When you start growing your own produce, compost becomes worth its weight in gold. It's dense, nutrient rich soil that helps give your plants the natural fertilizer they need to grow and produce for you. In the wild, this process happens naturally, as the leaves that fall to the ground slowly break down and support the next generation of plants. Depending on the forest, this can take weeks to a matter of years. On your homestead, you can speed it up a little.
But before we get into the how-to, I want to cover the why.
- It's easy to start composting
- It's good for the environment
- It'll help your garden thrive
And the best part is you don't need a massive garden for composting to be worthwhile. I used to compost in my tiny townhouse, to help in a small part reduce the waste I was trashing as garbage. Just pile all of your kitchen and yard scraps into a compost bin and let nature do the rest. It's that simple.
The different types of composting bins
There's a few different ways to create compost effectively.
The first, is what we used to call the compost heap. It's exactly what it sounds like, an area on your property where you toss your waste scraps. Ours is behind the shed to keep it a little out of sight, and using some old treated pine fencing, we built a rough "U" shaped area that's about 2 meters by 2 meters. Here we simply toss our lawn and plant clippings, as well as any organic food scraps.
The downside to this method is the birds, squirrels and rats love the food source, and in some cities and suburbs you're not actually allowed to have an open compost heap like this. We're pretty content to let the animals do their thing, and our dogs keep most of the bigger pests at bay.
The second technique is to create a compost bin. All you really need is a large enough container that has a few ventilation holes, and you can toss your organic waste straight in. Plastic garbage cans work really well, as long as you drill a few holes in the top, the sides, and in the bottom so there's enough air getting in to your compost. The biggest benefit of this method is that any critters are going to have a tough time getting into your scraps.
Now if you want to go a little fancy, you can also purchase composting systems from your local home improvement or gardening store. It will cost far more than a simple plastic bin, but often these systems will have a tumbling system, which allows you to better aerate and speed up the decomposition process, so you get your compost faster.
Oh, and of final note is perhaps one of the most interesting compost systems. The worm farm. It's much more compact than a traditional composting system, but it does require a little more maintenance to ensure your worms are healthy and thriving. Ours we bought specially for this purpose, but there are many guides online to building your own worm farm if you're so inclined. Just be prepared to have a steady supply of shredded newspaper, food scraps, and of course your worms to make this technique work. A worm farm actually creates some of the most perfect fertilizer you could hope for in your garden, and is well worth the effort to create.
What to actually compost
Once you've got your compost bin sorted, it's time to start composting. This can often be a little trial and error if you've never composted before. I tend to follow a simple rule when it comes to sorting our kitchen scraps into the compost pile, which is:
If it grew in a garden, you can compost it.
Here's a few more items that go great in your compost pile:
- Grass clippings and leaves
- Coffee grounds and tea leaves
- Fruit and vegetable peels
- Weeds (though nothing that's gone to seed)
- Shredded paper (newspaper too)
Now it goes without saying there's a few things to avoid tossing into your compost pile. Here's what not to be chucking into your bin
- Meat and dairy products
- Human or pet waste
- Chemically treated wood
Bones from cooking
- Fats and oils
- Cooked food
Finding a balance in the decomposition process
If you want your compost to break down faster, you need to ensure you've created the ideal mixture for the process to occur. The key to this is balance. In our system, what I've found works best is 7 to 8 buckets of brown waste matter, like fresh leaves and lawn clippings, sawdust and so on, for each bucket of food waste and vegetable peels you're tossing to the compost heap. Don't forget the importance of having good ventilation, along with adding water to the process. Oh and a good shovel will come in handy.
How to start actually composting
Creating a good composting system is kind of like building a cake. Or stacking a fire. You want there to be a base that allows air to flow in. What I normally do in each bin (we have 6 setup that are all at different stages of "composting"), is to add the contents as follows.
First, build a base that's about 4 to 6 inches deep. This is handfuls of sticks, twigs and small branches that are no wider than your finger. This will help draw air into your compost bin, as it keeps the dense layers of organic matter from settling on the base of your bin. Grab a hose and water these branches till they're sopping wet, then start adding your next layers.
I like to alternate between green and brown layers, adding 2 to 3 inches of "brown" material, for every inch of "green" food waste into the bin. With each few layers give it a brief water so it's nice and damp, without compressing it to the point no air can flow in. Continue adding layers until your bin is full, then add a shovel-full of soil to the top. This last part isn't absolutely necessary, but I've found that tossing the soil in makes the process work that much faster, as it introduces millions of different bacteria from your garden into the compost bin. You'll know the process if working once you can feel the heat radiating from inside the compost bin.
Sit back and wait
If you do nothing else at this point, you'll have good compost to use in about a year. But you can speed up the process by adding more water, or "tumbling" your compost bins to let the air better circulate inside. The most you do this, the faster the insides will decompose. I usually turn each bin a couple of times a month, and give it a water once I'm done. Using this technique, it takes about 3 to 4 months for the compost to be perfect and ready to introduce to my garden.
Warning signs of composting
Now I want to make it clear that composting isn't a gross thing. The only reason your compost heap will smell bad is if you've put something you're not meant to compost into the pile, it's too wet, or there's not enough oxygen flowing through. The usual fix is to add another couple of scopps of brown material, and check back in a week or so.
Once your compost is done, it'll have a rich, earthy smell. It should feel like dirt, and will be dark like you see in coffee grounds. You can work this into your garden beds, add as fertilizer to your potted plants, or even spread around the bases of your fruit trees as mulch.
Compost is one of the best natural substances you can add to your garden, so ensure you're making use of it and see your plants thrive.