Composting For Beginners

Composting for beginners! Today we’re going to talk about gardening and compost. How you can make your own compost. Why you would want to.

Compost is free, easy to make, and so good for your gardens and the environment. You’ve heard the sayings: recycle, reuse, and compost.

Composting can help reduce or eliminate all waste being shipped to landfills.

Let’s talk about compost and what it does.

  • Why it’s considered “black gold”
  • How you can make some of your own
  • How you can use it to fertilize your lawns and gardens

What is compost?

composting for beginners two hands holding compost dirt
Compost

Compost is decomposed organic material that turns into a dark, crumbly substance.

It’s the end product of a process involving billions of microorganisms breaking down raw materials.

Once decomposing is done, fine humus is created.

Also known as “black gold,” use it as a fertilizer for your lawns and gardens. Also, you can use it for containers and inside plants too.

Compost is an easy way to add nutrients to the soil and restore vitality to it. You can use it to make your gardens and lawns perfect. They will thank you for it!

Was That Humus or Hummus?

So, compost is humus. According to Wikipedia, humus is the dark organic matter that forms in soil when dead plant and animal matter decays.”

And you were thinking of hummus, weren’t you? You know, the perfect party appetizer dip made from chickpeas? I’ve got a great recipe for it …

3 Types of Composting

The raw ingredients for your compost include carbon, nitrogen, air, and water. These all combine to feed the microorganisms that are working to digest them to make the compost.

We need to use both brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) materials. If only green material is used, it will become compacted and start to smell.

There are three types of composting: Cold or “static,” Hot or “dynamic,” and “vermicomposting.”

Let’s find out what the differences are and which one you will want to use to make your compost.

Cold or Static Composting

This is the easy, add-materials-when-you-have-them method.

You’ll use whatever you have when you have them. This includes yard waste, trash, and organic materials.

You don’t want to put kitchen scraps into this compost.

Here’s how you make cold compost:

  • Gather all of the ingredients
  • Corral them in a pile or bin
  • Mix all of the products together
  • Just walk away
  • Really, just leave it to work itself out

If everything is perfect, the material will decompose quickly.

But remember, composting with the cold method is dependent on the weather and outside temperatures.

  • You’ll have finished compost in a few months if the surrounding temps are warm enough.
  • It might take longer if the temperatures are cooler, maybe even 1-2 years for the compost to be ready.

Hot or Dynamic Composting

This is the kind of compost that you’ll put kitchen scraps into, plus your yard waste and trash (see list below).

Hot composting is a much faster process to make compost than the cold composting method. You’ll have beautiful compost in 1-3 months during warm weather.

When you start piling the raw materials, use 2 parts “brown” (carbon) and one part “green” (nitrogen) to get the pile heated up quickly. Then you can go back to the 3 parts brown to 1 part carbon for maintenance.

If built correctly, the internal temperatures of your compost pile will reach 141° to 151° Fahrenheit within 24-36 hours. These temperatures are high enough to effectively kill weed seeds and disease pathogens. And make compost faster.

As you speed up the process of decay, one benefit is that the compost will be more uniformly decomposed. The carbon will give compost its light, fluffy body. Nitrogen will provide raw materials for making enzymes.

Remember, turn, turn, turn!

Vermicomposting

This is the third method of composting which utilizes earthworms. You’ll want to use this method if you are composting only food scraps.

Vermicompost is worm composting. Worms eat food scraps and release castings which are rich in nitrogen. Redworms or red wigglers are the best kind of worms to use. You can purchase them online or at a garden supplier.

Wikipedia defines vermicomposting as “the product of the decomposition process using various species of worms, usually red wigglers, to create a mixture of decomposing vegetable or food waste, bedding materials, and vermicast.”

Vermicast is the best part!

It’s also called worm castings, worm manure, or worm humus. That humus word again!

This is the end-product of the earthworms eating all that raw material.

The vermicast contains water-soluble nutrients that are excellent as organic fertilizer and used as a soil conditioner.

