If you are reading this then you have probably been all over the internet reading about compost….and it can get overwhelming. The problem is, many people write compost articles for other ‘master gardeners’ or people who need to show the depth of their knowledge and brilliance. All of this can look very fancy, but the truth is you just need to keep it simple. Mother nature composts all the time without a bin, or worrying about what material is being composted. You can too, you just need to keep it simple and whatever you do, DON’T OVER COMPLICATE IT!!!!
Ok sorry – I had to get that off my chest. I’m a member of multiple groups/discussion boards, and when ever a novice asks a question on how to compost, they are bombarded with a vast array of answers using large words that most people can’t define! Anaerobic versus aerobic bacteria, Vermicompost, Enzymes, Double Digging, C/N Ratio, can make you sound really smart, but can easily make this whole process more complicated than it needs to be. It can confuse and even dissuade the discussion, and isn’t always helpful. So, the first section will just be the ‘need-to-know’ stuff, just the basics on what you need to do. If you want to learn more in-depth how and why’s of composting – continue to the end (also for some sweet graphics, coming soon!).
What is composting?
To put it simply, it is natural processes reducing biodegradable material into a soil amendment, aka fertilizer. Compost is organic material that has decomposed. Bacteria breaks down organic matter into the ultimate soil amendment. I use compost on everything I plant in my vegetable garden or one of my native plant flower beds and even top dress my grass with it. It makes your soil hold moisture better, it breaks up compacted clay, and is a general fertilizer.
How to Compost, the Simple Way
You need the following items to make a compost pile that will break down relatively fast, and not create a lot of bad odors. It won’t matter if the compost pile is in full sun or shade, but in sun you may need to add water periodically to keep it moist (not soggy).
Green material, this is any kind of plant material that you would normally throw away. Fruit/vegetable scraps, fresh grass clippings, coffee grounds, egg shells, grass clippings, etc. This is the ‘protein’ for the bacteria.
Brown material: – this is any kind of green material that is fully dry. Newspaper (not the plastic-y kind), brown cardboard without ink, dried grass clippings (spread them in your yard during the afternoon to dry them), leaves, hay/straw, sawdust, wood shavings…. This is like carbohydrates for bacteria – aka energy
Moisture: Your pile needs to be wet to break down. Go for the consistency of a wrung out sponge.
Air: Yup, just air. So, you don’t want your pile too compacted, as the ‘good’ bacteria needs oxygen to break down.
Build your pile
Here are the steps to building a pile. Try to keep the browns / greens at 50/50. If you just use brown material, no composting will happen. If you only use green material, it will compost – but it will take years to break down.
Place a layer of brown material on the ground
Place a layer of green material on top of the brown
Repeat steps 1&2 until you have exhausted your brown/green material, but take care to keep at least and equal amount of brown to green material. I personally always make sure I have and equal to slightly more brown than green by volume. This is to make sure my compost doesn’t smell. And it allows me to keep adding green material from our kitchen every week.
Add water, and mix up your pile. Depending on my pile, I use a pitchfork or just put on a pair of gloves and use my hands.
I know I just had you layer your different materials, and now I am telling you to mix them up. But the more ‘mixed’ the pile is, the more surface area contact you will get from the four elements necessary for composting – so it will happen faster.
Stir your pile as often or as little as you like, but make sure there is moisture present. Again, similar consistency to a wrung out sponge. The more the pile is mixed, the faster the decomposition will occur.
That’s all of it. That is all you need to do to compost. So, for the rest of this article I will go into more detail on some of the other components.
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Extremely Useful Composting Tips
I’ve found these items very useful in producing good compost faster. This has been through years of experience, experimentation, and observation
Smaller Materials is Better
Since you need brown + green material to make the ‘magic’ happen, it logically follows that more surface area = more contact between the key elements, meaning that more bacteria can break down more material that much faster…….ok sorry for the run-on sentence. But smaller materials will break down faster. So, the more you shred your kitchen scraps, the more you shred your cardboard, the faster your compost pile will break down into black gold. My favorite brown material is actually sawdust or wood shavings (from hand planes) for this reason.
