Home Composting Made Easy

These 10 facts about home composting will help you turn food and yard waste into garden gold.


| October/November 2006, Issue #218



home composting - fall leaves

Home composting is a great way to use fall leaves.


Photo by Barbara Pleasant

Many people start composting for practical reasons. Home composting your leaves, grass clippings, garden waste and food scraps reduces the amount of garbage you generate. Plus, compost is essential for a great garden, and starting your own pile ensures a free, regular supply. But I think there’s an even better reason to compost: it’s fascinating. In fact, once you understand the basics of how the process works, composting can be one of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of keeping a garden.

Composting mimics and intensifies nature’s recycling plan. A compost pile starts out as a diverse pile of kitchen and garden “waste.” Left alone, any of these materials would eventually decompose. But when a variety of materials are mixed together and kept moist and aerated, the process accelerates. Compost matures into what soil scientists call active organic matter: a dark, crumbly soil amendment that’s rich with beneficial fungi, bacteria and earthworms, as well as the enzymes and acids these life-forms release as they multiply.

Adding compost to garden soil increases its water-holding capacity, invigorates the soil food web and provides a buffet of plant nutrients. Compost also contains substances that enhance plants’ ability to respond to challenges from insects and diseases.

Starting a new compost pile can be a fast, easy project. (See Starting a Compost Pile or Worm Bin.) But new composters sometimes feel frustrated as they struggle to learn more about how the process works — an understandable problem since there is a wealth of information available about composting and not one, absolute “right way” to do it. As we take a close look at 10 basic composting facts, it’s obvious that the world of composting is seldom black and white — or shall we say brown and green? At the same time, composting is much easier than what you might have heard.

1. Balancing ingredients is optional. To help compost decompose rapidly, a balance of “two parts brown to one part green” is often preached as composting gospel, but in truth, keeping a balanced ratio is simply an option. (Dry materials, such as leaves, pine needles and dead plants, are usually considered “browns,” whereas wetter materials, such as grass clippings and kitchen waste, are considered “greens.”) It’s not that balancing browns and greens is wrong; it simply makes home composting more complicated than it needs to be. You can pile up all your organic material without worrying at all about greens and browns, and it will still mature into compost.

Precise balancing of materials is crucial in commercial composting operations, for example, the composting of city sewage, manure from animal feedlots or byproducts from food manufacturing plants. But the needs and objectives of a gardener are far different from those of a dog food manufacturer with a waste disposal problem. The goal of industrial composting is to neutralize the pollution potential of various materials. The goal of home composting is to support nature’s self-regenerating power in ways that work harmoniously with the needs and opportunities of a person’s back yard.

dlchasta35
4/27/2013 5:01:11 PM

I have been composting for over 70 years.  When I was young it was from cow manure piled in heaps to cure. Very stinky and lots of flies but worked well.  For the last 20 years I have been sheet composting.  I collect grass clippings and leaves from all over the neighbor hood and spread it out over the garden to a depth of about 1 foot where I am not planning on planting till next year.  Then I do nothing until next spring when I  rototill it.  My garden never needs any kind of fertilizer, herbicides or insecticides.  I am 100 percent organic.

I plant potatoes and onion sets on top of about 4 inchs of grass clippings and cover with about a foot more.  As the plants grow I keep adding grass clippings.  It sure makes graveling for the new potatoes and "digging" to mature potatoes easy.

I keep several tons of grass clippings and leaves out of the land fill every year, which gives me awarm and fuzzy feeling.

 


carol acutt
2/4/2013 1:46:40 AM

I find a traditional compost pile is challenging for the busy urbanite. I use the warehouse composter, a composter that is insulated which creates extra heat and it creates compost quickly. It's an awesome way to create a sustainable system in your own home without too much work. My garden is loving the compost! urbanfig.com


alex mckenzie
5/9/2012 5:28:03 PM

I compost mostly garden and kitchen waste, and there are only a few things I won't put in. I compost egg shells, weeds, and occasionally very small scraps of meat. As long as you bury them, they don't smell, and my composter (one of the black plastic bin types) gets hot enough that I'm not much worried about disease. So far I haven't had any problems with wildlife, and the stuff I get out smells fine and my plants love it. I have had problems with my compost drying out too much -- I generally need to thoroughly soak the top layer every few weeks through the spring and fall, since the bin gets a fair amount of sun. I try to avoid more meat than scraps mixed in with stuff scraped off plates after dinner, and I refuse to put thistles in when I pull them out -- I really don't need those kinds of spines in my soil!


