My first experience with compost was watching my grandma take her coffee grounds, eggshells, and carrot tops out to the old tree, where she mixed them together and left them to sit. Years later, I actually understood that she was creating fertilizer for her vegetable garden and this was her compost pile. She made garden composting easy, and you can too.
Garden composting involves mixing together a variety of organic matter to break down naturally into rich, fertile soil. There are many benefits to creating your own compost, and the process is easy. You can create your own compost pile with a few simple steps, a little dedicated space, and very little maintenance.
In this article, we’ll talk about garden composting made easy. We’ll go over the basics of what is garden composting, the benefits of composting, the composting recipe, and how and where to get your pile started. But first, let’s talk about what garden composting is.
What Is Garden Composting?
Composting is the natural process of mixing together organic matter so that nature can break it down into rich, nutrient-filled soil. There are certain ingredients that make the best compost: carbon, nitrogen, and water. If you set up your compost pile or bin well in the right location, it won’t require much maintenance at all. And there are some great benefits to making your own garden compost:
- You’ll make less waste. For example, you can compost kitchen scraps, yard waste, and even some paper and cardboard, which will reduce your trash load.
- Composting adds beneficial microorganisms and nutrients to your soil, making it an all-natural fertilizer.
- Compost piles can feed your chickens.
- Compost creates loose, rich soil for your garden.
How to Get Started with Your First Compost Pile
You don’t have to get fancy when starting your first compost pile. You could simply mix your ingredients in the corner of your garden, where it is easy to access. But there are a few simple steps that can help you be more successful when you create your compost pile.
- Decide what type of compost pile you want. For example, you could choose a loose pile, a bin, a tumbler, or a worm farm.
- Choose your location.
- Build your container, if needed.
- Add the ingredients to your compost recipe.
- Activate your compost by watering and turning it.
- Harvest it when it is ready.
Choose Your Compost Container
You can purchase commercially made compost bins or tumblers. The tumblers are nice because they keep your compost contained. All you have to do is turn the crank from time to time to mix the ingredients inside. However, containers can be expensive, and their size will limit the amount of compost you can make.
If you are going to be composting indoors, you can purchase a worm farm. The worms will eat the compost materials and leave you with worm castings, which are a rich fertilizer for your garden.
You can build your own compost bin by creating a three-sided square from pallets or even cattle panels or fencing. Or you can simply pile up your compost in an easily accessible area, such as a corner of your garden or chicken pen.
When you know what type of compost container you want to use, you can then choose your location and decide where to put it.
Choose Your Compost Location
- Keep your compost pile a little distance from your house. You don’t want to attract rodents or bugs near your home.
- Ideally, your pile will be easily accessible from your kitchen, garden, and water source. A corner of the garden works well, as does a corner of your chicken pen or greenhouse.
- Keep your compost bin in a sunny spot because the direct sun will speed up the process.
- Keep your compost bin in a well-draining area because you don’t want your bin to be a wet, soggy, smelly mess.
- You may occasionally need to water your compost pile, so you’ll want it to be accessible to a water source, such as your garden hose.
- You may want to locate your compost pile in a spot where you have room to expand it, if necessary.
- If you start your compost pile on the bare ground rather than in a barrel or tumbler, worms and beneficial bugs will migrate to the pile and help break it down even faster.
The Garden Compost Recipe
The recipe for your garden compost pile only requires three basic ingredients:
Greens are nitrogen-rich components. These should make up anywhere between 20% and 50% of your compost pile. Think of greens as things such as grass clippings, coffee grounds, chicken or goat manure, and your kitchen scraps. Kitchen scraps are items such as leftover vegetable ends, carrot tops, wilted greens, etc.
On the other hand, Browns are the carbon-rich materials that you put in your compost pile. Browns will make up 50% to 80% of your pile. Browns are dry or dead items such as dry leaves, cardboard, sawdust, twigs, or straw.
If it rains a lot in your area, you might not need to water your compost at all. However, your compost pile won’t heat up and decompose properly without moisture. You probably want to think of your compost pile as a wrung-out, damp sponge. You don’t want it to be dripping with water or soggy, just moist enough to create a little heat. If your pile gets too dry, you can water it with the garden hose, and it should start to heat up again.
There are a few items you should keep out of your compost pile. These items could disrupt composting or damage the plants you will use the compost for. For example,
- Pet waste
- Weeds that have gone to seed (they will sprout and spread in your compost bin)
- Diseased plants (this could put the disease into the soil where you are using the compost)
- Dairy products.
