Composting for Beginners

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Composting goes hand in hand with homesteading, but for someone just starting out, it can be overwhelming.  Soil ph, balancing, rotating, remembering what you can  and can not compost – it’s a lot of information.  But if you have a garden – veggies or flowers or even just a lawn – composting is a free way to naturally improve your soil.  It also cuts down on landfill waste and if you have farm animals, turns that growing pile of manure into something valuable.  Composting is really a win-win-win!  So what are the basics, the bare minimum you need to know to get started composting?

Does your town allow in yard composting?

Unfortunately, not all cities allow you to compost your food waste in your yard.  Concern over attracting rodents, unpleasant smells and unmanaged piles have lead many places to outlaw backyard composting.  Call your town hall to check the laws for your area.  If you find that you can not have an open compost pile, your town may allow a covered can or bin on your back deck which is another good alternative and on the plus side is easy to manage for beginners.

What food waste can you compost?

Do compost:
*most vegetable & fruit scraps (even if they are old or moldy)
*eggshells
*coffee grounds & used tea bags
*stale bread, rice, crackers, cooked pasta (anything made of flour)
*rinds & peels
*corn cobs & husks

DON’T compost:
*any meat, fish or meat products (skin, gristle, fat, bones)
*dairy products (yogurt, cheese, milk, butter, sour cream)
*cooking grease or oils
*citrus fruits/peels
*onions

What non food items can you compost?

DO compost:
*tissues, toilet paper & paper towels and their cardboard rolls
*newspaper & non glossy magazines/junk mail
*coffee filters
*weeds & grass clippings
*leaves & pine needles
*farm animal manure & bedding (poultry, rabbit, horse, cow – basically anything that is mainly a vegetarian)
*sawdust
*paper bags & cardboard
*dryer lint/vacuum dust

DON’T compost:
*plastic
*any plants/weeds that were diseased
*pet waste or cat litter (from cats, dogs – animals that eat meat)

What equipment do I need to compost?

*You’ll need something to collect scraps in your kitchen.  This can be as simple as an old Tubberware container or empty yogurt container or you could get a fancy countertop compost pail with a carbon filter to control smells.  You will want to be sure it has a lid to keep out bugs and keep down smells, and make sure you empty it at least once-twice a week
*An area outside for collecting compost.  Truthfully, you could just have a pile at the edge of your property, but most people prefer to keep it contained in a bin of some sort.  You can buy fully enclosed composting bins, tumbling composters, use an old trash can with some holes drilled in it or build a compost system from old pallets (click here to see how we did that!)
*a pitchfork or shovel to turn the pile

What kind of maintenance does compost need?

Not very much.  Composting works because the food/manure attracts all sorts beneficial microbes, fungi, bacteria, worms and insects.  These composting superheros do all the work of breaking down the materials into nutrient rich soil.  All those little guys need oxygen just like we do – you will want to occasionally turn your compost to introduce oxygen.  If you are composting in a bin or tumbler you can just roll it around.  If you have a pile, just take a pitchfork and toss the pile a bit when you add new materials.  If your compost is in a closed bin, make sure there are holes to allow for air exchange.  The other thing composting microbes like is moisture.  The heat generated by the composting action can dry everything out, and that will make for an inhospitable environment for them.  Put your bin in a shady area.  If your bin is open, rain and snow will likely take care of keeping things moist, but in unusually dry weather you might want to give your compost a soaking with the hose.  If your compost is closed be sure to add enough water that the materials stay moist.

Extra tips for superstar compost

*try to keep your pile balanced between green (food scraps listed above) and brown (non food listed above).  A mixture of three parts brown to one part green will allow a good balance of nitrogen & carbon to break down the materials quickly and will also keep odors to a minimum
*make it convenient – you want your compost bin to be close enough to your home that you will use it.  If it’s at the furthest end of your yard you are not likely to use it as often.  Keeping it near your garden is a great option for when it’s time to use all that lovely soil
*if possible have a multi composting system (two-three bins or piles).  Compost takes about 6-9 months to break down.  If you have multiple piles going at once you can have one you are currently adding to, one that is aging and one with usable soil.  I have two pallet compost bins side by side.  I add to one side of the bin January-June and add to the other side July-December.
*earthworms will likely flock to your compost, but jump starting the process isn’t a bad idea with a pack of purchased earthworms
*chickens are awesome composting helpers because they LOVE digging through the pile looking for bugs or food scraps.  This is good and bad – good that they turn the compost for you (yay for less work!) but bad because they will kick compost all over the area and make a general mess.  If you have chickens plan accordingly!
*to keep rodents visitors to a minimum make sure you never adding meat and dairy products to your piles.  If you find that rodents are in your compost, act quickly before they tell all their friends where the free buffet is.  Either switch to a closed bin composter or for a month or so stop adding food scraps to the bin.

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4 comments

  1. Emma @ Misfit Gardening says:

    I love composting and this is a great resource for new gardeners.

    You can compost meat/fish and dairy by using a Bokashi composter which is quite popular in England. It ferments or pickles the waste then you can add it to the compost pile/bin where it breaks down really quickly. I’ve found it deters flies and critters from the heap too.

  2. Arwen says:

    Hi! This is a great article and follow-up to my beginner level composting at The Holistic Homestead. How can I get my readers to see this article?

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