Composting for Beginners

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So you have started your garden and things are moving along somewhat smoothly.  What should you do now? Well, start composting!! This beginner’s guide to composting will get you thinking and give you some ideas on where to start.  But remember that the important thing is to just START!!  It doesn’t have to be perfect, imperfect actions lead to amazing results. 

Why You Should Compost

Aside from the environmental benefits of composting, which breaks down organic materials and transforms them into rich, fertilizing soil… composting is also:

  • Free! Organic-rich soil is expensive!! When you invest a little time learning to compost, you will have AMAZING SOIL for free!
  • Fun for the kids! Your kids will love digging through the compost bin to see what creatures have made their homes there. Come on what did doesn’t like digging in the DIRT!! 
  • Composting reduces your household trash. Instead of decomposing organic greens and brown materials sitting in the trash can or the dump, the kitchen scraps can start decomposing right away in the compost pile.
  • It’s hard to mess up. Your garden plants may wither and die, but compost is pretty much foolproof. You dump in your organic matter and forget about it, until it’s time to harvest the rich, crumbly results of your labor.

Understanding the Basics

Composting at its most basic level is very simple. Even if you simply throw everything in a big heap in the corner of your yard, some composting is likely to occur. However, your pile may also rot or start to smell bad – or at the very least, it might compost very slowly and inefficiently.

In order to obtain the best quality compost in the shortest amount of time and with the least amount of effort, it is necessary to understand a few of the basic principles behind composting.

Without going too deep into the biology behind the processes, a compost pile needs four ingredients, carbon, nitrogen, air and moisture.

With these four ingredients present, microorganisms like bacteria and fungi will break down the waste into brown crumbly humus that you can use on your garden.

When carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and moisture are present in the right proportions, the microorganisms break down the material quickly and the center of the pile can reach temperatures of up to 150-160°F.

For this reason, the composition of a compost pile needs to be managed carefully to ensure optimum conditions for the process to take place.

indoor composting

Basic Supplies for Composting

You’ll need a pail for the kitchen to collect scraps, a composting bin (read more- Types of Compost Bins), or a spot in the yard for a pile.

How do you Start Composting

Getting started composting is SUPER easy. Once you’ve got your basic supplies, you’re ready to start.

  1. Pick a spot for your pail. We keep ours on the counter next to the sink. 
  2. Tell your family the plan. You might want to leave the pail out for a couple of weeks to help everyone remember not to throw away those apple cores and banana peels. After a while, it will become second nature for everyone. Buy-in is key!! 
  3. Pick a spot for your pile or composting bin. You want it to be close enough to the house that it’s not a big deal to carry the pail out every day. Ours is right next to our vegetable garden.
  4. Empty your pail into the pile (or bin) daily. 
  5. Cover the food scraps with mulched leaves.
  6. Monthly turn your compost. Grab your pitchfork or a shovel and mix your pile up a bit.

3 bin composting

Using a 3 Bin System

The bin on the left is filled with mulched leaves, the middle bin is for scraps, the bin on the right is for aging and allowing everything to break down.

  1. Add your scraps to the middle bin. Cover them with mulched leaves.
  2. Continue doing this until this bin is full.
  3. Move the contents of the middle bin to the bin on the right. This turns the compost and helps everything break down.
  4. Start filling the middle bin again.
  5. When the middle bin is full. Shovel the contents of the right bin into your garden to be used. Then move the contents of the middle bin to the right bin. 

For more information on using the 3 Bin System check out Types of Compost Bins

What to Compost

  • Coffee grounds
  • Coffee filters
  • Eggshells
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Tea leaves & tea bags
  •  Yard waste (grass, leaves, weeds)
  • Straw
  • Livestock manure

What NOT to Compost

  • Meat or bones (use these to make stock instead!)
  • Leftovers that aren’t primarily plant material
  • Tougher plant material from your garden like branches or stalks (it takes too long to break down)
  • Garden waste that has been treated with pesticides or chemical fertilizer
  • Weed seeds and roots – you might inadvertently spread them to your garden beds
  • Diseased plant material

What to compost

Want to Know More About Composting?

Check out our FREE Key to Black Gold: Composting for Beginners eBook!!

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    The Key to Black Gold: Composting for Beginners eBook

    How Long Should Compost Sit?

    Different organic materials take different lengths of time to transform into compost. Food scraps are quicker than twigs or sticks. Paper from coffee filters or tea bags take longer than organic materials. The bottom of the pile or bin will transform first, so this is why it is important to turn the pile monthly.


    How to use Finished Compost

    Spring is the best time to harvest finished compost and spread it on your garden beds and perennials before planting time. But you can spread finished compost at any time by following these tips.

    Shovel the finished compost into a wheelbarrow, returning uncomposted food scraps or yard waste back to the bin to compost further. Now, use the finished compost in your vegetable garden beds by spreading the compost one to two inches thick and mixing it into the top six inches of soil using a digging fork. If the beds are already planted and it isn’t possible to mix the compost into the soil right away, then pile the compost in a shady spot with good drainage and add it to the garden at a later time.

    Preventing Foul Odor

    If your compost bin starts to have a foul odor it is an indication that the aerobic composting process has slowed. The most common source of this problem is too much nitrogen. To correct this, simply add more dry, brown material.

    Foul odors could also be a sing of too much moisture. To correct this, a non-permeable or semipermeable cover can be placed over the bin to reduce the amount of rain that gets into the bin. It will be important for the pile to stay moist, however, so lift the cover at least once a week to allow some rain to percolate through. 

    Chlorinated municipal water is not recommended, as it can disrupt the biological process.

    Too much moisture could also be an indication that the bin is not located in the proper spot. Perhaps the bin is in a low spot that collects too much standing water. Placing it under a deciduous tree will shield it from heavy rains while still allowing some rain to enter.

    diy composting

    Animal Problems in Compost

    Rodents and raccoons can sometimes be a concern with composting, and rats are a common complaint among urban gardeners. If you compost the right materials it will deter unwanted animals. That means animal products such as meat, dairy, or oils should never be added to the bin. Secondly, all food scraps should be buried under a brown, carbon-based material. 

    Other Ways to Deter Pest

    • You can also turn the compost at least once a month to discourage pest from making a permanent home in it. 
    • Plant mint plants around the bins to repel them. 
    • These pest don’t like people so place your bin where there is a lot of human activity and where you can visit it daily
    • Dogs and Cats can also be a great tool for keeping pest away

    Other Composting Options

    Worm Composting

    Some people choose to use the magic of earthworms (red wigglers specifically) to help speed up the composting process in a worm composting bin. It can be a store-bought one or just a big Tupperware bin.

    This is done by adding kitchen scraps, green materials, dried leaves, etc., and allowing the worms to digest the organic material as it passes through their bodies while they move and wiggle around.

    Read more-

    worm composting

    Teaching Your Kids About Composting

    You know that we love to get our kids involved in the daily homestead activities and I am a BOOK LOVER so it was only natural that I found a book to help teach the kids about composting.  Here is the one we read and LOVED!!  Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth

    There you have it, the basics of composting.  Now that you are equipped with your beginner’s guide to composting, make a plan and get started today!!