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Composting is one of the cornerstones of backyard farming. With just a few steps, you can turn the materials in your yard, garden waste, and food scraps into black gold – healthy soil. This article explores everything you need to know for composting for beginners and offers ideas and suggestions even if you’ve been composting for years. Read more below for the best compost set-up, compost machines and tumblers, what you can compost, and solutions to composting challenges.
Composting for beginners should not be hard – learn to compost today and start building the backyard farm of your dreams.
Why should you compost?
- Creates amazing soil for your garden for healthy gardens and water conservation
- Decreased waste leaving your property and ending up in the landfill
- Decreases the amount of waste in landfills (which decreases methane release AND the cost of waste management)
Composting for Beginners: The Basics
A compost set up can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be. At the most basic level, you are turning waste into soil through the process of decomposition. What you put into your compost bin will gradually decompose, but a smart composting system speeds up decomposition and helps kill off weed seeds. A compost set up can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be – if your goat is to learn composting for beginners, it’s worth keeping your set up as simple as possible.
At the most basic level, you are turning waste into soil through the process of decomposition. What you put into your compost bin will gradually decompose, but a smart composting system speeds up decomposition and helps kill off weed seeds. Here is some general advice for composting:
- Keep the Carbon: Nitrogen ratio of your compost about 30:1 – that means about 2 handfuls of green stuff to every handful of brown that goes into your compost bin. Even if you mess up, you will still get compost, so don’t get too hung up on the details.
- Decomposition gives off heat which speeds up the process and helps kill weed seeds – you can do either hot or cold composting – if you are hot composting in a homemade bin, make your bin/pile at least 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet to keep the pile nice and hot inside
- Keep the pile ventilated – air is important for decomposition – turn your bin or put some wood through it to create spaces for ventilation
- Keep it damp – not sopping wet, just damp
- Compost needs little microorganisms, so add a small amount of soil or build your bin right on the ground
- Keep a small compost bin in your kitchen to help collect kitchen scraps
Types of Composting and Composting Methods
Cold composting – this method involves the least amount of work, but takes the most time. You simply place your compost materials into a pile and wait. It may take 2 years to decompose but in the end you will have compost for your garden (although there may be weed seeds in the compost). We’ve used this method when we have a large amount of yard waste and we sometimes build this pile on top of a place we want to add compost.
Hot composting – this method involves creating a pile at least 3 x 3 x 3 feet that heats up. With this method your composting materials will become compost in as short as a month or two. You will need to turn the pile and pay attention to the Carbon: Nitrogen ratio to make this process successful.
Vermicomposting – this method uses worms to help with the process of composting. This is an ideal system for people with a small space and you can even use this method is you’re composting in an apartment. You will need to purchase worms and maintain the correct balance to keep your worms thriving. Once the worms have worked through the compost, you will need to pick them out or lure them to another bin so you can use the compost.
In-ground composting – In this composting method, you dig a hole and place compost materials directly into the hole to decompose. This method reduces the time you might spend turning your compost, but you will have to leave the compost in place and give it time to decompose.
Composting in a Tumbler – this method uses a composting machine called a tumbler. You place your waste into the tumbler and turn it as a form of hot composting. If you use this method, make sure to add a shovel-full of soil, keep the size of the materials small and complete a full batch at a time. You may need two tumblers for this method so you can finish one batch while filling up the other tumbler. This is a good solution for small spaces.
How to Set Up Your Composting System
Just as there are several compost methods, there are also several different types of compost set ups. The simplest (as described above) is to simple build a pile. The following set ups are just a few of the recommended ideas for setting up your compost system.
Build Your Own Compost Bin
A common compost bin set up is 3 bins side by side. You start by placing materials in the right bin. When this bin fills, turn the material into the next bin and continue to add new material to the right bin. Turn the material into the final bin and continue the process until you have compost. Ideally build each bin so that it is 3×3 feet and has aeration (our bin has fencing material around the end to help with airflow. Don’t use pressure treated wood as this will leach into your compost.
There is also information online about composting in a bucket, but unless you are actively managing the bucket, and turning it as you would in a tumbler, it will likely take a long time and possibly become unpleasant before turning into soil
Purchase the Best Compost Tumbler or Composting Machine
If you have limited space or want a more contained composting system, a tumbler is a good choice for your composting system. Some of the composter tumblers have dual containers and there are even electric composters that will also manage pet waste. Purchasing the best compost tumblers will help simplify up the entire composting process.
