If you’re wondering how to compost, you’re in good company. It can be really confusing when you’re new to gardening, composting, and other homestead-y ventures. My first compost pile was pretty basic and had no strategy behind it at all!
The great thing about compost though is that even a basic pile like mine was doing amazing things, like diverting scraps from the landfill and feeding the soil instead.
Even if the compost isn’t used for the garden it’s enriching the soil it’s currently sitting on. Either way, making a compost pile is an excellent addition to a homestead, big or small.
What to Compost
Almost all organic materials can be composted, however, some are best avoided so your compost pile won’t attract rats, skunks and other pests.
These things are animal products like meat and eggs (eggshells are ok), fats like butter and oil, and some say grains. However, I’ve composted grains with no problem. I’d rather give it a try than throw compostable materials in the trash, ya know?
Some folks avoid citrus or other acid foods in the compost as the acid can kill the beneficial microbes that break down the pile. If you’re vermicomposting, definitely stay away from onions and citrus, as they can harm the worms.
Things to put in your compost:
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Nail clippings
- Hair from your hairbrush or a haircut
- tea bags (with no staple and made with natural fibers like from this brand)
- shredded paper, paper towels, etc as long as they are not glossy
- Dirt swept from the floor
- Old spices
- shredded egg cartons
- Coffee grounds
- Fallen Leaves
- Grass clippings
- Sawdust from untreated wood
How to Make Compost
Though you could just heap all of your yard and kitchen scraps in a pile, there is a strategy that can help turn your scraps into really excellent plant food in just a few weeks. This is called hot composting.
Hot composting is when the compost is prepared and cared for in a way that it can stay at a temperature that helps break it down quickly. Alternately, cold composting is just letting the material rot naturally (which takes longer, but is perfectly fine).
Here are the guidelines for a hot compost method:
- Choose a container (the methods below might help) or just leave it in a pile
- Add organic material to the proper ratio
- Turn the compost every week or two with a pitchfork or similar to aerate and mix the material
- Add water to keep the compost slightly damp
- Keep the size of it at least 3 sq ft (but 4 sq ft is better for keeping the temperature up)
What’s the Right Ratio of Materials?
A compost pile needs about a ratio of 30:1 carbon to nitrogen. Carbon materials (also called brown materials) also contain some nitrogen and nitrogen materials (also called green materials) also contain carbon. This is where it gets a bit confusing.
You don’t need a ratio of 30:1 carbon brown to green materials since both have some of each element. Instead, you need to get a good ratio of carbon to nitrogen with the materials you have.
Each material has a different ratio of carbon and nitrogen but typically, 1 part of packed brown materials to 1-2 parts of green materials works well.
You’ll easily know if your ratio is off too. If there is too much brown material it won’t decompose as fast. If there’s too much green material it will start to stink. Then you can add more of the right material to make things work well again.
- Wood chips
- Corn stalks
- Peat moss
- Pine needles
- Kitchen scraps
- Garden waste
- Coffee grounds
- Grass clippings
How to Compost: 5 Composting Methods to Try
Wondering how to compost and which composting method will work best for you? Check out these 5 awesome composting systems!
Basic Compost Pile
As I said earlier, my first compost pile was a basic pile on the ground. Sometimes a pile like this is held in place with pallets or chicken wire, other times it’s just a heap on the ground. Ours was a terribly assembled frame that was never finished, so it was basically just a pile. We threw our scraps into it and when it got stinky I added brown material like fallen leaves. I didn’t use it for my garden, though I had intended too.
The system I used was what is called a cold composting system since it’s not likely to heat up without the guidelines I listed above (my pile was way too small and I didn’t keep the ratio steady). A basic compost pile can absolutely be a hot compost pile, as long as you keep the ratio of materials right, moisture level right, turn it occasionally, and keep it large enough.
Who it’s for: This system works well for those who are just starting out, have recently moved to a new home(stead) or otherwise want the least up front work.
Compost Box System
These systems are awesome. You fill up the first box with compost materials and allow them to decompose. While you’re waiting you can start filling the next box. Once you’ve started filling the 2nd or 3rd box your first batch of compost is usually ready to be used.
Who it’s for: This system is great for someone who doesn’t mind turning the compost and making sure it’s moist enough. There is also some work upfront to build the boxes (or buy them) but the system makes getting compost for your garden fairly streamlined.
Vermicomposting is when worms make compost for you. Basically, you feed them your scraps and they poop out compost! As Danielle at The Rustic Elk (in her post on vermicomposting) wrote:
Instead of throwing organic materials with a mix of soils into a bin and turning it, the worms do the work for you. Worms can break down organic matter faster than any microorganism can, and they do it by crawling through and eating. They grind through it, making it easier for microorganisms to finish the decomposition process. Since they aerate the soil as they work their magic, you never have to turn it!
This is excellent for apartment dwellers as it can be done indoors with little to no smell. It’s also a great way to grow animal protein to feed to chickens.
A compost tumbler is a barrel with a handle that you can turn to turn the compost easily. The downside is that you need more than one so that you can allow the compost to finish while you add new material to the next one (otherwise you end up with some non-decomposed material in your compost).
Who it’s for: These are best for people who can’t or won’t turn the compost by hand.
Trench composting is pretty simple. You dig a small trench and add your materials to it. When it’s full you cover it up with soil. The material decomposes in the ground.
Who it’s for: This system is great for someone who doesn’t want to throw away compostable materials but doesn’t want to use it or see it either.
How to Compost: There Are So Many Ways!
These 5 techniques for making compost are only the beginning. Homesteaders come up with incredible systems for producing compost that suits their homestead and life. I typically do a cold composting system in a garden bed and use it as part of my crop rotation. This way I don’t have to move it to the garden later. This year I think I’ll try a hot composting system in the garden and use my chickens to help turn it.
What composting system do you like?
Tell us in the comments below!