What you're learning
- What is compost?
- What is the difference between compost and soil?
- What is the difference between compost and fertilizer?
- How do you make compost?
- Is it easy to compost at home?
- 6 Benefits of creating your own compost
- How do I start composting at home?
- Top 6 composting methods
- What is the easiest way to compost?
- What can I compost?
- Aeration and Turning your Compost Pile
- What should you not put in compost?
- 3 stages of composting
- Composting Tips
Composting is a kind of modern-day alchemy, turning trash into treasure using the transformative power of nature.
Home or backyard composting is a great way to convert household food waste like food scraps into useful organic compost that will greatly benefit both your garden and the environment.
What is compost?
Compost is decomposed organic matter. It is the end product of the natural process of organic waste decomposing and breaking down. The composting process requires organic materials like a mix of food scraps and grass clippings, water, and air, and is catalyzed by beneficial organisms like bacteria, fungi, worms, and other insects.
Good compost looks a bit like crumbled chocolate cake – dark brown, moist, and friable (but sadly not edible!). Referred to as “black gold” by gardeners, well-rotted finished compost is rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous, which are all essential nutrients for plant growth and health.
Compost also contains microorganisms like fungi and bacteria that make an incredible addition to any garden soil.
What is the difference between compost and soil?
Compost is a substance mostly comprised of decomposed organic waste, whereas soil contains more inorganic materials such as rock, sand, clay, and minerals, as well as organic waste, air, water, and living organisms.
When referring to soil one usually means the existing soil in your garden, whereas compost is an organic additive that can be spread on top as a mulch or dug into the soil.
What is the difference between compost and fertilizer?
Both are used to add nutrients to the soil, so what’s the difference between them?
Fertilizer is of synthetic origin, usually manufactured in production plants using chemicals. Fertilizer usually contains phosphorous, potassium, and nitrogen in inorganic form, ready for instant uptake by plants.
Fertilizer is often problematic as it isn’t retained well in the soil long term, leading to runoff from rain. Fertilizer that leaches into rivers can cause pollution and toxic algal blooms that suffocate fish.
Compost is made from natural, organic matter that is put in a favorable environment to decompose over time. The composting process breaks down waste into a form that makes nutrients accessible to plants.
Compost is a slow-release source of nutrients rich in microbes, and it improves the texture and aeration of your existing soil.
How do you make compost?
Composting is essentially all about creating the best environment for the decomposition of organic waste for the production of beneficial organic matter.
The composting process includes providing the correct ratio of waste products, adding air and water as needed, and letting the microorganisms do their work!
Composting unlocks the availability of the nutrients that are already present in organic material, without the need to use synthetic fertilizers that might harm the environment.
Is it easy to compost at home?
Yes, it is easy to compost at home! With some basic knowledge about composting and the right setup, you can easily start composting at home. It is possible to compost in an apartment with no outside space, as well as on a balcony, in a small garden, and in a large yard.
6 Benefits of creating your own compost
Composting lets you turn household waste into rich, nutritious compost that will support and enhance the growth of your plants. There are many benefits to creating your own compost, both personal and environmental.
Home composting benefits the environment by reducing food waste
Approximately 33% of all food produced in the world for human consumption ends up being wasted. Additionally, one-third of waste that ends up in landfills is food waste, and this food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions when left to rot.
On a personal household scale, some of this food waste may be accidental (RIP, that bag of lettuce you forgot about in the back of the fridge), but a great deal of household food waste is avoidable with the simple practice of composting.
Less landfill waste = fewer greenhouse gases
Organic waste, such as food scraps or rotten fruit, that ends up in landfills is compressed under tons of other waste and is stuck in an environment that has no access to air.
Anaerobic decomposition, or the breaking down of organic materials by organisms that don’t need oxygen to survive, produces greenhouse gases like methane.
Aeration is very important for making compost as it allows microorganisms like bacteria access to oxygen. This allows these bacteria to break down waste without harmful biogas as a byproduct.
Compost prevents water waste
Compost used as a mulch (topsoil cover) or mixed in with garden soil can improve the water retention of your existing soil, and help to conserve water.
Making compost yourself saves you money
Home composting is free! When food scraps, yard waste, and other organic household waste materials can be turned into a soil improver for gardening, you won’t need to buy bags and bags of compost anymore.
Grow organic fruit and vegetables with your own compost
A high-quality compost made from organic ingredients will give your home-grown fruits and veggies (and house plants!) the extra nutrients they need to thrive.
You’ll know exactly what is going into your compost, and what you can add to it to make it perfectly suited to the plants you are growing – no synthetic chemicals needed!
Compost improves the texture of clay soil
Compost is especially good for improving the drainage of clay soils. Adding enough compost to clay soil will attract worms which will break it up, improving the texture of the soil and increasing aeration and drainage.
How do I start composting at home?
Starting any new endeavor can be intimidating, but a few basic beginner tips can set you well on your way to mastering something new.
Firstly, you need to pick your composting method. There are several composting methods – the compost bin, compost pile, worm bin, compost heap – each suited to different household composting needs.
Top 6 composting methods
These are the top 6 ways of composting, each of them using different equipment, methods, and even different materials.
