For many gardeners, taking the leap to start composting is filled with anxiety. Instructions about brown and green ratios, assorted bin choices, and the niggling suspicion that a compost pile will stink, look unsightly, or draw rodents makes the whole process seem daunting.
As you tackle composting, you'll encounter simple questions. Do I need to turn the pile? Can I add newspapers? What about weeds? Why is my kitchen waste all over the yard? These tips will provide some answers and help you get started creating your own compost.
Your Compost Shopping List
You already have much of what you need to start composting: leaves, spent annuals, kitchen scraps and grass clippings. A mower with a bag attachment or a leaf shredder/vac comes in handy, too, for chopping leaves before adding them to the pile.
What you likely lack is a bin to collect the raw ingredients into a pile. You can purchase a bin or fashion one from wooden pallets, snow fence, cinder blocks or straw bales. Which approach you choose ultimately depends on how large a compost pile you want and how much you want to spend, in time and money.
Types of Bins
Composting bins fall into two categories: tumbling or stationary.
Tumbling compost bins create one batch of compost all at once (called batch composting). This bin is typically mounted on a stand with a handle you turn to rotate the bin. Your job is to gather material for a single batch of compost, fill the bin, and then turn every day or two. This method generates small amounts of finished compost in five weeks or less, especially if you shred material before you add it.
A tumbling compost bin is ideal for yards that generate small amounts of compostable material. Plan for a holding bin to contain compostables until the tumbler is empty.
Stationary bins perform continuous composting, in which you add material to the bin over time. Finished compost is ready in stages, with the earliest material added breaking down first. With continuous composting, the bin design usually allows you to load from the top and access finished compost at the bottom through some kind of door. This bin should also have air vents and a removable lid. Use a single bin, or fill multiple bins one by one, so the first bin holds (nearly) finished compost while you load fresh materials into the second one. Arrange multiple bins side by side or scatter them throughout your yard.
Continuous composting suits larger yards and folks who tend a mix of gardens (planting beds, container gardens, shrubs, trees, and/or vegetables). During the growing season, a continuous system can receive kitchen scraps, along with green material from weeding, trimming and mowing. This system also easily accommodates a large volume of autumn leaves.
In climates with strongly pronounced seasons, you can load a bin in fall by layering chopped leaves with green landscape material (annuals, grass clippings, healthy vegetables, tender bulb foliage, etc.) and harvest finished compost by mid- to late summer.
Bin Size Is Key
The most important tip for continuous composting is bin size. The ideal size is 3 feet square. This size pile easily maintains the temperature necessary for decomposing organisms to work.
Location. Place your compost pile where it's convenient to fill and unload. Most gardeners stick the compost out of sight, which works if you have a riding tractor with a cart (or a good wheelbarrow and a strong back) to move materials to and from the pile.
Moisture. Composting stops in a too-dry pile. An active compost pile should feel like a damp sponge. Don't place your pile beyond the reach of the garden hose. During drought, you'll need to water it.
Starter. Get finished compost faster by adding "hot" compost starter or a half shovelful of finished compost between layers. Both materials contain microorganisms. You can also add a half shovelful of nutrient-rich meal (blood meal, alfalfa meal, etc.) or composted or well-rotted manure between layers.
Turning. You don't have to turn the compost pile, but turning does speed up the decomposition process. By turning the pile, you introduce air and move outer, less decomposed layers into the center, where the action is. Many gardeners turn the pile once a growing season.
Kitchen waste. Bury plant-based kitchen waste within the pile (see below for what not to add). If you heap it on top or barely cover it, critters will find the free buffet. Corn cobs make great additions because they add air pockets.
Shredding. Smaller materials decompose more quickly. Run over leaves with a mower and grass catcher attachment. Chop fruit and thick items, like broccoli stems, melon skins, pumpkins and gourds. Set aside larger sticks and branches for an annual chipping using a rented chipper-shredder.
Slow going. Holly, Southern Magnolia, Rhododendron and oak leaves decompose more slowly. Shred or chop these and place them in a separate pile to limit slowing the process in the main pile. Oak leaves produce a more acid compost ideal for acid-loving plants.
Odd compostables. Add shredded newspapers or office paper in moderation. Dryer lint decomposes if it contains natural fibers, but doesn't contain much nutritive value. Freshwater aquarium water and plants make great additions. Wood ash is okay in small amounts. Pet hair breaks down slowly; add only in small amounts.
Recycle. As you harvest finished compost, toss uncomposted branches, stalks or corn cobs aside and work them into the new compost pile. They'll add air pockets and eventually decompose.
Screen. Some gardeners like to screen finished compost to filter out larger chunks. If you're tossing large branches into your compost pile, pull those out before retrieving finished compost, and then add them back into the pile afterward.
Finished compost. Create a holding bin for finished compost. This container should have air holes and be open to surrounding soil so creatures can continue the decomposition process. Protect compost from rain. Add finished compost to every planting hole for slow-but-steady soil improvement.
The Don'ts of Composting
Don't add weeds that contain seeds or root easily from cuttings, such as Creeping Charlie or Purslane. If you're unsure, don't compost it.
Don't add whole autumn leaves. They can mat together, limit water penetration, and won't decompose.
Don't add dairy products, meat, bones or animal waste.
Don't add diseased or insect-infested plants. This is vital when composting vegetable plants. If Mexican Bean Beetles infested your beans, don't compost the plants to avoid harboring adults or eggs. The same is true with Powdery Mildew-infested squash vines. Adding these infests the pile.
Don't add mounds of grass clippings without mixing them with something brown (like shredded dry leaves or newspapers), or they'll eventually stink.
Try Composting Today
The fact is composting is one of gardening's simpler projects. It's hands-down easier than starting a new planting bed or growing vegetables. Start your pile, and with a little practice, you’ll be composting in no time!