latticed or split-railed instead of solid. If you have a compost tumbler, aerating is as easy as cranking a lever.

Monitoring Your Compost’s Moisture

Outdoor compost binWater is also required in the breakdown of organic material. The pile should be damp, but not wet. If it’s too wet, aeration is limited, meaning things could get slow and stinky. Aside from nitrogen, the GREENS you add provide a lot of water on their own so the more of those you’re putting in, the damper your pile should stay. You will often read that the moisture content of your compost should be 40-60% but to the layperson all this really means is that if you squeeze a handful of your compost, it should stay intact without dripping water (the squeeze test). A few more tips:

  • If you live in a wet climate, put a roof over your compost pile to avoid oversaturation from rain
  • If you live in a dry climate, make sure you’re adding more GREENS than BROWNS
  • With a compost tumbler, less moisture will be lost to evaporation than from an open-air pile
  • If your compost seems too dry, turn it over with a pitchfork before adding water; the center of the pile may be too wet and a simple rearrangement of material may be all that is needed

Finished Compost

Composting is full of variables and it’s safe to say no two compost piles are alike. Because of this, there is no precise timeline for making a batch and it can take anywhere from eight weeks to a year for your compost to be garden-ready. You’ll know when it’s finished because it will be dark, crumbly and uniform (you won’t see big, identifiable chunks of its ingredients), and it will smell sweet and earthy. Then it’s ready for your garden. Congratulations – you’ve just turned would-be trash into Earth-enriching, garden-boosting organic fertilizer!

Home Composting Cliffs Notes

  • Start with equal parts BROWN and GREEN organic material
  • Shift the ratio in the GREENS’ favor if the pile is drying out and in the BROWNS’ favor during periods of heavy rain or if foul smells are gaining strength
  • Give your compost the squeeze test periodically to test moisture content
  • Turning over the pile every 7-14 days will keep oxygen, moisture and heat spread relatively evenly throughout, and should suppress stinky anaerobic conditions
  • Don’t be surprised if the pile shrinks noticeably – as the material heats up and breaks down, it takes up less space
  • After several months, when the compost darkens and smells rich and sweet, it’s ready for the garden


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