Composting is the ultimate reward for recycling your kitchen and garden waste for use in the garden!
If you are a beginner gardener, I’ve got some composting basics to get you started today.
What is Compost?
Compost is the by-product of decomposed organic material.
You add compost to your garden soil to improve its texture, moisture holding capacity, and nutrition content.
Compost is made from formerly living things that rot and impart their beneficial chemical elements to the soil, mainly nitrogen and carbon.
The nitrogen and carbon feed and fuel the bacteria, fungi and beneficial microbes that grow in the container and break down the materials.
It’s an incredible chain of chemical events that are part of the soil food web.
The compost feeds the soil, which in turn, feeds your plants.
Humus is another name for compost and the ingredients for compost are probably in your trash can now.
Don’t confuse compost for fertilizer although compost contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – the essential three nutrients in complete fertilizers.
Compost is much more than that.
Rather, think of compost as a “soil conditioner” that elevates that dirty stuff in your back yard into rich, life-supporting soil!
Start With A Small, Personal Composting Bin
I appear regularly on the Emmy nominated “Home & Family” show on the Hallmark channel as their garden expert.
My latest project for the show is designing a kitchen garden as well as a composting system.
Click on the photo above to watch the video clip of the composting segment I did on Home & Family show!
The composting system I presented on the show is a small, personal bin that makes an ideal beginner composter.
Once you master creating compost from an 18-gallon Rubbermaid storage bin, you can graduate to larger systems!
Place your composter in a patio, balcony or small yard near the garden where you plan to use it.
It’s very simple to prepare your storage bin for service but be careful using your drill.
Poke holes around and under the bin for air circulation.
Add holes to your cover as well.
You may want to buy an extra bin cover to place underneath the box to catch the “compost tea” that weeps from underneath the bin.
You can use this fortified tea to water your plants months before your compost is ready!
Once your storage container is riddled with holes, it’s time to start adding composting materials!
“Green” and “Brown” Materials for Composting
Here’s what you will need to start composting:
-Green or nitrogen-rich materials
-Brown or carbon-rich materials
-A little finished compost to sprinkle as a “starting” ingredient
-Gloves, tools to mix your compost
Green materials are usually on the wet or slimy side and contain lots of nitrogen.
The nitrogen-rich green materials are responsible for fueling the microbial activity which heats up the compost bin.
Heat is generated as the fungi, bacteria and microbes multiply, eat, and break down the organic matter, along with a host of other living creatures.
This is why compost bins are said to “cook!”
In order for the compost to fully cook, temperatures rise to 120 degrees and more.
These are some green materials that can be added to the compost bin:
- Grass clippings
- Vegetable and fruit leftovers and peels
- Cow, sheep, rabbit, goat and bat manure- don’t use human, cat, dog or pig manure. It contains nasty microbes!
- Coffee grounds- Starbucks gives them away!
- Plants and old flowers
Brown materials are high in carbon, or carbohydrates, and are a source of energy for the compost microbes.
Most brown materials are more dry than green materials.
- Paper, cardboard
- Paper towels
- Dried leaves
- Hay and straw
- Egg shells
- Tea bags
- Wood ashes
- Tree branches and clippings
- Lint from dryer
- Human or dog hair
What Not to Add!
- Grease, oil
- Dairy products
- Human and pet feces
- Inorganic materials such as plastic, metal or glass
How Much Green and Brown Material To Use?
There are many opinions about the proper ratio of green to brown material to use.
To keep it simple, I suggest that you add your materials in layers starting with your browns.
Add water to your brown material until you are able to squeeze a few drops of water from your mass and sprinkle some finished compost on top.
Add an equal amount of green material and continue layering even amounts.
At the end, add a little more brown material than green.
The actual ratio that is recommended is 30 parts carbon or brown material to 1 part nitrogen green material.
All organic materials have both nitrogen and carbon in them, so this is not referring to volume; rather, it refers to the amount of these properties in each material.
Compare this to a food nutrition label.
We are looking for the total of “30 grams of carbohydrates (carbon) and 1 gram of protein (nitrogen)”
Maintaining Your Compost Bin
As you collect food and garden waste, add them to your compost bin, using the layering technique explained above.
Always check your moisture levels, making sure it isn’t too wet or dry.
Turn your compost pile each time you add materials as this incorporates oxygen into the mass and helps your batch to cook evenly.
Compost bins can have “hot spots” like food that has been cooked in a microwave oven!
Use a BBQ thermometer to check the temperature of your pile, inserting it into the middle of the pile.
Ideally, temperature for active cooking is between 120-140 degrees.
Turning your pile gives an opportunity for even cooking.
Place your compost bin in a shaded area.
During the rainy season you may want to cover your compost bin with a tarp.
With diligent attention to your bin, you can expect to harvest some compost anytime from 6 to 8 months.
When all the material has decomposed, allow a “curing time” of a few weeks to let your compost stabilize before adding to your garden beds or containers.
How to Use Compost
Add compost to your garden beds to enrich the soil in the Spring or before your active planting season.
Even if you aren’t planting anything new, top dress your garden beds with 3 inches of compost every year.
You can also add an inch or two of compost to your established containers and raised beds.
Is Homemade Compost Worth The Time?
Only you can put a value on the time you invest in your garden and composting bin.
For some, it’s not a matter of saving money or time but rather, limiting the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill.
I’m a 50/50 composting gardener.
Although I have a compost bin and add to it, I still need to buy compost because I can’t make enough for my garden’s needs!
I get a tremendous thrill when I open my bin and see “black gold” slowly replacing rotting food and garden clippings!
Interested in Vermicomposting?
Read my blog post, “Build A Compost Bin for Red Worms: Vermicomposting” in my EdenMakers Blog!
How about you, Foodie Gardeners?
Have any stories or tips to share about your compost bin?
I’d love to hear from you!