Worm bin (vermicomposting)
If you have an urban living space with no useable outdoor space, a worm bin is probably your best choice as a composter. Worm bins are ideal for households that produce small amounts of waste and have lower compost requirements than a household with a garden.
Worm composting helps to speed up the composting process by introducing live worms that will break down your organic waste by eating it and passing it through their bodies. Keeping worms in a bin in your home might seem strange, but a worm bin can be an easy, unobtrusive, and highly efficient way to compost.
The finished product is almost 100% worm castings (worm poop) that create fertile, dark compost. You can use this compost for your house plants and window boxes. Worm composting also helps to improve the fertility and drainage of the soil the compost is added to.
The most common worm used in vermicomposting is the “red wiggler” or manure worm (Eisenia foetida), a kind of worm that lives in the upper layer of leaf detritus and breaks down organic waste into fertile humus. You can purchase live worms for your worm bin from distributors online.
Worms are very low maintenance, as they eat your organic waste, they don’t smell or make a noise, and you only need to clean out the compost bin every 3-6 months. You can keep the bin in the corner of your kitchen or any place that’s at a stable temperature.
Outdoor plastic compost bin
If you are composting at home and you have some space outdoors, you can get a large plastic compost bin. The benefits of having a plastic compost bin outdoors are that it is moveable and it has a lid that keeps rain out.
There are many different designs of compost bins, each with a different capacity and useful features. One useful compost bin design feature is a sliding door at the bottom to remove finished compost easily, and others are specialized for enhanced ventilation or insulation for retaining heat and increasing microbial activity.
An outdoor compost bin can be placed directly on bare earth or grass, but you might want to lay some chicken wire down on the ground first to prevent rats from burrowing into your compost bin!
There are a few specially designed ‘hot’ compost bins that create a hot environment for material to decompose much quicker due to the higher temperatures. Hot composting is an accelerated version of normal decomposition and so the output is the same, it just happens more quickly.
Once you’ve figured out how to maximize your compost production with a hot compost bin, you can even produce finished compost in as little as 4 weeks!
Compost tumblers are designed for easing compost turning by means of a handle that turns the compost barrel. The compost barrel has a hatch for adding ingredients, and unlike a compost bin that sits on the bare earth, a compost tumbler is completely enclosed which provides protection from pests.
A compost tumbler is usually designed for maximum aeration and regular turning. The extra oxygen will increase bacterial activity, which in turn raises the temperature and speeds up the composting process.
Compost pile/heap outdoors
If you have a big enough yard or garden, you can create a compost pile or compost heap in one corner. Backyard composting is great if you have a veggie garden or a lot of yard waste, for example from grass clippings, plant waste, and dry leaves.
Aim for a minimum of 3x3x3 feet, as this size is big enough to generate significant heat from bacterial activity. This size is also more manageable and relatively easy to turn.
There are a few ways to contain a compost heap or pile in your yard:
- A wooden compost bin, made by securing 4 wooden pallets together to create a box.
- A compost pile kept secured with a circle of chicken wire is great for ventilation.
- Multiple wooden bins
This Japanese composting method is a totally different approach to conventional aerobic composting.
Bokashi composting is anaerobic composting, using fermentation to break down waste material of natural origin in a completely sealed container.
Fermentation is made possible by adding inoculated bran, for example, spent beer grain, to the compost bucket. The bran is full of bacteria like lactobacillus, and it is also naturally rich in carbon.
The waste is essentially predigested by the bacteria and then transferred either directly into the garden or into another bin or pile.
The biggest benefit of Bokashi composting is that you can compost things that are usually excluded from a compost bin: cooked food scraps, meat, fats, oils, dairy, eggs.
The only things you shouldn’t put in a Bokashi compost bin are large items (simply chop your scraps into smaller pieces) and food scraps that are already rotting, because the microbes on rotting food will compete with the ones fermenting your waste.
Direct burying of food scraps
This method is exactly what it sounds like – burying kitchen scraps and yard waste directly in your garden. Direct burying can be a problem if you have rummaging pests that will dig up your garden looking for food, or if you have a lot of waste, but it is a great form of passive composting that requires a bit of initial work and then no effort whatsoever.
You can even do this on a very small scale by burying crushed eggshells or banana peels in the soil of your houseplants!
What is the easiest way to compost?
Cold composting, also known as passive composting or “no turn” composting is the easiest way to make compost. With this method, you don’t need to go through the effort of physically digging, moving, and turning a large amount of rotting organic matter every few weeks.
This method mimics nature, where the forest floor detritus is slowly turned into rich, fertile humus by microorganisms. Simply layer your food scraps, yard waste, and other materials in a compost pile or bins, and leave them be. It takes longer – sometimes up to a year – to get your finished compost, but it’s almost entirely hands-off.
Alternatively, you can get a compost tumbler that eliminates the need for physical exertion, but you’ll still need to remember to turn your compost regularly so the material decomposes faster.
Keep a plastic pail or container in your kitchen to store fruit and vegetable scraps as you prepare food, and empty this container regularly into your composter.
