Composting 101, A Beginners Guide

Compost is rightfully known as black gold and its utility in your garden is priceless. But what is composting, why should you compost, and what do you do with it? We will walk you through all of these questions and more throughout this beginners’ guide to composting.

Composting is a natural process that breaks down organic materials such as food scraps, yard waste, and more and turns them into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. It is an excellent way to reduce waste, improve soil quality, and create a sustainable gardening system. This beginner’s guide will go over the basics of composting: what it is, why it’s great, how to get started, and how to fix common mistakes. 

What exactly is composting? 

Composting harnesses the natural decomposition process of organic material by organisms like bacteria, fungi, and microinvertebrates. It’s breaking down organic materials into compost, a nutrient-rich soil amendment that can help improve soil quality. It can be a fun hobby that turns one man’s waste and scraps into another’s gold. Classically referred to as “gardeners gold,” producing your own compost reduces waste and provides a low-cost option to increase soil quality and add nutrients to your garden. You can compost in various ways, including in a compost bin, pile, or tumbler.

Why should you compost? 

Well, it has many benefits! Compost is a nutrient-rich soil amendment that can help improve soil structure, increase soil fertility, and retain moisture. Plus, it can save you money on fertilizers, pesticides, and other soil amendments. It’s a sustainable gardening practice that can help reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and promote a healthier environment. When done properly, composting helps reduce the waste sent to landfills and produces a product essential for growing healthy plants. As a beginner gardener, composting is a vital skill to develop.

There are a few different methods to choose from, so let’s look and see which one is right for you. 

  • Backyard composting: This is the most common method of composting. You can use a compost bin or create a yard pile. This method requires a bit of space and regular maintenance.
  • Vermicomposting: This method uses worms to break down food scraps and other organic matter. It’s an excellent option for those with limited space, as it can be done indoors in a small bin.
  • Trench composting: This method involves burying food scraps directly in your garden. It’s a low-maintenance option that can help to enrich your soil.

So, How Do You Get Started? 

You’ll need a few things: Brown matter, green matter, water, and air/oxygen. Brown materials are carbon-rich materials like dry leaves, straw, and shredded paper that provide the energy source for the microorganisms that break down the organic matter. In contrast, green materials are nitrogen-rich, like food scraps, grass clippings, and manure that provide the protein source. Water is essential for composting, and you’ll want to aim for a moisture level of about 50-60%. Oxygen is also necessary for microorganisms, so turn your compost pile regularly to provide oxygen to all parts of your compost and increase breathability.

Harvesting Organic Materials for next year’s garden compost!

Types of Brown Materials

  • Leaves
  • Twigs and branches (chopped or shredded)
  • Shredded newspaper or cardboard
  • Sawdust from non-green treated lumber

Types of Green Materials 

  • Vegetable and fruit scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Tea bags
  • Grass clippings, plants 
  • Manure: horse, chicken, sheep, even cow manure

Materials you should not add to your compost 

(Can attract pests and/or slow down the composting process)

  • Dairy
  • Meat
  • Oily foods
  • Cat and Dog feces 
  • Weeds or pest-infested / diseased plants 
  • Wood chips or sawdust from treated lumber 

How to Store Your Food Scraps 

Don’t let your fear of smelling food scraps deter you from using them for your compost pile. You can purchase a compost pail to hold your scraps or use any container, such as a cut-open milk cartoon or a ziplock bag. In addition, you can keep your leftovers stored in the back of the refrigerator or in the freezer until you can run out and add them to your compost pile. This is an easy way to minimize smells or insects in your kitchen. 

Pick your Location.

When you’re ready to start composting, choose a location that’s convenient and accessible but not too close to your home or neighbors. A shady spot is ideal, as it will help regulate the compost pile’s temperature. You can use a variety of compost containers, such as bins, tumblers, or even pallets or wire mesh. Tumblers are containers designed to rotate to facilitate turning your compost easily.

How to Start Composting

To begin your compost pile or bin, add a layer of carbon-rich materials, followed by a layer of nitrogen-rich materials. Then, continue layering the materials, making sure to keep the pile moist and aerated. 

You’ll want to turn the compost pile about once a week to provide air to the microorganisms and help mix the materials. And remember to keep an eye on the compost pile or tumbler, adjusting the moisture level and material ratios as needed. The compost should be ready in about 3-12 months, depending on the size of the pile and the materials used.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to backyard composting:

1. So you’ve selected your perfect location; now what?

2. Add brown materials like leaves or twigs to the bottom of your pile or bin. Typically recommend about 4-6 inches for this bottom layer.

3. Add some green materials like food scraps or grass clippings on top of the brown materials.

4. Add a handful of soil, finished compost, or compost starter to introduce the microorganisms that will help break down the organic matter.

5. Water your pile to make everything moist.

6. Repeat steps 2-5, alternating brown and green layers, until your pile is at least 3 feet high.

7. Water your pile to keep it moist but not soaked. Keep the pile as moist as a wrung-out sponge.

8. Cover your pile with a tarp or lid to keep out pests and maintain moisture.

9. Turn your pile with a pitchfork or shovel every few weeks to aerate it and speed up the composting process.

How to Know That Your Compost is Ready To Use in the Garden?

Use the smell test when composting. If it is smelly, your materials are not decomposing well. You may need to add some additional brown material or add less water. When your compost is ready, it should be dark brown and crumbly, with a pleasant earthy smell. You should no longer be able to distinguish the materials that went into the pile. It may not be fully decomposed if your compost still has recognizable food scraps or twigs. 

Composting our Garden!

Common Composting Problems and Solutions:

Don’t worry if you have any issues; I’ve likely had a similar problem. Here are some common issues and how to fix them:

– Compost is too wet: Add more brown materials to increase aeration and absorb moisture.

– Compost is too dry: Water your pile or bin to keep it moist.

– Compost smells bad: This is usually a sign that your pile is too wet or has too much green material. Add more brown materials to balance it out. Increase the frequency of turning your pile.

– Compost isn’t breaking down: Make sure you add even amounts of brown and green materials. Break or cut the material into smaller pieces to shorten the time needed to compost. Turn your pile regularly to aerate it.

– Pests: such as rats, raccoons, and opossums, may be attracted to your compost pile if you add meat, dairy, or oily foods. Avoid these materials and ensure your compost container is secure or cover your compost pile.

FAQs on Composting:

  1. How long does it take to make compost?

The time it takes to make compost depends on several factors, such as the pile size, the materials used, and the environmental conditions. In general, compost can take 3-12 months to mature fully.

  1. Can I compost in an apartment or a small space?

Yes, it is possible to compost in an apartment or small space using a small compost bin or worm bin. To create a nutrient-rich soil amendment, you can use kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, and shredded paper.

  1. What should I avoid composting?

Avoid adding meat, dairy, and oily foods to your compost pile, as they can attract pests and slow the composting process. Also, avoid adding weeds that have gone to seed or diseased plant materials.

  1. Can I use compost in containers?

Yes, compost can be used as a soil amendment in containers and raised beds. Mix it with potting soil or use it as a top dressing on the soil surface.

  1. How do I know when the compost is ready?

Finished compost will be dark, crumbly, and have an earthy smell. You should not be able to recognize any of the original materials in the compost.

  1. How to use your compost?

In early spring, you can spread 3-4 inches on top of your garden. Use a garden fork or tiller to mix it into the soil. You can also use side-dress your plants throughout the growing season.

Take home message

Composting is an easy and sustainable way to reduce waste, improve soil quality, and create a healthy gardening system. With a little effort and some basic materials, you can turn your organic waste into a nutrient-rich soil amendment that will benefit your garden and the environment.

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