Turn the pile at least once a week, or more often if you like.
More oxygen for the ‘good’ bacteria
Have multiple piles going at once
I keep one pile that I add to weekly (kitchen scraps) (turn every time I add to it)
A second pile that is 50% done (turn every time I add to pile #1)
A third pile that is ready for use (Steal from when ever I like/need)
Just experiment – a wise person once said that laws are rules for the simple, and guidance for the wise. Gardening is no different. Just try out any ideas you have, ask others questions, and you will become a master composter!
If your pile isn’t hot, don’t be scared. Most people tell you that your pile should be really hot in the middle. This is true for new piles with huge amounts of green material. But, most of my piles aren’t large enough to heat up (not enough green mass). And I make about 20 gallons each summer from just my kitchen scraps and stockpiled brown material with multiple small piles.
You should be top dressing all of your gardens with compost, if you can make enough of it! So, after you have removed the grass and built a garden, spread the compost on top!
Do you need a bin to make Compost?
No, you don’t need a bin. Mother nature doesn’t use a bin either.
Bins can be required if someone is trying to compost in an apartment, or something similar. But standalone bins that fully contain the pile, fancy tumblers or anything else will keep you from gaining one of the best benefits from composting – WORMS.
If your pile has contact with the ground, eventually the worms will find it. Once the worms find it, get ready – they will breakdown material in addition to the regular composting process and produce something called ‘worm castings’. This material is just like compost, and is just as beneficial to the yard/garden/plants. Now, I’m going to break protocol and tell you the technical name of what the worm composting is – vermicompost. But, this just makes everything work faster, and gives you the same ‘black gold’ compost every gardener craves……..
Building some type of enclosure can be helpful depending on your situation…pallet walls to keep neighborhood dogs away, a roof to help maintain moisture levels….but it isn’t required.
How large of a pile do I need to compost?
As small or as large as you like. During the summer, I generally have two small piles composting. These piles are approximately 1′-3′ diameter, by 1′-2′ tall – the size varies based on the materials I have on hand, and as I continually add to them. I will add material to one pile until the overall volume looks to be 50% broken down. After this point, I will let it mostly finish composting for another week or two, then begin using it. Then, I will start building a new pile, and let the first pile finish composting. In this method, I always have one pile that I can take compost from to fertilize plants, rejuvenate potting soils, whatever I need. And I can do this while I add/build my second pile. Think of it as a factory, where I always have a supply of finished material, and another pile to add my weekly kitchen scraps too.
So, you don’t need a 10′ pile to compost. Nature breaks everything down no matter how large or small.
What if you live in an apartment?
Well, there are options. For composting while living in an apartment, there is no reason you couldn’t just use a 5 gallon bucket with a lid as a make-shift bin. You just have to aerate it frequently. Having multiple buckets would be the best option, and having each one in a different state of decomposition. I know that you can generally buy buckets for less than $5, so this would be an economical option.
What is “Green” Material for Compost?
As a rule of thumb, if it is a plant (not tree/shrub) you can compost it as a ‘green’ material. Most people just use fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps. If you find it in the produce department of your grocery store, it most likely counts as ‘green’. The ‘green’ part is a catch all term for ‘fresh’, and will be high in nitrogen. It just needs to be organic, and not dry/brown.
Banana peels, apple cores, orange peels, bell pepper cores, spoiled veggies, etc
Egg shells (lots of nitrogen) They also add some other minerals for the pile.
Shrimp Shells (yes, shrimp) There is a ton of nitrogen/minerals in them.
Grass clippings, weeds that you pull from your flower beds, etc
Pumpkins – I use all of ours from Halloween
The higher values of nitrogen present in the ‘green’ material will give off a lot of heat when the bacteria break them down in a well aerated pile. This greatly accelerates the composting process.
What is “Brown” Material for Compost?
The brown material is has much more carbon than nitrogen. This is the ‘energy’ or carbs for the bacteria. They break down a bit more slowly, but can help with aeration and reduce any odors from too much green material.
