The Basics of Backyard Composting

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countertop compost bin next to a plant and cutting board with peelings from a cucumber and potato

If you’ve heard gardeners talk about black gold and wondered where to find it, don’t go panning in a mine — we’ve got the inside scoop. Black gold by any other name is compost. 

Not only is it a valuable resource for your garden, but compost is also easy to make at home. In this article, we’ll talk about what compost is, how it helps your soil, and how you can make it with minimal effort at home.

What is compost?

Compost is a decomposed mixture of yard and kitchen waste that you can use to improve and fertilize your soil. This means when leaves, yard waste, and food scraps break down, they turn into something that can go back to the land to improve the health of soils, lawns, and crops. Pretty cool, right?

Composting benefits

If you’re reading this article, you probably want to improve your soil health and help preserve the environment. Compost is one of the easiest, cheapest ways to do that and is hailed by gardeners, lawn gurus, and environmentalists alike.

Compost is prized by gardeners who want to enhance the health and structure of their soil. Compost provides slow-release nutrients, improves the soil structure, and improves your soil’s ability to hold (or drain) water.

What if you’re interested in lawn health? Compost can be used to topdress your lawn, which helps to improve the soil structure. Topdressing is often done when you aerate, fertilize, and overseed.

Environmentalists also sing the praises of home composting. Why? Home composting reuses food that would otherwise end up in landfills and turns your grocery dollars into something that adds value to your lawn or garden.

Whether you’re a gardener, lawn aficionado, or Earth lover, home composting has something to offer you. 

Benefits of compost:

  • Good for all soil types: Increases water and nutrient holding capacity for sandy soils and increases drainage in heavy (clay) soils
  • Use it as a soil amendment or as a mulch to suppress weeds and regulate soil temps
  • Returns kitchen and yard waste to the Earth, not to the trash
  • Saves you money — no need to buy compost at the store
  • Helps you rely less on chemical fertilizers
  • Releases nutrients slowly, so there’s no risk of burning your plants

Did you know? The FDA estimates that between 30-40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted at some point in the supply chain. How much does this affect your wallet? Food waste in the average home costs about $1,500 per year

Composting at home

infographic showing the materials used in composting. Including the most common brown and green options.

One of the most attractive things about compost, besides its amazing soil-building properties, is that you’re not spending money to make it and almost anyone can do it at home.

We’ll focus on outdoor composting, which requires four things: carbon, nitrogen, air, and water.

Carbon and nitrogen: To turn yard and kitchen scraps into compost, you need to give the microorganisms the proper diet to digest this food. Carbon and nitrogen are the key elements microorganisms need to do their job. 

Carbon-rich materials include leaves, straw, sawdust, wood chips, and paper. Think of these as the brown materials in your pile. 

Nitrogen-rich materials include grass clippings, coffee grounds, and vegetable scraps. Manure from cows, horses, poultry, and pigs is also in this category. Think of these as the green materials in your pile.

The optimal ratio of carbon (C) to nitrogen (N) (brown to green) is about 30:1. So, what does this mean for you as a home composter? It means you’ll need lots of brown with a little bit of green thrown in. If you have deciduous trees, you’ll likely produce much more leaf litter (brown) than kitchen waste (green), which provides an ideal balance. If your ratio is a little off, don’t worry. Your pile may take a little longer to break down, though.

Air: Compost decomposes faster with good aeration. Keep your pile turned once per week, or turn your tumbler regularly. You can turn compost twice per week, if you wish.

Water: You want your compost to have the consistency of a damp sponge. If you don’t have rain for a while, spray the pile with a hose or douse it with water from your rain barrels. 

Dos:

✓ Shred dry leaves with a lawnmower or blower/vacuum

✓ Keep more brown than green in your pile

✓ Aerate regularly for faster results

✓ Keep the pile as wet as a damp sponge – not too dry, not too wet

Don’ts:

✗ Add lawn clippings that have been treated with chemicals (fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, or pesticides)

✗ Add diseased plants or plants with an insect infestation

✗ Add weeds that have gone to seed

What can I compost at home? 

This infographic is a helpful way to visualize what works well in a home compost bin.

Do compost these:

✓ teabags

✓ coffee grounds

✓ eggshells

✓ house plants

✓ ashes from the fireplace

✓ leaves

✓ grass clippings

✓ fur and hair

✓ pine straw

✓ fruits

✓ vegetables

✓ weeds that haven’t gone to seed

✓ cardboard and newspaper (shredded)

✓ wool or cotton fabric (cut into small strips)

Don’t compost these:

✗ dairy products*

✗ meat trimmings

✗ fatty foods, meat, or oils

✗ pet waste

✗ charcoal or coal ash

✗ bones

✗ anything treated with chemicals

✗ black walnut tree debris

* Experts are divided on whether to include dairy products. Some say to leave them out, while others say dairy products are acceptable to include.

Pro Tip: If you don’t have a yard (meaning no grass clippings or leaf litter), vermicomposting (AKA worm composting) and bokashi composting are ways you can recycle your kitchen waste. These methods use worms or fermentation, respectively, to break down kitchen food waste.