What You’ll Need To Get Started:

  • Compost Pile
    • If you have a large area of land
  • Compost Bin
    • If you are in an urban setting
  • Compost Tumbler
    • If you’re a backyard gardener or have a small space
  • Brown and green materials (see below)
  • Red wigglers
  • Water source:
    • Hose or watering can
  • Water
  • Garden Fork or Pitch Fork
  • Kitchen Waste Container

How To Handle Kitchen Waste Storage?

kitchen compost storage bin
Kitchen Compost Storage Bin

What do you do with the kitchen waste?

For convenience, store kitchen waste until you’re ready to move it to the composter.

Keep a container with a lid and handle under the sink.

Using a stainless steel compost pail with a carbon filter or a ceramic model will both cut down on odors.

Composting Basics

compost bin made out of wood
Simple Compost Bin

Making compost the right way is easy. It’s not smelly, not messy, and not complicated.

You’ve just got to remember three things: 3 parts brown, 1 part green, and turn, turn, turn!

Your compost pile is depending on you to provide the right balance of ingredients. At least half the contents will be leaves and grass clippings to balance high-nitrogen items like food scraps.

You should never see any food scraps in your compost pile.

Food scraps should always be covered with leaves or other dry carbon material like wood chips.

Doing this will reduce the smell, and keep flies away.

It will also ensure that the actual compost process is happening instead of rotting.

How To Choose A Composter

black plastic compost bin
Compost Bin

Before you begin to make your compost, you’ll need to choose a composter. Some type of vessel that will hold your raw materials while they are turning into compost.

What you use for composting will depend on where you live, what you will be composting, and whether you want to manually turn the compost or not.

Whatever one you choose, your compost container needs side ventilation.

Here are some locations and appropriate composter choices to consider:

  • If you are in an urban area with no space, you’ll be composting kitchen scraps. You’ll want to get a worm bin for vermicomposting.
  • In an urban area with some outdoor space, you’ll be composting kitchen scraps. You’ll want to get a worm bin or a compost tumbler.
  • An urban area with some outdoor space and want to compost kitchen scraps plus some yard waste. You’ll want a compost tumbler.
  • A suburban area with a yard and want to compost kitchen scraps or kitchen scraps plus yard waste. You’ll want a compost tumbler.
  • You’re in a suburban area with a large yard and lots of yard waste, choose a compost tumbler or enclosed bin.
  • A rural area with yard or acreage, you’ll want an all-enclosed bin or compost tumbler, or even an open compost pile.
  • If you want to make your own bins, WikiHow has great instructions on how to make both a general-purpose bin and a yard-waste-only compost bin.
  • If you want to purchase your bins, here are some examples of compost bins on Amazon for you.

Starting The Compost

how to make compost raw materials in bin
Making Compost

You’ve chosen the compost bin that you want to use. Now it’s time to learn how to make compost.

First, choose the location for the pile, bin, or tumbler. It should be level, have good drainage, shaded, and protected from the wind.

Save yourself some work! The composting location should probably be close to a water supply and to the garden where you intend to use the compost. 

Next, clear the area. Remove all grass and debris from the pile location and get ready to start composting.

Place your compost holder in the cleared area and begin to fill it with the raw materials.

Layer your materials. Water, oxygen, and raw materials are your compost’s raw ingredients.

Alternate layers of the brown with the green. You want to create a balance between the brown (carbon) with the green (nitrogen) materials.

Inoculate the pile with a compost activator which will act as a starter. You can purchase a commercial activator, use existing compost, or even a couple of shovels of garden soil will do.

Turning the Compost Pile

composting for beginners garden fork in compost bin
Turn Your Compost Pile

Turn the pile every week or so with your garden fork. Stir thoroughly to mix all the materials together.

This provides oxygen and helps it “cook” faster. Turning also prevents material from becoming matted down and developing an odor. No one wants a stinky compost pile!

Mix the layers and look for pockets that are too dry or oversaturated. To speed up the process, aerate regularly and chop raw ingredients into smaller size pieces.

Watering The Compost Pile

composting for beginners watering compost with sprinkler
Watering The Compost Pile

Add water as needed, mix wet with dry patches, pull materials from the sides to the middle of the heap. Don’t overwater it, or the microorganisms will die and the compost pile will rot.

Use the hand-squeeze test. After applying water to the pile, grab a handful, and squeeze it.

  • If water drips out, it’s too wet. Add more dry material.
  • If it crumbles or falls apart, it’s too dry. Add more water.
  • If your hand is damp, it’s just right.