judy pennington
2/26/2012 10:27:12 PM

After reading this article I decided I was going to compost. My dad always had a compost pile beside the barn. I got a couple of my sons over and had them rake the back yard for me, we cleaned out a spot and made a U shaped fence. Raked up the leaves and twigs from the yard and layered them with shredded newspaper and wood chips from when the electric co came through and trimmed all the limbs in anticipation of the possibility of us getting another awful ice storm this winter. So they have been sitting in a pile for a few months now and maybe even started decomposing a tiny bit. I would have added some ash from our burn pit (for yard waste, which will not be used as much) but the boys started a fire to burn the larger branches. Will throw some of that in a little later when I stir it. There were a few earth worms under some of the leaves so I picked them up and added them too. I learned something while shredding my newspaper, it has a grain just like the wood that it came from. If you try to tear it the wrong way, you get nothing but odd little pieces, turn it sideways and tear it from the other direction and you get long neat strips!!! How strange!


rosewood513
3/25/2010 10:38:09 AM

I have been composting for a very long time. I am just about the laziest composter ever I have better things to do with my time. I do not do ratios of brown and green, I just dump I do not worry about where I compost, I have one next to my shed. I do not turn it over or water it. I do not cover it. I do not keep it in a box etc. I do though, have the best compost with so many earthworms I could go fishing for the rest of my life with plenty of bait. This year I am going to try something. A garbage can. I started to just dump all my scraps which includes hair, dryer lint as well as the usual I also started adding newspaper and junk mail they say that helps. All you need is a garbage can with some holes, especially the bottom for draining and allowing worms to crawl in and do their job. You can either use some sort of cultivator tool on a handle and stir or you can roll the can a little to stir or do like me, I will continue to do NOTHING and I will still get great compost. What I have been doing is: I keep my pile far from the house, but it never smells bad. I do this only so my family and friends do not have to look at garbage sitting in my back yard. My point here is to tell you that Composting does not have to be complicated, it does not have to cost anything. It does not have to be work or a pain to deal with. Follow all thede steps and you will have fantastic compost to help nourish your garden,Just start get a bucket and just start and see what happens.


rosewood513
3/25/2010 10:37:57 AM

I have been composting for a very long time. I am just about the laziest composter ever I have better things to do with my time. I do not do ratios of brown and green, I just dump I do not worry about where I compost, I have one next to my shed. I do not turn it over or water it. I do not cover it. I do not keep it in a box etc. I do though, have the best compost with so many earthworms I could go fishing for the rest of my life with plenty of bait. This year I am going to try something. A garbage can. I started to just dump all my scraps which includes hair, dryer lint as well as the usual I also started adding newspaper and junk mail they say that helps. All you need is a garbage can with some holes, especially the bottom for draining and allowing worms to crawl in and do their job. You can either use some sort of cultivator tool on a handle and stir or you can roll the can a little to stir or do like me, I will continue to do NOTHING and I will still get great compost. What I have been doing is: I keep my pile far from the house, but it never smells bad. I do this only so my family and friends do not have to look at garbage sitting in my back yard. My point here is to tell you that Composting does not have to be complicated, it does not have to cost anything. It does not have to be work or a pain to deal with. Follow all thede steps and you will have fantastic compost to help nourish your garden,Just start get a bucket and just start and see what happens.