Create your own compost bin

Before we get into how to DIY a backyard compost bin, know that there are a few ways to create outdoor compost: 

  • Tumbler
  • Bin
  • Pile

Each has benefits and drawbacks. 

Compost tumbler

plastic barrel on a wood frame for composting
Karen and Brad Emerson | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Price: High

How easy is it to turn the compost? Very easy

Capacity: Limited

Can critters get inside? No

Space needed: Moderate

Durability: Generally high, but depends on the product

Store-bought compost bin (with lid)

black, plastic compost bins in a row
Caroline Ford | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Price: Medium

How easy is it to turn the compost? Can be difficult. You don’t have leverage if you’re mixing from the top because the bin is closed on four sides.

Capacity: Limited

Can critters get inside? No

Space needed: Moderate

Durability: Generally high, but depends on the product

homemade compost bin made with wood and chicken wire
mjmonty | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Homemade chicken wire bin

Price: Low

How easy is it to turn the compost? Can be difficult. You don’t have leverage if you’re mixing from the top because the bin is closed on four sides.

Capacity: Unlimited. Customize the size you need.

Can critters get inside? Yes

Space needed: Moderate

Durability: Low

Large pile of compost with a wheel barrow next to and i sign stuck in it that reads "Compost"
Oregon State University | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Compost pile

Price: No cost

How easy is it to turn the compost? Pile is open, so you have good leverage with a pitchfork.

Capacity: Unlimited.

Can critters get inside? Yes

Space needed: High for a large compost pile

Durability: None

Experts note that finished compost can take from two months to two years. Compost tumblers with an ideal C:N ratio can take as little as two to four months, while large, unattended piles can take as long as two years. (If you don’t aerate — turn — the piles, the process is much slower.) You’ll know you have finished compost when it looks like dark, crumbly soil with few or no pieces of recognizable debris.

How to build a chicken wire compost bin

If you’re new to composting and want to start small, consider a chicken wire bin. 

How to build a chicken wire composting bin:

  • Buy a roll of standard chicken wire.
  • Flatten it out the best you can.
  • Take the flattened wire and form it into a cylinder.
  • Secure the ends with wire ties or whatever you have around the house.
  • Add mostly browns with a little bit of greens.
  • Use a pitchfork to turn once per week.

Word to the wise: Even though compost does contain beneficial nutrients for your soil, Clemson University notes that homeowners should consider compost primarily as a soil amendment rather than a fertilizer. Its nutrients are released slowly over time, so consider fertilization as a separate gardening chore.

FAQ About Composting

1. Will my compost pile smell? 

It shouldn’t. If the pile smells rotten, it likely has too much water or too little air. Turn the pile to add air, and don’t water it for a while. If it’s too wet, use a tarp if your pile or bin doesn’t have a cover. This will prevent it from getting wet on the next rainy day.

2. What about critters? 

In a thriving compost pile with a good C:N ratio, this shouldn’t be a problem. If you’ve added fatty foods or meat, this may make you susceptible to raccoons, opossums, and other wildlife getting into your compost pile.

3. How can I produce compost fast? 

First, it may take a little trial and error, but once you get a good C:N ratio, the pile will break down at an optimal speed. Second, piles will break down more quickly in warm months or warm climates. Finally, if you want to speed the composting process even more, you can do what’s called “fast composting.” 

According to Clemson, this will produce finished compost in “a couple of months.” This works if you’re starting a new pile.

Layer your compost: (aka “lasagna composting”):

— Add a few inches of sticks on the ground to increase airflow and water drainage (optional)
— Add a layer of brown (keep the brown to green ratio about 3:1)
— Add a layer of green
— Mix the layers with a pitchfork or similar tool
— Add moisture if needed (“wet sponge consistency”)
— Add an inch or two of finished compost, manure, or garden soil 
— Repeat, until you run out of organic materials or fill your bin
— Turn the pile twice per week

Ideally, you should do this in spring or summer.

Note: Make sure your pile, bin, etc., is between 3 feet and 5 feet square. If you have a wire bin, make it at least 3 feet in circumference. The shape doesn’t matter (square, circle, etc.), but it has to be big enough to hold enough heat to decompose. 

If all the ratios, moisture, and air are in balance, the pile should start to heat up and reach its hottest point in the first several weeks. Caution: Don’t let the pile get over about 140 degrees Fahrenheit (turn the pile to reduce the temperature). Microorganisms start to die if the temps get too hot.  

If you take a temperature reading, the pile should be between 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for several weeks before the temps start to decline. The decomposition is most efficient in this temperature range, and 140 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which many common weed seeds will die. 

Tip: When you take a reading, put the thermometer in the center of the pile at least 12 inches deep. Buy a special composting thermometer for this purpose. They’re easy to find online or in a local home improvement store.

If your uber-productive garden is thriving with all of your well-aged compost, contact a local lawn care pro to take lawn care off your growing season to-do list.

Main Photo Credit: Lenka Dzurendova | Unsplash

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