Thursday, September 29, 2011

Composting 101: How to Make Compost (The Easy Way)

We have been talking a lot about gardening and natural products. Well, composting is one of the best, most natural things you can do for your garden and your environment. You probably know what composting means—it’s becoming pretty popular—but how on earth do you do it? Composting is essentially combining scraps of organic material so that it breaks down into a nutrient- and microbe-rich “soil." This happens in nature all the time. It’s how plants existed before people arrived to fertilize and mess with them. As organic matter breaks down, it feeds other plants, giving them what they need to fight disease and grow.

If you have ever researched information about composting, you may have become overwhelmed. A lot of resources make it sound like if you don’t do everything perfectly right, you’ll have a rotting, stinking mess. I used to worry about this and even went so far as to buy a thermometer to make sure my compost pile was getting hot enough for proper decomposition. I turned it religiously and tried to monitor my ratios of brown to green stuff.

And then I had two kids, got lazy, and didn’t touch my compost bin for a year. When I started gardening again, I stuck a shovel into the bottom of the compost bin and pulled out … COMPOST!

So this is the lazy, beginner’s version of composting. The point is that it works. It gives you a foundation to start from, and you can perfect it as you go. This is the lazy person’s guide to making compost.

Different Types of Compost Bins

You can use a store-bought bin that looks kind of like an upside-down garbage can, a tumbler, or just throw your scraps in a heap if your yard is big enough. You do want your bin to have openings on the bottom to allow microorganisms to come in and help in the decomposition process. When I started composting, I fashioned a bin out of wood pallets lined with chicken wire. You can get fruit flies and moths frequenting your compost though, and my neighbors probably would have complained, so I got a compost bin with a lid pretty inexpensively at Costco. I’ve probably had it for 5 years now. That's it in the picture above.

I'm bad about taking my kitchen scraps out. You could leave out a big bowl into which you peel your vegetables and empty it outside every evening or use a small, covered container to collect your scraps inside. They say you should use a container with holes in it because this allows air to enter and starts the whole composting process, but in my experience, it attracts fruit flies. I keep my compost in one of those plastic aroma-sealed coffee containers and it does just fine.
My compost collector

What Can You Compost?

You can find websites that break it down by specific ratios of green materials, which are high in nitrogen, and brown materials, which are high in carbon. I say just throw it in. There are certainly limits to what you can put in, but I don’t even pay attention to the ratios; I just feed the bin my garbage.

Examples of green compost materials:
  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Kitchen scraps
  • Weeds
  • Green leaves

Examples of brown compost materials:
  • Dry leaves
  • Dry grass
  • Shredded paper

Most websites assume you have plenty of dry leaves to add to the compost bin in the fall, but if you live in an area where they cut down all the trees and pop one twig into everybody’s front yard when they build the development, you don’t have leaves. I don’t have leaves. So I just add kitchen scraps, paper from my shredder, and soil from old flower pots and my garden.

If you only add green material, it can turn into a black, slimy, soggy, stinky mess. It won’t decompose properly and it will just turn to sludge. But add your newspaper or some garden soil or your torn up or shredded junk mail and you’ll be fine.
Inside my compost bin...gross!

Composting Don’ts

There are a few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to composting.
  • Don’t put human or pet waste in your compost bin. It can breed harmful bacteria. You can use manure from animals like rabbits, chickens, and cows.
  • Don’t put meat or dairy in your compost bin. It will start to stink and can attract pests.

Then there are some more controversial rules:
  • Should you add coffee grounds to compost?
  • Should you add eggshells?
I’ve even read about someone who added his own urine. If you’re in doubt, research it first, or just leave it out. I leave out eggshells because I’m afraid my pile doesn’t get hot enough to kill possible salmonella. But I kind of just made that up—it’s my own paranoia.

How Does the Decomposition Process Work?

To make compost, you need air, moisture, heat, and compostable materials. Well, you could even leave out the heat and you could still get compost, it would just take longer. The reason even organic matter doesn’t decompose in a landfill is because it’s completely covered and there isn’t enough air to make it break down.

So how do you get this lovely combination of elements into your compost? Well, you’ve already put your kitchen scraps, garden cast-offs, and paper garbage into your compost pile. Now you just leave it.