- Pesticides, herbicides, chemicals, or chemically treated yard waste
- Inorganic items
On the other hand, there are some unusual items that you might want to compost to reduce your trash output:
Unusual Items You Can Mix into Your Compost Pile
These items are typically considered to be “browns” because they are dry items. Just be sure to avoid things that have chemicals on them because this can harm the process.
- Coffee filters
- Dryer lint
- Cardboard or paper without ink or tape
- Napkins and paper towels
- Hair or fur
- Cotton clothing
Building Your Compost Pile: Layering Your Browns and Greens
When you first build your compost pile, you need to use layers to get it started, just as if you were making a pan of lasagna.
First, put down the larger items such as twigs or large pieces of cardboard. This will help your pile drain better. On top of that, place some dried leaves. Then, place your kitchen scraps or grass cuttings on top of the dried leaves. Keep layering your pile by alternating any browns and greens.
Over time, as you add something to your pile, you’ll want to keep incorporating layers. For example, anytime you put something green on the pile, like grass clippings, you’ll want to cover it with some browns, such as straw or sawdust. This will help control pests and prevent unwanted odors.
Turning Your Compost Pile
You’ll want to turn your pile over about once a week for the best results. Turning your pile will aerate it and spread the microorganisms evenly throughout the pile. Then, you can just use a shovel or pitchfork to turn it over a bit. Better yet, allow your chickens to have access to the compost pile. They’ll dig through for bits of leftover food and bugs, turning and aerating the pile as they do so. They’ll save you time and work as well as money for chicken food!
Watering Your Compost Pile
Keep your eye on the moisture content of your compost pile. As we mentioned before, it should feel like a damp but not a soggy sponge. If your pile is too wet, it will smell bad and rot. On the other hand, if you find your pile feels too wet, just add more browns to it to absorb some of the excess moisture.
If your pile is too dry, it won’t decompose properly. You can add some water with a hose and turn it over a little bit to even the moisture out.
How Big Should Your Compost Pile Be
There is no rule on the size of your compost pile – it should be as big or as small as you want it to be! However, you probably should make your pile twice the size of the amount of finished compost you need.
Your pile or bin needs to be a manageable size for you. You need to be able to turn all of it over regularly. If your pile is too large, you probably won’t be able to do that. In that case, you might be better off with several smaller piles to make it more manageable.
If you are composting indoors in a container, these composters are usually only about one to three gallons in size. This won’t give you a lot of compost, but it will help with some of your leftover kitchen scraps.
On the other hand, a compost tumbler will give you several cubic square feet of compost, which is enough for a small garden.
And if you have room, you can create as many three-foot by three-foot bins as you like! So if you don’t want a single, large compost pile, this is a nice, manageable size.
How and When to Harvest Your Compost
Compost takes anywhere from 2 months to 2 years to be ready to harvest. If you are composting chicken manure, you might want to let it process for an entire year since chicken manure can burn your plants when it is fresh.
You’ll know your compost is ready to harvest when you have dark, earthy-smelling dirt, kind of like what you would find on a forest floor.
If you want, you can just shovel out the finished compost into a wheelbarrow to transport to your garden. Some people like to filter out any large chunks by running the compost through a large sieve before using it.
Save a little bit of the finished mix to put into your next compost pile. It will speed up the process for next time.
Should my compost smell bad?
Your compost pile may have some faint odors as it is breaking down. But if it smells especially foul or like rotten food, it is probably too wet. Add in some more browns and mix the pile well. Don’t water it again until the odor is gone.
Is it ok if there are maggots in my compost?
You may find some maggots or other interesting bugs that have taken up residence in your compost pile. This is ok, as long as the pile isn’t overwhelmed with bugs. If you allow your chickens access to the pile, they’ll help keep the bug colonies under control for you.
Should I add worms to my compost?
If your compost pile is on the ground, you don’t really need to add any worms. They’ll make their way to the pile and help decompose it for you! However, if your pile is in a tumbler or a bin that doesn’t have access to soil, you can always purchase red wigglers to add to your compost pile if you want to speed up the process and get some nice worm castings, too.
Can you compost if you live in an apartment?
Yes, you can compost if you live in an apartment. You can purchase small, indoor composters that don’t take up much room and don’t smell bad as long as you follow the directions.