What you need to know about composting and how to get started

Making your own compost can be intimidating. But really, there are just a few important pieces of information you need to know before you get started. Then you can experiment with different methods until you find what works for you.
Composting refers to the decomposition of organic materials, including food scraps, leaves, twigs, grass clippings, and others, into a dense substance known as compost. Composting has a number of benefits. For starters, it reduces the amount of yard waste and food scraps sent to the landfill. And once the organic materials are broken down, the compost you're left with is the ideal fertilizer for your garden, packed full of nutrients and important soil organisms.
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Organic material will break down without any help at all; It just might take a long time. That's why gardeners like to facilitate the composting process. Be aware that as a home gardener it will be difficult to produce the amount of compost you actually hope to use in your garden, especially if you garden a large area. According to Home and Garden America, the amount of compost you are left with after everything breaks down will equal less than half of the volume of the original material. But, you can rest assured that a little goes a long way to condition and rebuild your soil. The effort is more than worth the reward.
Compost Recipe:
1. Greens
, which are generally high in nitrogen, include grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, and fresh cut plant material.
2. Browns, which are high in carbon, include branches and twigs, dead leaves, straw, and cardboard.
3. Water
4. Air
Aim for a pile of organic material that is 3 cubic feet in volume. At this size, the material should heat up nicely (killing weed seeds and many pests) and can still be turned. Consider a layering system as you add material: Start with a layer of branches and twigs to allow for better drainage and air circulation, and cover that with another layer of browns, such as dried leaves. Then add a layer of greens, like grass clippings, or food scraps. Incorporate layers of fresh compost as well, to jumpstart a healthy population of the soil organisms needed to break the organic materials down. The general rule of thumb is to use 3 parts browns to 1 part greens. It's not an exact formula. However, Grow it Organically stresses the importance of not using too many greens, as this will result in a smelly pile prone to rodents and other pests. If maintained well, you should have fresh compost within a few months.
Things to keep in mind:
- Locate your compost in an area that won't draw attention if for some reason it gets smelly.
- Keep your compost moist, but not soaked. Consider covering the pile so you have control over the moisture level.
- Turn your compost once or twice a month to aerate the pile and speed up decomposition. If you don't want to deal with turning your compost, Eartheasy suggests adding extra coarse materials, such as straw, which will allow for more aeration without turning.
- Home and Garden America suggests adding finished compost to your garden a couple of weeks before you plant to allow time for integration.
- Consider starting at least two compost piles. Once you finish the first pile, you can allow it to become active and start making a new pile.
- Compost will still break down if you use a no-turn system, it just might not heat up as much and may take longer to become finished compost.
IDEAS TO TRY:
DIY Compost Tumbler
The Family Handyman provides a practical tutorial for building a rotating drum composter. If you're able to source a used 55-gallon food-grade barrel for free, this is a frugal option as well. Being a closed system, this unit will allow you to keep pests out and control the environment inside. And, using a tumbler makes turning your compost easier, which means you can speed the decomposition process up even more!
Vermicompost
It may not sound easy, but it is! Vermicomposting is composting with worms, and it's a great option if you want to keep your compost operation indoors. With a plastic tote, shredded paper, kitchen scraps, and red wiggler worms, you will have fresh organic compost in no time! Check out Rodale's Organic Life's video tutorial to get started.
Three-bin System
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If you're set on becoming a long-time composter, consider building a 3-bin compost system. The idea here is that you have one bin you are actively adding materials to, one bin full of materials that are actively breaking down, and one bin with finished compost. It's a great method if you are an avid gardener and have a constant supply of yard waste. Rodale's Organic Life offers another great tutorial for the compost bins pictured above.
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