Originally Published on November 10, 2020. Last Updated on August 18, 2022.
Over the years, composting has become increasingly popular among green thumbs. In a nutshell, composting is the natural process of decomposing food and yard waste. The end product — which many gardeners call “black gold” — can be added to soil to help plants grow. It also helps reduce your carbon footprint and limit your contribution to landfills.
This blog covers the benefits and basics of composting and provides step-by-step guides on how to start composting in large and small spaces.
What Are the Benefits of Composting?
Composting provides many benefits that can help your garden flourish and keep the environment clean.
Produces Less Garbage
Most landfills in America are filling up quickly. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), compostable food and yard waste together comprise 28% of America’s garbage. If you divert this waste from landfills to your composting bin, you’ll help produce less garbage. Plus, you’ll make fewer trips to the trash can!
Landfills are one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions — particularly methane. If you start composting, as well as recycling, you’ll help lower methane emissions from landfills and reduce your carbon footprint.
Creates Nutrient-Rich Soil
When you reuse food and yard waste for composting, you expose it to oxygen, which it’s deprived of when sitting in a landfill. The waste breaks down as it would in nature and creates compost. Once the compost is fully decomposed, the byproduct is humus, which enriches the soil with nutrients and helps retain moisture. This means healthier plants and less watering.
Reduce Pests and Plant Disease
Several of the micronutrients in compost boast pesticide-like effects. It also helps the soil fight against plant disease.
Compost can act as a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides. This helps reduce the need to purchase these products, allowing you to save some money.
What Do You Need to Start Composting?
All composting starts with three main ingredients: browns, greens, and water. Browns provide carbon, greens offer nitrogen, and water gives your compost pile moisture to help break down the organic matter.
Browns are dry, carbon-rich materials, such as dead leaves, twigs, and branches. Carbon gives the compost a light, fluffy texture. Additionally, carbon helps absorb excess moisture, facilitate airflow, and mask pungent odors due to an excess of greens.
Check out the list below to see what brown materials to put in your compost pile:
- Shredded leaves
- Chopped twigs and branches
- Chopped corn cobs and stalks
- Wood ash
- Shredded cardboard
- Crushed eggshells
- Dryer lint
- Ensure it’s from natural fibers.
- Straw or hay
- Straw is preferred over hay with seeds.
- Shrub prunings
- Woody prunings break down slowly.
- Newspaper or shredded paper
- Avoid glossy paper and colored inks.
- Pine needles and cones
- They’re acidic, so use moderately.
- Wood chips and pellets
- Use sparingly due to high carbon levels.
Greens are wet, nitrogen-rich materials, such as food scraps, manures, and green lawn clippings. Nitrogen is what helps speed up the decomposing process. It provides proteins for the microorganisms breaking down the organic matter in your compost.
Here’s a list of greens you can throw in your compost pile:
- Loose or bagged tea leaves
- Green comfrey leaves
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Chicken manure
- Hedge clippings
- Fresh leaves
- Garden waste
- Chop any long woody stems.
- Fruit, vegetable, and table scraps
- Add with dry carbon items.
- Lawn and garden weeds
- Ensure they have not gone to seed.
- Seaweed and kelp
- Add in thin layers.
- Fresh grass clippings
- Add in thin layers.
Balancing Carbon and Nitrogen
The key to cultivating a healthy compost pile is to strike the right balance of carbon and nitrogen. Generally, you want more carbon than nitrogen. A good rule of thumb to follow is ⅓ green, nitrogen-rich materials and ⅔ brown, carbon-rich materials. The abundance of carbon allows oxygen to enter and nourish the organisms in the pile. If there’s too much nitrogen, your compost pile turns into a stinky, slow-decomposing mess.
What NOT to Compost
While it’s imperative to know what you can compost, it’s just as important to know what you cannot compost. According to the EPA, these are the items you shouldn’t compost and the reasons why:
- Meat, bones, dairy products, eggs, fats, grease, lard, or oils
- These foods release an odor that attracts pests such as rodents and flies.
- Coal or charcoal ash
- They might contain substances that are harmful to plants.
- Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
- These things release substances that may be damaging to plants.
- Perennials, weeds, or diseased plants
- You might transfer weed seeds or diseases back to other plants.
- Pet waste
- Pet waste, such as dog feces or spoiled cat litter, may contain parasites, bacteria, germs, and other substances harmful to humans.
- Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
- The chemicals may kill beneficial composting organisms.
How to Start Composting for Large Spaces and Backyards
Take advantage of your large space or backyard and create a compost pile! Here’s how to do it:
1. Find a Spot in Your Yard to Start a Pile
Look for a dry, shady area near a water source. Ideally, you want the compost pile to be 3 feet tall by 3 feet deep by 3 feet wide. You can purchase a special bin or build your own compost bin. It doesn’t have to be fancy, either. As long as you have a bordered area to ward off critters and pests, your compost pile should be fine.
2. Layer Your Browns and Greens
Start with the browns. Then, put the greens on top and alternate layers. Try to keep the layering three parts browns and one part greens. Also, shred or chop large pieces of materials such as branches and newspapers.
3. Water Your Compost Pile
Keep the materials moist by lightly watering them with a hose or watering can. However, don’t get the pile too soggy. If it’s too wet, throw in some more dry browns.
4. Turn Your Pile
Every few days, use a pitchfork or shovel to turn your compost mixture. This aerates your compost pile, helping speed up the decomposition and prevent the smell from getting too putrid.
5. Use Your Compost
If you maintain your compost pile regularly, it should be ready somewhere between a few weeks to a few months. You’ll know it’s done when your compost looks, feels, and smells like soil!
How to Start Composting for Small Spaces
Don’t worry if you live in an apartment or don’t have a backyard. You can still create your own composting bin on your balcony or porch. Here’s how you do it:
1. Purchase or Make Your Own Compost Bin
To construct your own compost bin, get a five-gallon plastic bucket and a drill with a ⅛-inch drill bit. Then, drill several holes on the lid, sides, and bottom. Take another five-gallon bucket and drill a ring around the lower portion of the bucket. Drilling all these holes allow for air circulation and drainage. If you want to make things easier, there are plenty of places where you can buy a compost bin.
2. Stack Your Buckets
Stack the bucket with the drilled lid, bottom, and sides on top of the other bucket.
3. Layer Your Browns and Greens
Start with a layer of browns. Next, add your greens and alternate layers. Ensure your ratio is three parts brown and one-part greens. Also, shred or chop any larger materials.
4. Mix It Up
Throw in three cups of soil to kick-start the composting process. Then, mix everything with a gardening tool or your hands.
5. Moisten Your Compost
Take a spray bottle with water, squirt it a couple of times in your bucket, and mix it up again. Ensure your compost is damp, but not soggy. Secure the lid on the bucket and let it sit in direct sunlight.
6. Check Your Compost
Check on your compost every few days. Mix it up and add more greens and browns if needed. When the matter has a crumbly texture, dark color, and earthy smell, it’s ready to use.
Whether you start composting in your backyard or apartment, the matter in your compost doesn’t break down overnight, so be patient. However, the more you manage your compost, the quicker the decomposing process will be. Once your compost is ready, you’ll be on your way to growing a healthy, flourishing garden!
Are you going to start composting at home? Let us know in the comments.