If you want to speed up the composting process, you can increase the temperate of your compost pile. A temperature of between 140 -160 degrees F is ideal for bacterial activity. Anything hotter will kill living organisms, and lower temperatures will simply slow down decomposition.
To raise the temperature of your compost, you can favor a black compost bin that will absorb and retain heat. Frequent aeration gives microorganisms plenty of oxygen needed to break down waste, so turn the pile weekly for maximum aeration.
Lower temperature compost is more likely to have fungi working at breaking down the waste, which isn’t a problem if you are happy to wait for your compost to form in its own time.
What can I compost?
You can compost a great many things, from food scraps, coffee grounds and filters, and grass clippings, to wood, dry leaves, and other natural waste.
The basic ingredients of compost are nitrogen, carbon, air, and water. You can get all these ingredients from organic waste, which falls into the category of either green or brown materials. It’s worth noting that browns aren’t always brown, and greens aren’t always green, but the general color distinction makes it easier to categorize them.
Green Materials (Nitrogen)
Greens are composting materials that are rich in nitrogen. Nitrogen is a crucially important macronutrient needed for the functioning of life, as it is a component of amino acids, which are the building blocks of plant (and animal) proteins.
Nitrogen is also one of the main components of chlorophyll, the chemical that allows plants to create their own food through photosynthesis.
Greens are mostly young (as in, alive recently) sappy green-colored materials that are quick to decompose.
Some examples of greens:
- fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen
- coffee grounds
- young plant debris (prunings, young leaves, residue from harvesting crops)
- grass clippings, hedge clippings
- nettles (before they go to seed)
- comfrey leaves
- dead houseplants
- manure from vegetarian animals (e.g., rabbits, horses, goats)
Brown Materials (Carbon)
Browns are composting materials that have a high carbon content. They are often derived from wood, usually drier than the green material, and usually brown in color, hence the name.
Carbon provides a source of energy for the microorganisms in your compost pile, helping them to break down waste.
Some examples of browns:
- dead autumn leaves
- wood chips
- wood ash (not coal ash)
- biodegradable coffee filters
- biodegradable packaging
- biodegradable tea bags
A carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1 is ideal. You don’t want too much green as the high moisture content can limit aeration, turning your compost pile into a stinky, slimy mess. Too many browns can dry your pile out and halt decomposition entirely, so if your pile is dry, add some water or more sappy greens.
Aeration and Turning your Compost Pile
Air is essential for aerobic biological activity, as you want your compost to be living and full of beneficial bacteria and fungi.
The beneficial organisms need oxygen to survive, and without enough oxygen, your compost might turn into a foul-smelling black sludge. This can also happen if there’s too much ‘wet’ green material or rain that has increased the moisture and decreased the access to oxygen.
You can aerate your compost pile using several tools:
- a shovel
- an aerator pole with a corkscrew end, which turns the pile with minimal physical effort
- a manure fork with thin prongs
- a regular garden fork
- a compost tumbler
Turning compost can be done by moving the materials around like you’d toss a salad, making sure to
What should you not put in compost?
- Fats and oils
- Meat and fish products
- Eggs and dairy
Unless you have a specialized composter that is made for composting meat and bones, you shouldn’t put meat or fish waste into your compost bin. The reason for this is that animal product waste attracts pests such as rats and roaches, which can quickly become a problem in urban areas.
Similarly, do not add eggs or dairy. Crushed eggshells can be added, however.
No pet waste in your compost bins – no dog poop or cat litter!
Fruit or vegetables with seeds can often result in surprise plants if the seeds germinate in your compost. If you don’t mind the odd tomato plant seedling popping up, then you don’t need to worry about removing fruit seeds.
Weeds can also be problematic, as weed seeds can disperse in compost and then grow as unwelcome intruders in your garden.
However, if you live in a rural area and you have the space for a large compost pile, you can get away with putting almost anything in your pile because you won’t need to worry about attracting pests or potential smells.
3 stages of composting
- The first stage is when you are trying to build up microbial activity in your compost pile. The elevated microbial activity builds up the heat of your compost pile. This stage usually takes about a month. You can add an activator, which is usually a nitrogen-rich product, to speed up the process if you don’t see much happening after 4 weeks.
- The ‘cooking’ stage. This is when you’ll be monitoring your compost and adding ingredients to balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio if need be. If it is wet and smelly, add more browns and increase aeration by turning more often. If it is too dry, add greens or some water.
- The rest stage. The temperature should go down as the microbial activity levels off, and the finished product should look like rich chocolate cake – dark and friable.
- Cut larger compost ingredients like tree branches into small pieces to speed up the process of decomposition. It might be tedious but the extra work will be worth it when you get the end result more quickly.
- Try layering materials, like you’d layer a lasagna. This helps to maintain the correct ratio of carbon and nitrogen in your composter.
- Compost weeds before they go to seed because weed seeds in compost can be spread across your whole garden accidentally!
- Add some tree branches or straw to the bottom of your pile to aid aeration and to prevent the materials from compacting as you gradually add more material.
- Once you’ve added compost to your soil, wait a week or two for it to properly integrate into the soil before planting or sowing seeds.
Hopefully, you now have enough basic information on how to compost at home for you to get started.