rosewood513
3/25/2010 10:37:30 AM

I have been composting for a very long time. I am just about the laziest composter ever I have better things to do with my time. I do not do ratios of brown and green, I just dump I do not worry about where I compost, I have one next to my shed. I do not turn it over or water it. I do not cover it. I do not keep it in a box etc. I do though, have the best compost with so many earthworms I could go fishing for the rest of my life with plenty of bait. This year I am going to try something. A garbage can. I started to just dump all my scraps which includes hair, dryer lint as well as the usual I also started adding newspaper and junk mail they say that helps. All you need is a garbage can with some holes, especially the bottom for draining and allowing worms to crawl in and do their job. You can either use some sort of cultivator tool on a handle and stir or you can roll the can a little to stir or do like me, I will continue to do NOTHING and I will still get great compost. What I have been doing is: I keep my pile far from the house, but it never smells bad. I do this only so my family and friends do not have to look at garbage sitting in my back yard. My point here is to tell you that Composting does not have to be complicated, it does not have to cost anything. It does not have to be work or a pain to deal with. Follow all thede steps and you will have fantastic compost to help nourish your garden,Just start get a bucket and just start and see what happens.


rosewood513
3/25/2010 10:30:51 AM

I have been composting for a very long time. I am just about the laziest composter ever I have better things to do with my time. I do not do ratios of brown and green, I just dump I do not worry about where I compost, I have one next to my shed. I do not turn it over or water it. I do not cover it. I do not keep it in a box etc. I do though, have the best compost with so many earthworms I could go fishing for the rest of my life with plenty of bait. This year I am going to try something. A garbage can. I started to just dump all my scraps which includes hair, dryer lint as well as the usual I also started adding newspaper and junk mail they say that helps. All you need is a garbage can with some holes, especially the bottom for draining and allowing worms to crawl in and do their job. You can either use some sort of cultivator tool on a handle and stir or you can roll the can a little to stir or do like me, I will continue to do NOTHING and I will still get great compost. What I have been doing is: I keep my pile far from the house, but it never smells bad. I do this only so my family and friends do not have to look at garbage sitting in my back yard. My point here is to tell you that Composting does not have to be complicated, it does not have to cost anything. It does not have to be work or a pain to deal with. Follow all thede steps and you will have fantastic compost to help nourish your garden,Just start get a bucket and just start and see what happens.


rosewood513
3/25/2010 10:30:30 AM

I have been composting for a very long time. I am just about the laziest composter ever I have better things to do with my time. I do not do ratios of brown and green, I just dump I do not worry about where I compost, I have one next to my shed. I do not turn it over or water it. I do not cover it. I do not keep it in a box etc. I do though, have the best compost with so many earthworms I could go fishing for the rest of my life with plenty of bait. This year I am going to try something. A garbage can. I started to just dump all my scraps which includes hair, dryer lint as well as the usual I also started adding newspaper and junk mail they say that helps. All you need is a garbage can with some holes, especially the bottom for draining and allowing worms to crawl in and do their job. You can either use some sort of cultivator tool on a handle and stir or you can roll the can a little to stir or do like me, I will continue to do NOTHING and I will still get great compost. What I have been doing is: I keep my pile far from the house, but it never smells bad. I do this only so my family and friends do not have to look at garbage sitting in my back yard. My point here is to tell you that Composting does not have to be complicated, it does not have to cost anything. It does not have to be work or a pain to deal with. Follow all thede steps and you will have fantastic compost to help nourish your garden,Just start get a bucket and just start and see what happens.


heidi hunt_2
12/13/2007 11:52:24 AM

Phil, crushed egg shells are good for your compost pile. Animal feces is not recommended for a compost pile that will eventually be used on food crops.


prodman
12/13/2007 11:31:29 AM

So I've read a bit on composting and have heard that egg shells are good to add. Is this correct? Also i read that you shouldnt put dog terds in. WHy not. I read that you should add dirt to compost to add microbes and one person told me that you can use dog terds in place of soil. So i'm not sure what is right. Thanks


nailbender1977
8/31/2007 3:33:12 PM

I have started a compost pile of grass clippings and A little hores manore. My pile is about six to ten inches and covers an area of sixty by thirth feet. I thought if if was thinner it may comport quicker, is this correct? If not what to do? I'm on flat ground and I will grass this area in a couple of years.


niki_2
5/9/2007 12:04:21 PM

For an ultra-easy compost, can I make an open bin right on top of grass/weeds in my backyard or should I clear those away? Also, my compost will most likely be in the sun for most of the day with temps in the 80s, 90s and 100s this summer - should I cover the top to keep it from drying out or heating up too much? Thanks!






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