Whether you live on a homestead, have a backyard garden, or container garden your patio, spring is the season to get your hands dirty and get planting. But how do we grow those juicy red tomatoes or crunchy carrots without dousing the whole thing in dangerous chemical fertilizers? How can we grow healthy, nutritious, safe food for our families? Composting!
But isn’t that just code for cow poop? Nope! You can make your own compost at home, with mostly kitchen scraps and yard waste. Here’s more about why you should compost and how you can get started.
Benefits of Composting
Better dirt quality
It all comes down to the dirt. Literally. All organic material eventually breaks down and becomes the dirt under our feet and in our gardens. Because we want to grow the best tomatoes and the healthiest carrots, it pays to have good soil in those gardens and adding compost can improve soil structure, nutrient retention, and drainage.
- If your soil is sandy: Sandy soils can be a challenge since they’re dry and loose; and the “soil” will run through your fingers when squeezed into a ball. Composting allows sandy soils to hold onto moisture, so delicate roots don’t dry out.
- If your soil is clay-like: Heavy clay soils are dense and sticky, making it difficult for roots to spread and grow deep in search of nutrients. It’s also hard for water and air to get below the surface to plant roots. And since water doesn’t drain well in clay soils, it’s easy to over-water, causing root rot and other plant problems. Composting breaks up dense chunks of clay, allowing for better drainage and air penetration.
Better for the environment
Even if you have rich, dark and beautiful Midwestern soil, compost will still enhance your dirt’s quality and the eventual quality of your food. That’s because compost-rich soils are high in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, which are the major components in chemical fertilizers because they’re vital to a healthy and thriving garden. Compost is also full of micronutrients like zinc, manganese, and copper, which allow plants to more efficiently absorb other nutrients they need to thrive.
Because of this, composting reduces the need to use chemical fertilizers, which are devastating to the environment. Fertilizer laden runoff from gardens, farms, and lawns poison waterways and cause algal blooms, which lead to dead zones and fish die-offs.
Because fertilizer speeds up growth, fruits and vegetables grown with fertilizer aren’t as nutritious—they have lower stores of essential nutrients like calcium, zinc, and iron. Even worse, fertilizers can be hazardous to humans. Studies have linked fertilizer use to immune, endocrine, and neurological problems, as well as certain cancers.
Better way to get rid of food waste
Of the massive amount of food waste in the U.S., only 3% is composted while the remaining 97% goes into our landfills.
According to the EPA, this rotting food contributes to 18% of all methane emissions in the U.S., which has a global warming potential 21 times more intense than carbon dioxide. (Source.)
So, just like you recycle your paper, aluminum cans and glass bottles, why not your banana peels and potato skins, too? Composting is recycling you can easily do yourself, right at home. And it doesn’t just keep food scraps out of the landfill, it actually turns them into something useful.
What Can You Compost?
There are a few rules you should follow when composting to ensure your pile (bin, heap or bucket) breaks down well. Compostable items are generally broken down into two categories: greens and browns, with a few exceptions.
Greens are high in nitrogen and moisture. They are quick to break down, which helps your compost pile heat up. And because they are wet, they keep your pile from drying out. Greens also provide protein for microorganisms who help turn scraps to dirt. Here are some common examples of greens:
- Vegetable Scraps
- Fruit Scraps
- Coffee Grounds (Even though they’re brown! A good way to remember: Coffee beans are green before they’re roasted.)
- Tea leaves
- Grass Clippings and weeds
- Shrub and plant prunings
Browns provide structure and support to your compost and are a carbon-rich food source for organisms in the compost. Without slow-decaying browns, all the green items would form a dense, wet clump, prone to mold and anaerobic bacteria. By adding browns, you allow air to permeate the pile and keep it healthy. Here are some common examples of browns:
- Dry Leaves, twigs, or pinecones
- Corn Stalks
- Newsprint (not glossy) and Paper
- Corrugated Cardboard (no waxy or glossy coatings)
- Horse, chicken, rabbit, cow, and chicken droppings
When you compost, you alternate green and brown, but there’s no need to be precise. Compost will happen even if your ratios are a little skewed.
What Not to Put in Your Compost Pile
Although there are a ton of things that are great for composting, there a few things you should never put in your compost pile.