Worm Bins and Vermiculture Composters
When you compost using worms, it’s important to research the best methods for keeping your worms alive to produce the best compost. You can find more here, or check out the book Worm Farming. We use a standard worm bin for several years to compost in our basement with great success but ultimately decided that since we also had our own outdoor compost bin that we would just use one system.
Send out Your Compost to a Commercial Set Up
Sometimes the best solution for composting is to send your compost out to a commercial composting center. Depending on where you live these may be run by your town or private. Usually, you will put your compost in compost bags or a compost container that will be dropped off or picked up.
Other Helpful tools for Compostings
Composting for Beginners: What Can you Compost?
You can compost most kitchen and garden waste. You will have the most success if you balance fresh/green materials to brown and dead materials. We also like to layer our materials and cover our food scraps to decrease pests that might want to visit our bin. If you’re new and are learning composting for beginners, it is helpful to find a list of compostable items and print it out to keep in the kitchen.
Composting leaves is great as long as you don’t put too much in the bin at once as they will compress and make aeration difficult. We also like composting grass clippings, ideally when they don’t have lots of seeds. A lot of people ask about composting paper which is possible, especially when it is broken up into small pieces. The idea of composting weeds is appealing, but typically works best when you have a hot compost pile to eliminate weed seeds.
You should avoid composting pet littler and waste, diseased plants, meat, dairy, oils, fats, black walnut, anything treated with pesticide, charcoal and coal.
Composting for Beginners: Composting Challenges
While composting can be a simple process, there are a few challenges that can arise. If you live in a city, composting may not be permitted, or you can have problems with pests or a smelly compost.
Composting When You Can’t
When you can’t compost either from space or local restrictions, you can look into either commercial composting or keeping a vermiculture composting system in your house or apartment.
Composting in Winter
Composting in the winter can be challenging for a few reasons: it might be hard to get to your compost bin, your compost may freeze and not compost, or you may not be able to turn your pile. Here are a few tips to composting during the winter:
- Create an extra big compost pile including leaves in the fall to keep the center of your pile warm
- Make a hole in the top of your pile and put your kitchen scraps inside
- Treat your pile most like a cold compost system in the winter and let it sit
Pests in Your Compost Bin or a Smelly Bin
Even with a carefully manager compost system, you can still have pests including rodents, insects, and larger animals. Another common problem is a smelly bin – the following best practices will help cut down on the pests AND the smell:
- Don’t put in meats, fats and oils that attract pests
- keep loose yard materials and cover food scraps with leaves and grass clippings
- Keep your compost pile hot!
- Place your compost system away from the house in an area that is well drained with a little sun – you should consider this placement, when you are planning your backyard farm
- Turn your pile often
- Keep the right Carbon: Nitrogen balance
Using Compost in the Garden
After all the work of setting up a compost system, it’s important to ‘harvest’ your compost and use the black gold in your garden. Make sure your compost is done (it should be crumbly and smooth with a dark rich color and a fresh odor). If you don’t get enough compost from your own system you can find bags locally or even have compost delivered. Once you’ve determined that it’s ready, you can use it in several ways:
Use it as mulch – use it as mulch in the garden to help suppress weeds. The nutrients will gradually work down into the soil and help control weeds and conserve water.
Make potting soil – mix equal parts compost, garden soil and vermiculite to make your own soil for potted plants.
Make compost tea – soak compost in water and use it as a spray or a soak in your garden
Feed perennials, fruit trees and bulbs – work the compost into the soil near perennials or bulbs to give them added nutrients
Spread on your yard and garden beds – spread them on the garden beds and the lawn to add nutrients to the existing soil
Composting for Kids
Getting your kids involved in the garden is a powerful way to show them the importance of growing their own food, and composting is a wonderful and easy way to show them a direct connection to recycling and reusing right in their home. Depending on the age of your kids, they can get involved in the entire process of composting and there is something magical about turning their left-over food scraps into something to be added to the garden. Even kids can learn the basics of composting for beginners.
In our home, we’ve always composted, so my kids are surprised when they go somewhere where there isn’t a compost option and they always ask about it – in a way they’ve become compost ambassadors. If you are looking to show the importance of composting to kids you can collect the amount of trash you make in a week and compare it to what you compost – it’s a great starting point for a conversation about where our waste goes!
Do you want to learn more about composting for beginners? Follow along with the Backyard Farming Connection.