A Beginner's Guide to At-Home Composting
Learn how to make your own compost—as well as get tips on the best type of compost bin so you can enjoy the benefits of "black gold" in your garden.
It's easy to cook up your own compost. Just layer organic materials—garden clippings, dry leaves, kitchen vegetable scraps, shredded paper—and a dash of soil to create a concoction that turns into humus, the best soil builder around.
Before you start piling on, recognize that there are two types of composting: cold and hot. Cold composting is as simple as collecting yard waste or taking out the organic materials in your trash (such as fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds and filters, and eggshells) and then corralling them in a pile or bin. Over the course of a year or so, the material will decompose.
Hot composting is for the more serious gardener, and you get compost in one to three months during warm weather. Four ingredients are required for fast-cooking hot compost: nitrogen, carbon, air, and water. Together, these items feed microorganisms, which speed up the process of decay
How to Create and Use Hot Compost
To create your own organic hot-compost heap, wait until you have enough materials to make a pile at least 3 feet deep. Then, to ensure an even composition of materials, create alternating 4- to 8-inch-deep layers of green materials (kitchen scraps, fresh leaves, coffee grounds) and brown materials (dried leaves, shredded paper, untreated sawdust).
Sprinkle water over the pile regularly so it has the consistency of a damp sponge. Don't add too much water—otherwise the microorganisms in your pile will become waterlogged and drown. If this happens, your pile will rot instead of compost.
Check to see if your pile is decomposing by monitoring temperature. Check the temperature of the pile with a thermometer, or simply reach into the middle of the pile with your hand.
During the growing season, you should provide the pile with oxygen by turning it once a week with a garden fork. The best time to turn the compost is when the center of the pile feels warm or the thermometer reads between 130 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Stirring up the pile helps it cook faster and prevents material from becoming matted down and developing a bad odor. At this point, the layers have served their purpose of creating equal amounts of green and brown materials throughout the pile, so stir thoroughly.
When the compost no longer gives off heat and becomes dry, brown, and crumbly, it's fully cooked and ready to feed to the garden.
Don't Compost With:
- Anything containing meat, oil, fat, or grease
- Diseased plant materials
- Sawdust or chips from pressure-treated wood
- Dog or cat feces
- Weeds that go to seed
- Dairy products
Build Your Own Compost Bin
A compost bin helps contain your compost pile and makes it more attractive. While you can buy a commercial plastic container from a garden center, it's easy to build your own. A simple round or square structure can be made from fencing wire. The bin should be at least 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep to provide enough space for materials to heat up. Use untreated wood or metal fence posts for the corners, and wrap wire fencing around them. The fence mesh should be small enough that materials won't fall out. When the compost is ready, unwind the wire and scoop the compost from the bottom of the pile. Then re-pile the not-yet-decomposed materials and wrap the wire back around the heap
While one compost pile is good, many hard-core gardeners feel three is better. By building a trio of bins, you can compost in stages: one bin will be ready, one will be brewing, and one will just be starting. A triple bin is best for a more active composting system. Turn the pile into the next bin when it reaches peak internal heat.