If the materials are properly decomposing, the compost pile should feel warm. Reach into the pile with your hand to feel how warm it is.

If your compost starts to smell, it might be too wet or have too many kitchen scraps in it. The solution is to stop adding scraps for a while, add more “brown” materials, and stir the pile to aerate it.

Suggested layering for cold composting:

  • Place 3-4” chopped brush or other coarse material on the bottom for air circulation.
  • Add 6-8” leaves, grass clippings, and garden waste.
  • Moisten the pile lightly.
  • Add 1” layer of soil on top to add microbes.
  • Place 2-3” layer of manure on top.
  • Continue layering in this order to fill the pile.
  • Usable in 3-4 months

Suggested layering for hot composting:

  • Spread 6” layer of browns for carbon
  • add 3” layers of greens for nitrogen
  • Alternate brown and green
  • Use a ratio of 3 to 1 brown to green
  • Build to at least one cubic yard to achieve the heat that helps break down the materials into compost
  • Sprinkle garden soil or finished compost on top which adds levels of soil microbes

When is it Ready?

Composting happens in nature but it can be a long, slow process. You’ve probably seen compost when walking along the trail or under trees in the woods.

That rich, black soil under the trees is compost. But you don’t want to wait for it to be done. You probably also don’t want to have to go dig it up and haul it home!

We gardeners can be an impatient lot. We need our compost sooner rather than later.

If we make it ourselves, we can control the process so it’s ready to use when we want to use it. Depending on which process we use, compost is ready in 1-3 months or 1-2 years.

You’ll know when the compost is fully cooked and ready to feed to the garden when it

  • No longer gives off heat
  • Becomes dry, brown, and crumbly
  • Looks like rich, black dirt

Brown and Green Materials

Finally!

When learning about how to make compost, you need to know what materials will work for a compost pile and which materials to stay away from. Here’s the list.

Let’s talk about what materials can and cannot go into the compost pile.

Remember: composting uses a ratio of 2 to 3 parts brown materials to 1 part green materials.

Brown materials add carbon to the mixture. Green materials add nitrogen to the mixture.

What are the ones that are best to use?

OK To Add These Green Materials

It’s OK to add these materials to the compost pile.

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Dried and Cut Flowers
  • Eggshells
  • Bread
  • Paper towels
  • Napkins
  • Tea bags
  • Coffee grounds and coffee filters
  • Animal manures (but not dog or cat feces)

OK To Add These Brown Materials

It’s OK to add these materials to the compost pile.

  • Grass and plant clippings
  • Dry leaves
  • Finely chopped wood and bark chips
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Straw
  • Sawdust from untreated wood

NOT OK To Add To The Compost Pile

Don’t add these items to the compost pile. They will attract pests and animals. They could also make the compost smell.

  • Meat, bones, and meat scraps
  • Fish
  • Grease, oil, or fat
  • Cooked Food
  • Dairy products
  • Bread

NOT OK To Add To Compost

Do not add any of these materials to the compost pile!

  • Diseased plant materials
  • Sawdust or chips from pressure-treated wood
  • Onions or garlic – repel earthworms
  • Dog or cat feces
  • Weeds that go to seed
  • Grass clippings that have been treated with noxious chemicals
  • Styrofoam
  • Metal
  • Glass

How To Apply Compost?

Your compost is ready to begin using in the lawns and gardens. But how do you use it properly?

It’s easy to use compost. Just add it to the top of your garden beds, around your perennials, and spread thinly on your lawn.

We till compost into the vegetable gardens at the start of the season before we plant seeds or seedlings.

We add 4-6 “ to flower beds and pots at the start of each season, and in the fall.

Some people make compost tea for their plants. Just steep finished compost in water for a few days. Strain the particles out to use as a liquid fertilizer.

Composting For Beginners

woman with wheelbarrow filled with compost
Spreading Compost in the Gardens

I hope you enjoyed this guide to composting for beginners. You should feel comfortable starting your own compost pile.

We covered what compost is. Why you want to make your own compost. How to make compost. How to use compost in your gardens to make them fertile and productive.

Your lawns and gardens will be perfect this year! Let me know how you use compost in your space.

You can learn more about how you can use spent coffee grounds in your garden here.

Happy gardening!

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