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Composting for Beginners

There is no doubt that composting has become one of the most popular trends in both the sustainability and gardening communities. It is a powerful, budget-friendly tool for gardeners who want their flowers or vegetable patches to thrive without the use of harsh chemical fertilizers, and it is an appealing process for those trying to reduce their kitchen and yard waste significantly. While you may assume that composting is only for professionals or people with acres of land, homemade compost is relatively easy to produce and can be created no matter the size of your property – even apartment dwellers can take part. If you want to learn how to make your own nutrient-rich soil and help eliminate unnecessary waste, read on as we offer tips on how anyone can start composting.

Compost Ingredients

When you start composting from scratch, keep in mind that you need a mixture of “green” and “brown” biodegradable materials to get the right balance of nitrogen and carbon to successfully complete the decomposition process. “Green” materials include much of your typical kitchen waste, including vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and fruit scraps. EatingWell cautions that those learning how to compost at home should not include “animal products such as dairy, bones, and meat, which can attract pests” or “oily foods such as mayonnaise, peanut butter, salad dressing or vegetable oils” because they are challenging to decompose.  

If you live in a home with a grass-covered yard, toss in grass clippings as part of your “green” blend. While flowers can be included in your composting, EatingWell warns against “commercially grown cut flowers, which often contain dyes and chemicals.” If you have used heavy pesticides on your yard, keep that waste out of your compost because the chemicals themselves won’t be broken down during the composting process. Have you just completed a significant weeding of your yard? Good news! You can include the weeds. However, Martha Stewart Living does recommend avoiding composting with “weeds bearing seeds” as they can grow in your compost pile or be spread wherever you use your finished compost. For the same reason, the Magazine advises against incorporating “diseased or pest-ridden plants.”  

“Brown” ingredients can include fallen leaves, twigs, lint, sawdust, and shredded newspaper. If you happen to have easy access to hay, that can also be employed as a “brown” element. For people who have despaired about not being allowed to recycle shredded bits of office paper or pizza boxes, despair no more! Both can be incorporated as “brown” ingredients into your compost, provided the boxes are broken down into small pieces. For those adding newspaper, Martha Stewart Living recommends that “it doesn’t form a mat—be sure to avoid glossy or colored paper.” Also, bio-plastic products may indicate that they are biodegradable, but they really should be left to commercial composting services.

While you can start composting with these elements alone, Martha Stewart Living suggests having a quantity of neutral soil on hand – the exact amount will depend on the size of your composting pile. Why? The Magazine recommends adding “soil in the middle of the pile … to protect the compost while supplying the organisms needed for the breakdown process.” 

Composting Methods

Start by determining which composting process makes the most sense for you and your space. Anaerobic composting (“cold composting”) is the easiest process, but it is best suited for large properties. As EatingWell explains: “[Anaerobic composting] involves piling the greens and browns and letting nature handle the decomposition process unaided.” And while it is easy, it can produce a pile that emits an earthy smell of decay, and it will take considerable time for the decomposition process to complete (up to two years, in many cases).

Worm composting (also known as Vermicomposting) is a process that introduces worms into the composting pile or bin to speed along decomposition, rather than relying on the organic material alone. In fact, “worm boxes” have become increasingly popular among apartment dwellers and those trying to live a zero-waste lifestyle. Worm composting bins need to be kept inside to avoid worms dying when temperatures dip during the colder months or the thermometer climbs in the summer.

The aerobic approach is the most popular for those who have the space for composting bins, either ones purchased or built. The main difference in this method versus the anaerobic one is that it requires periodic “turning” of the composting pile to introduce oxygen. As Martha Stewart Living explains: “Turning the compost helps promote oxygen flow and releases the heat that builds during decomposition – aim for a temperature between 90° and 140°F.” 

Special Equipment

When people learn how to start composting, often their first question is whether or not they require special bins. The answer entirely depends on which method you want to use. Worm bins do need containers, but you can easily create ones out of plastic bins that you may already own. With the help of a drill, a small amount of screening, and glue, you will have containers ready for the introduction of your waste material, neutral soil, and the Red Wigglers. For those pursuing cold composting, Red Wigglers can also be introduced into the free-standing pile.

Anaerobic and aerobic approaches do not require any special equipment, and, in most cases, you can start right now with the materials you have. You need enough space to keep the growing pile thriving and, ideally, away from people, as the smell may be mildly off-putting. You may want to invest in a tarp to protect it from high winds. If you are handy, you can quickly build a composting bin from wood scraps and mesh; however, Martha Stewart Living advises that “using a closed bin is best to maintain moisture levels for the compost — especially in extreme climates….” You can purchase a variety of simple bin options, including two-door models that allow for easy removal of finished compost, as well as the addition of fresh, biodegradable material. The Magazine recommends placing your bin in a space that enjoys a happy balance of sun and shade, while also allowing for the easy addition of water.

As apartment dwellers have turned to increasingly environmentally friendly approaches to daily living, composting technology has become more sophisticated. As experts tell Real Simple: “People who don’t have a sprawling yard can buy small, odorless compost containers that fit easily in kitchen spaces….” Higher-end kitchen models take up very little space and can create enriched soil in just a few hours. They also claim to reduce meat scraps, some dairy, and bones, unlike standard, non-commercial composting approaches.

How to Start Composting

Begin your composting pile with an airy layer of “brown” ingredients, for instance, a base of fallen leaves. Next, add a smaller segment of greens and a scoop (or shovel) of neutral soil into the mix. The exact ratio of “brown” to “green” somewhat depends on the actual ingredients, but Martha Stewart Living recommends that you “continue layering browns and greens in a two-to-one ratio, ending with a layer of brown.”  

You will want to keep your composting pile moist, but not sopping wet as that could impede proper decomposition. You don’t want to see a lot of water dripping through the pile, and you do want to keep outdoor bins (or loose piles) protected from the rain. EatingWell suggests adding sawdust to bring the pile back into balance if you feel your composting material has become too wet. 

If you have chosen the aerobic approach, you will want to turn the pile periodically. You can use a pitchfork, a shovel, a lawn rake or a hand, gardening rake (or whatever device allows you to turn the pile easily). This is critical as “turning provides oxygen for the microorganisms and makes for a rapid, even decomposition,” according to Martha Stewart Living.

Finished Compost

How do you know when your compost is ready to be used in your garden, around your trees or on your lawn? Martha Stewart Living advises that a finished compost is “dark brown, free of recognizable ingredients, and safe to smell.” While faster than “cold composting” which can take up to two years, aerobic outdoor “turning” composting will take at least a few months, even without sharp changes in temperature. Naturally, worm bins and high-tech apartment composters will make this process dramatically faster. But whatever you do, do not try to use compost that is not yet finished. As the experts at EatingWell warn, unfinished compost can be toxic. 

Now that you have learned how to start composting, it’s time to begin! While the process can take time, you’ll love not only having nutrient-rich, organic soil but knowing that you have significantly reduced the amount of the kitchen and yard waste going into landfills each year.