Compost A to Z: A Complete Composting Guide

Composting is your ticket to a free lifetime supply of premium organic fertilizer. It's easier than you think to transform kitchen scraps and yard trimmings into rich, soil-like material loaded with nutrients to make your garden thrive. Start with this guide to which type of composter use, what to compost, benefits of composting, composting 101, FAQs, mistakes and troubleshooting.

Types of Composters

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Start with a compost bin that's a good match for your personality and lifestyle.

Whether you're a diva, a do-it-yourself guy or anything in between, there's a composting method and container that won't cramp your style.

Minimalist? You don't need a compost bin to start making compost. Pick a spot in your yard that's out of the way, and start piling your yard waste and kitchen scraps there.

 

But since successfully composting without a lidded bin can depend on the weather, weigh your other options first.

 

Do-it-yourself type? Build your own homemade compost bin. You can make it from simple chicken wire, wood, or basic residential garbage cans. Get yourself a couple books and DVDs on making compost and composters, or watch this composting how-to video that also shows how you can fashion your own "spinning" composter.

 

Want a budget composter you don't have to build? Get a basic commercially made compost bin to keep contents neatly contained in a way that's both aesthetic and affordable. Basic composting bins typically come with a tight-fitting lid to keep rain and pests out.

 

For an easier way to turn your compost, get yourself one of these clever compost turner tools — or try a spinning or drum composter. This is a smart design to go with if you don't have a big backyard or just want a little help turning your compost without muscling a pitchfork or garden claw through its contents. Drum composters can also help speed up decomposition time.

 

Move up to a “continuous use” composter and you can continually add your organic waste with no waiting for the stuff to finish. The outer drum handles newly added material, breaking it down while moving it gradually, with each turn of the drum, toward the inner chamber where the finished compost hangs out until you're ready to use it.

 

If you live in an apartment or condo, consider an automatic indoor "hot" composter that runs on electricity and automates the composting process. Every two weeks, you empty out nitrogen-rich compost.

 

Domestic goddess? Try a Bokashi composting system. This type of composter uses beneficial microbes called Bokashi that come in a package with the container, which is designed to be kept inside and look inoffensive in your kitchen.

 

Adventure lover? Go for vermi (worm) composting. The worms digest organic matter, breaking down cast-off apple cores and lawn-mower leavings that go, ahem, right through them. The worms produce “castings,” a fancy word for worm poop that's nutrient-rich and the stuff of gardeners' dreams.

Composting FAQs

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Here's a quick rundown of common composting questions, tips and mistakes.

Do compost bins attract pests and get smelly? How often should you turn compost? How long does it take before you can use the compost on your garden? Find out answers to these questions here ...

Q. Doesn't all that food in the compost bin attract mice or get smelly?

 

A. Not if you do it right — but don't let that intimidate you! You don't have to hand-hold your compost daily. If you don't follow a few basic rules of thumb, compost can indeed attract pests like mice, or start to stink. But if it does, check for these five most common causes of composting problems: Volume of green vs. brown materials is out of balance; materials added are too big; compost is oxygen starved; or there just isn't enough material in the compost bin or pile to maintain high enough temperatures. Once you resume good compost "hygiene," your compost will get hot enough to deter pests and prevent offensive odors.

 

Q. How often should I turn the compost?

 

A. You can follow the rules on when and how often to turn or spin your compost, but really it depends on your agenda. Turn it more often (ideally every day or two) and your compost will cook faster; turn it less often and it may not go quickly or perfectly, but it will go.

 

Q. How long will it take before I can use the compost on my garden?

 

A. If you're turning your compost every day or two and maintaining an optimal ratio of green and brown materials and moisture content, it's possible to get fairly finished compost in a month. But most backyard gardeners find they get better compost and enjoy the process more if they take a leisurely approach.

Urban & Winter Composting

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You can compost almost anywhere at any time of year in many parts of the world — even if you live in an apartment, condo or intemperate climate, and even in the winter. The keys are getting the right composter for how and where you live, knowing what to put in your compost, and going with the flow.

If you live in an apartment or condo with no yard, consider a smaller composter that is completely closed when not in use and doesn't spew compost ingredients over the sides of the bin when you stir up the contents. Spinning or drum composters are ideal for this type of urban setting. You can use the compost you produce in your container garden, give it to a friend who has a yard, or donate it to a local community garden.

 

Compost won't "cook" as fast during the winter, as it needs heat to decompose the organic matter you put in. Some people opt to compost only during warmer months and strive to finish and use up their compost by the end of the growing season. But you can keep adding materials to your composter over the winter if you like. Just know that it will take longer and think about these ways to adjust your composting process for winter.

Composting 101

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To make compost, you simply collect food scraps and yard waste in a compost bin or pile. There, with a little stirring and watering a few times a week, they biodegrade into rich fertilizer. Naturally occurring microorganisms, oxygen, moisture and heat combine to facilitate the process.

What you put in your compost is the most important factor in whether it will keep cookin' at a decent clip and behave itself — i.e., not cause a stink. You want happy microorganisms in your compost that hungrily transform your kitchen scraps into garden goodies. To keep those microbes munching, maintain the correct ratio of “green” to “brown” ingredients. (See "What to Compost" on this page for more info.) 

 

You can line your kitchen compost crock with a Bio Bag or similar compostable bag. These things are great for containing liquids and minimizing odors while you're collecting a batch of kitchen scraps — and you won't have to wash out your indoor collection container every time. When you're ready to make a trip out to the big bin, just grab the bag from the top and toss the whole bundle in, bag and all. (These bags break down surprisingly fast.)

Why Should You Compost?

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Composting benefits the environment, your garden and your community. Making compost reduces trash, creates free soil fertilizer, helps soil to retain moisture and resist erosion, improves garden yields, turns waste into a valuable resource, saves limited landfill space, and recycles nutrients back into the soil.

Composting is also surprisingly rewarding and enjoyable for many people, even people who thought they weren't the composting type. Watching your kitchen scraps and yard trimmings transform into rich, nutritious fertilizer for your garden is a thrill!

 

What's wrong with stuffing your kitchen scraps down the disposal, you ask? It's not really wrong; just wasteful (and hard on some plumbing). There is so much energy in organic waste like vegetable scraps, and composting so easily harnesses that energy and directs it back into the ecosystem, via your garden. Rather than putting synthetic chemical fertilizers on your lawn and garden, why not use the organic materials you've already got?

 

All the kids are doing it, and so are a lot of white-collar types, work-at-home moms and all manner of folks in between.

 

Give it a spin!

What to Compost

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Compost ingredients generally fall under one of two categories: "brown" or "green." Many experts recommend a 50/50 balance of green and brown materials, while others suggest a 60/40 mix with more green than brown materials.

Green materials are rich in nitrogen, and brown materials are rich in carbon. Bacteria thrive in the particular ratio of carbon to nitrogen that is provided by this mix of green and brown materials.

 

  • Brown (dry) ingredients include: dried leaves, dry grass, straw, sawdust, cold wood ashes, wood chips, all kinds of tissue paper, shredded newspaper, shredded paper cartons, compostable paper plates, cups and picnic ware, and shredded egg cartons (the paper kind only).
  • Green (wet) ingredients include: fruit peels, vegetable peels, coffee grinds and filters, tea bags, egg shells, peanut shells, garden waste, plant trimmings, fresh grass cuttings, and table waste.
  • Some materials should not be composted. These include: bones, meat, fish, dairy products, sauces, oils, fats, pet waste, diseased plants, seeding weeds, wet grass, and inorganic materials.