Dried, yellow/brown grass clippings. Spread grass clippings out in the sun, rake them up in a day or two after they are dry
Sawdust or wood shavings (my favorite)
Shredded newspaper (not the plastic-y inserts)
Sticks, stems from other plants (as long as they are dead/brown) – these can really help with natural aeration
Autumn leaves (chop them up or crush them to increase the speed of decomposition)
Why do I need to keep my brown/green material volumes in balance?
The main reason you want to keep the brown/green material in balance is to encourage the ‘right’ kind of bacteria, and to prevent or control bad odors. Lets talk about what happens to break down your material. There are two main types of bacteria that break down the organic matter. One type uses oxygen, (aerobic) and the other doesn’t use oxygen (anaerobic).
Aerobic bacteria is what we are going for when we make a compost pile. So, when I talk about the 4 elements (brown/green/air/water), aerobic bacteria is what will do the work. If you take away air, you won’t have aerobic bacteria. Aerobic bacteria works fast, and will generate heat which accelerates the decomposition into compost even faster! This bacteria breathes in oxygen and exhales CO2, and breaks down nitrogen. As long as you maintain all four elements in your pile you will have aerobic bacteria.
Anaerobic bacteria will occur if your pile gets too much, or becomes mostly ‘green’ material and doesn’t get turned often. It also will take over if the pile gets too compacted and isn’t aerated. You will know this because everything will get very slimy, and might begin to smell. This will still turn into compost, but instead of taking weeks it will take years. The ‘smell’ is generally ammonia, and your pile will not get hot. So, in my experience, if you have too much ‘greens’ your pile will tend to get compacted, making this slimy stinky mess more likely. The brown material helps keep aeration (although you really should always be turning it).
So what is the proper ‘balance’ of brown to green material?
This is where I say you should start at least a 50/50 mix by volume of brown/green. I personally go a bit heavier on the brown when I build the pile, but I continually add green material each week. But, go ahead and experiment for what works best for you and your situation!
I find that my house will generate more ‘green’ material every week, while we may only make brown material if I make some sawdust from building something, or we get a bunch of cardboard from ordering something on amazon. I actually stockpile brown material during Christmas from boxes, brown packing paper, etc. And I never throw away saw dust or wood shavings (untreated lumber only!).
But, if you want to get your compost really fast, you need to go heavier on the green material, and turn/aerate it very often. Not doing so will turn everything into a slimy mess. If using grass clippings, they will mat up and eventually become slimy. So keep that stuff turning, and experiment/adjust as necessary.
What about worm farms, towers, etc
Worm farms, towers, vermicomposting comes into style sometimes. This is when you use worms to breakdown the materials instead of bacteria. It is where you make layers of materials separated, but with pathway connections to allow the worms to traverse the whole tower. This is a bit off topic for this article. But, as I alluded to earlier, if you keep your compost pile on the ground the worms will eventually find it. When they do, they will begin to eat the material and expunge ‘worm castings’. The worm castings are just as good as compost – so you get two different decomposition processes happening at once. Aka – you get the black gold sooner!
It is also quite fun when you go to turn your pile and there are about 10-15 large, excited night crawlers right in the middle of your pile!
Compost is better than any fertilizer you could buy. It allows you to build your soil rather than shooting your plants up with some steroid/miracle grow concoction. Enough top dressing of compost will turn the hardest clay into black fertile loamy soil that would be the envy of gardeners worldwide! So go forth! And decompose something!
I would like to hear from you! Tell me if you agree with my tips based on your experience, or if there is something else I should try. I’m always looking to experiment, particularly with composting because it will all break down eventually!
Before you go….
Also, we focus a lot on native plants around here. Check out our other detailed articles on native flowers. You might find something you love, and decide that you have to have in your yard! We give you the info that you need to know,and much more so you can grow it from seed yourself and save some $$ in the process. I’ve saved thousands of dollars germinating beautiful flowers from seed over the years, and you can too!
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Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you!
Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!