Here’s the deal, though: The stuff on the bottom is going to decompose first. So you need a way to access that to use it once it turns into compost. And it will take a long time if you let the pile sit stagnant, because you’re not introducing air and moisture into the mix. (Although, as I saw in my year-long sabbatical from gardening, you can still make compost if you don’t touch the bin at all.)

How to Turn your Compost

To make the materials in your compost pile decompose more quickly, turn it every once in a while. “But my compost pile doesn’t turn—I didn’t get the tumbler kind.” Right. If you did get the tumbler kind, just give it a crank. If you didn’t, just take the stuff from the bottom and put it in the top. My bin has holes in the bottom so I can access the compost in there with a shovel, easily dragging it out and dumping it back in the top.

But if you just have a heap of compost or a makeshift bin, you’ll probably want to just move it over into a pile right next to where it started. Just shovel what’s on top onto the ground, and keep doing that. The compost that was at the top of your bin will be at the bottom of your new pile, and the more decomposed stuff from the bottom of your original bin will be at the top of your new one. Doing that aerates your pile and gets the pressure working on the newer scraps, which helps them decompose.

If you don’t even have enough room to do that, you could even stick a pitchfork in your pile and just toss it around a bit. It would decompose more slowly, but it would work.

How Can You Speed the Composting Process Along?

I have to tell you that when you start composting, it helps to begin with a big load of stuff. You won't get decomposition without maybe a 3-cubic-foot mound. If you're dying to start but only have a small bowl of kitchen scraps, ask a friend or neighbor for a tub of some compost or soil and just add to that. Or buy a bag of soil at thr garden store.

One of the best ways to stimulate the decomposition of your compost is to add compost tea. You can search online how to brew some, or you can just get some from a local brewer. Progressive Gardens in Wilmington, NC, gives out free gallons of freshly-brewed compost tea to anyone who walks in with an empty milk jug. I pick one up every week. And then I have to let my family know not to drink it. (It looks like some delicious iced tea.)
Compost tea from Progressive Gardens

Putting compost tea in your compost bin will add microorganisms that help in the decomposition process. If you dilute it with water and add it directly to your garden, it will add microorganisms that help with healthy plant growth directly into your garden. It basically balances out your ecosystem, kind of like probiotics balance out your digestive system.
I pour a little compost tea into my watering can,
fill the rest with water, and pour it over my plants.
That fabric in the background is a onesie that I'm sunning to get a stain out.

There are fertilizers that say they help the composting process along too. For example, Dr. Earth’s Organic 2 Starter Fertilizer can be added to your compost bin to speed up the process. See? I told you that you didn’t have to be perfect.

We’ve established that my methods aren’t perfect. For example, I have a lot of weeds that grow from the compost I put in my garden. That’s probably because I don’t turn it enough. You need air and pressure to make enough heat to kill those weed seeds. And sometimes I use compost that isn’t quite all the way done. That’s not the end of the world; I’m still introducing beneficial nutrients to the garden, but it can take away from the plants growing in my garden because the microorganisms are still expending their energy breaking down the compost instead of feeding my plants. Or something like that.

But I haven’t bought garden soil in years (except when I made up a bunch of new beds a few years ago and broke down and brought in a truckload of topsoil). And I only have a bag of garbage every week for the whole family. Almost everything except for plastic, metal, and glass goes in the compost bin, and the other stuff gets recycled. It feels good not to be contributing too heavily to the massive amounts of garbage we humans put out, even if my son is obsessed with garbage trucks.
Some fruits--vegetables, really--of my labor

If you feel the urge to do some more research about making compost, don't overwhelm yourself. The Basics of Composting at The Garden of Oz is a great article that sums it all up without overloading you. is also a great resource, but I wouldn't even go there until you're ready to go to the next level. You have all the basics...are you ready to start making compost?

Please feel free to add your own tips in the comments! We know you won't overwhelm us.


  1. I love composting and just put green and brown materials together. No time to think about that stuff!!! Love this post!

  2. Thank you for all of this awesome info! This answers several of my questions about composting.

    Thanks for linking up at Green & Natural Mamas Thursday again!