- Animal-based proteins like meat and bones should never be composted, because they can attract unwanted critters to your pile and also risk introducing pathogens.
- Tea and coffee bags. Although you can put tea leaves and coffee grounds in, the bags are often made of synthetic material that won’t decompose properly.
- Dog and cat poop, because their waste could contain harmful microorganisms and parasites.
Types of Compost Piles
When it comes to the hows of composting, you have a few options depending on space, location, and need. If you live on a 15-acre homestead with a huge garden, you’ll need more compost and have more space to compost than if you live in a Manhattan loft with a small container garden on your fire escape. Composting is absolutely possible for everyone, even if you just keep a small bin under your kitchen cabinet. Here are your options:
The first option, and the one people usually think of first is the compost pile. It is exactly what it sounds like, a big pile you add your greens and browns to, and turn over with a pitchfork every once in a while.
Compost piles, sometimes called heaps, are an effective way to produce large amounts of compost for a large garden plot. Heaps can be contained within walled structures that allow air to flow through and sometimes have more than one section to allow more than one pile to compost at once. One drawback of a large heap or pile is that they can be physically demanding. Turning compost is not an easy task and maintaining a pile can be labor intensive.
Ideal candidate: A compost pile or heap is best for big spaces—think farms or homes with a lot of acreage—and an active person capable of turning heavy piles.
One alternative to a compost pile is the compost tumbler. Basically a large bin on a wheel, a compost tumbler is a quick and efficient way to make compost with a much smaller footprint than a traditional pile. Tumblers speed up the composting process by allowing compost to heat up at a much quicker rate and allow users to spin the container, mixing the material much more effectively than with a pitchfork or rake.
Ideal candidate: A compost tumbler is a great happy medium—no huge pile to turn, but no potentially stinky bin in your kitchen. It’s best for those with a modest-sized garden in a suburban setting.
Kitchen composting is when a small container that is kept on the counter, in a cabinet, under the sink or in the garage.
Choosing the right container, either ceramic or stainless steel, with a tight-fitting lid, is essential. Some compost containers, like the one below, come with deodorizers or charcoal filters to minimize odors and speed up decomposition.
Ideal candidate: Since a kitchen compost is an easy-to-maintain option for small spaces, this is great for apartment dwellers or anyone with a small container garden.
How Do You Start a Compost Pile?
Once you’ve chosen the perfect method for your space and your needs, it’s time to actually get composting!
Choose your spot
Choosing the right spot for your compost pile is an important first step. Avoid low areas that allow water to pool. You don’t want your pile to stay soaking wet or it won’t break down properly. Also avoid areas subject to direct wind. A nice, protected, dry and sunny spot with good drainage is ideal.
Add material to the pile, alternating green and brown. No need to be precise. Compost happens even if your ratios aren’t spot on, so don’t stress about how much of what. Just start adding material. Shred or chop materials as small as possible before adding. Little chunks of material break down much fast than large pieces.
Water your compost
To maintain adequate moisture, you should water your pile when you turn it. To properly break down, compost should be moist, not soaking. If you dig in and notice that it’s super dry, water it more frequently. Conversely, if it’s still wet from your last dousing, hold off for a few days.
Turn your compost
Every time you add to your pile, you should turn it over. Burying new items in the middle of the pile encourages decomposition and turning the entire pile every week or so will speed decay. You’ll know compost is happening when your pile is warm to the touch or you see steam rising from it in cool weather.
When the bottom of your pile is dark brown, you’ve successfully made compost and it’s ready to use. There are a few options for exactly how to use your compost, and again, it depends on your needs.
How to Use Compost
- Mix it directly into your garden plot or raised beds to improve the quality of the existing soil: When you add compost directly to garden soil, there really is no right or wrong. Just add as much as you can and mix it with existing soil. Check the texture as a test. When composted soil is squeezed into a ball, it should be crumbly, not dense; it should stick together but be easy to break apart with your fingers.
- Use it as the sole potting soil for a container garden: When using compost as a potting mix, use 100% compost in your containers.
- Or, brew a compost tea and use it as a liquid fertilizer
How About You?
Do you compost? Why or why not? I’d love to hear YOUR composting success stories!