Composting takes time. There are a lot of rules to follow. I mainly follow the basics. It works for me. It is nice to have more in-depth knowledge on the subject but it is not necessary to get started. Following a few basic rules has provided me with decent results (non-smelly, relatively quick compost that my plants like). If you are unfamiliar with what composting is and why it is important, check out my earlier post.
How to Make Compost
To make compost you need a mixture of both Carbon (C) and Nitrogen (N) rich materials. Carbon provides energy to the microorganisms responsible for breaking down organic material and turning it into compost. It also provides structure to the pile. Nitrogen provides phosphorous and other key nutrients. But without the support and structure of carbon-rich additions to the pile, the nitrogen components would stink, quickly fall apart and dissipate into the ether.
Carbon components by themselves would take a very long time to breakdown as they are typically more dry and would be lacking many of the nutrients you expect to get from compost, defeating the purpose. If you had a smashed grape on the ground next to a piece of an egg carton, overtime the grape would disappear and the carton would be sitting there mostly unchanged. Put them together and you’ve got compost, sort of.
Carbon materials are your “browns”. Carbon-rich additions will include yard-waste like twigs, trimmings and leaves, as well as some household items like cardboard egg cartons, used toilet paper rolls, and shredded dye-free paper.
Your “greens” represent the nitrogen-rich components. This includes the kitchen scraps and grass clippings.
I often forget which is which. To help me keep it straight I think “carbon-cardboard” the words sound somewhat similar and that helps me remember that cardboard is a source of carbon as are similar woody items like paper and fallen leaves.
What’s in my Compost Pile?
- Nitrogen (N): fruit/vegetable scraps, grass clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags
- Carbon (C): toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, cardboard egg cartons, dryer lint, Roomba contents, fallen tree/shrub leaves
How much do I need of each compost ingredient?
Compost needs a 3:1 ratio of nitrogen-rich to carbon-rich ingredients. I am not meticulous about ensuring that my additions to the pile follow the 3:1 ratio, exactly. I probably should, but I don’t and it has been fine. But I keep in mind that it needs more nitrogen rich contents than carbon rich. Much like my cooking, I eyeball it.
Compost Heaps, Piles, Bins and Buckets
When I started composting, I went out and found a countertop compost pail with a filtered lid for “the smell”, at Target. I ordered compostable pail liners from Amazon. I signed up for my city’s compost bin reimbursement program and bought a plastic compost bin from the recommended local lumberyard. But I often got lazy about emptying the pail into the outdoor bin. It was gross inside. I’ll spare you the details.
I knew composting could take several months but after a year in the outdoor bin, not much happened. Which was not a total surprise because the results matched my efforts. The purpose of the backyard bin and the countertop pail is to have a place to reign it all in. They are just receptacles. So buying the perfect compost bin is not necessarily going to result in perfect compost.
Qualities I look for in compost receptacles
- Easy access
- Heat generation
The Evolution of Compost Receptacles I’ve used over the Years
You can really make a bin out of anything. I did not start staying on top of composting until after I was not using all the fancy accessories, which I only stopped doing by chance. The pail got gross and I wasn’t going to touch it. I bought another much prettier pail but at the first sign of me reverting back to my old “forget about it” ways, I stopped. My husband removed the outdoor compost receptacle for a backyard project and relocated the contents to a trash bag, that mysteriously “disappeared”. During “the move” the bin’s nuts and bolts were lost. So I was without a bin for a while.
But I was motivated to compost. So countertop pail eventually became a paper towel sheet on the kitchen counter, then evolved to an empty cardboard egg carton and to go container lids and now I’m on to Ziplock baggies. This works for me because you cannot leave those scraps on the counter for very long before they start to breakdown threatening to leave juicy stains on your counter and quickly drawing gnats and it ends up becoming an eyesore. I started using ziplock baggies in the summer because the gnats were relentless and it better protected my counters. But because they are clear, it is much harder to forget.
The outdoor bin became a pile in the corner of my yard under a tree then evolved to half of an old wooden raised bed pushed against our back wall.
Now it is a wooden 3-bin system we constructed based on our experience figuring out what fits our lifestyle.
Common bin ideas:
- Open pile
- Old wood palettes nailed into a cube
- A trash can with drilled holes
- Bales of hay stacked to form an enclosure
- A simple box from used wood
- See if your city has a bin reimbursement program to buy a plastic bin
Turning the Compost
I had an open pile that I turned maybe twice a year. It produced compost but it took a year! I was actually fine with this because I did not have the time to turn it nor tend to the garden as often as I wanted to. So purchasing an occasional bag of compost was not a big deal. My primary goal for the compost pile was primarily to cut our household waste contribution to the city dump.
When I was ready to use my compost more often, it was time to increase my efforts. This meant turning my compost needed to become a routine.
It takes up 5-10 minutes of my day, every other day, to turn the compost. This frequency is the key to reducing “turnaround time” (pun intended). So in the morning or during my son’s nap time, I roll up my sleeves, grab my garden fork and I turn that pile.
Using a cube shaped bin as an example, there are six sides and a middle. The goal is to shift the middle compost to one of the six sides and then shift one of the six sides to middle. Each day, I shift a new side to the middle.
The middle is where all the action is. In order for compost materials to break down or “cook” they have to reach a certain temperature. Having a decent sized pile allows the middle to cook. When turning you should feel hot air rising from the center. I get excited every time I feel the warmth coming off the pile because I know I am doing something right here. No precision needed, but some semblance of this shifting around is good.
While turning there will be creepy crawlers that naturally show up. This is normal and a good thing. A compost pile is alive! It is a whole ecosystem and those millipedes, centipedes and worms are working along with the bacteria and fungi breaking down the contents and turning it into usable compost.
Turning the compost daily or at least every other day made all the difference, for me. It took me to finished compost in a few weeks from somewhat finished compost after several months to a year.
I take it as is and apply it like a mulch. But typically you would want to sift it through a 1/4 inch screen. I use leftover chicken wire to sift.
Store the finished product and start the process all over again. This is just the beginning, there is so much more to know about it if you want to geek out. I recommend further research. I am not an expert but this is what I have found that works well in my backyard. If you missed my post on how composting is beneficial for your garden and the world check it out here.