Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
It seemed like a strange thing to do. I watched my Grandma carry a coffee can full of scraps from the kitchen and pour them out underneath her maple tree. It was just a small container of coffee grounds, tea bags, and vegetable ends that nobody wanted to eat.
I couldn’t understand what she was doing. We had a garbage disposal to take care of those things. But as it turns out, Grandma had the right idea all along, because she knew the value of compost. So Grandma taught me how to make the perfect compost pile.
This article will help you understand how you can make the perfect compost pile. We’ll talk about all of the ingredients that should and shouldn’t go in a compost bin, where to put it, how big it should be, and what kind of containers you can use. We’ll also talk about composting if you live in an apartment. But first, let’s take a quick look at what composting really is.
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What Is Composting?
Composting is the process of mixing together a variety of organic matter and allowing nature to break it down into rich soil, known as compost. A well-setup compost pile or bin requires only a little maintenance, and mother nature does the hard work of breaking down all the individual pieces to create the compost.
The decomposition process is found everywhere in nature, but a great example is the forest floor. Leaves, twigs, animal droppings, and rain combine and break down over time, leaving that rich, earth-smelling, dark soil that is fertile and soft.
Why You Need to Start a Compost Pile
There are lots of reasons to start your own compost pile, but here are just a few:
- Reduces waste. By composting kitchen scraps and yard waste, you reduce your trash output, which reduces landfill waste.
- Adds nutrients to the soil.
- Creates rich, loose soil.
- Adds beneficial microorganisms to the soil.
- Compost can be a food source for chickens.
How to Start your First Compost Pile
Starting your first compost pile could be as easy as my Grandma’s method of dumping your coffee grinds and vegetable ends under a tree. But following a few extra steps can increase the nutrients and microorganisms in your compost. I’ll outline the steps below and explain each step in more detail.
- Choose your location.
- Choose your container.
- Add your ingredients.
- Water and turn your compost.
- Harvest Your Compost.
Choose the Best Location for Your Compost Pile
Grandma kept her little compost pile under a tree. That’s just fine, but shade can slow down the composting process, and the tree can steal some of the nutrients out of the pile that you want for your garden. So instead, try a few other ideas.
- A sunny spot will speed up the composting process.
- Keep your pile sheltered from the wind, so it doesn’t blow away.
- Keep your pile easily accessible to your kitchen, so you stay motivated to keep it going.
- Don’t put your compost pile up against the house. Sometimes, they can get a little smelly and attract four-footed visitors you don’t close to your home.
- Locate your compost bin in an area that drains well, so you don’t end up with a smelly swamp instead of compost.
- Keep your pile near a water source because you may need to wet the compost down periodically.
- Leave room to expand your pile.
- Keep your compost pile on top of the bare ground so that worms and microorganisms can migrate into the pile.
- You could even keep your compost pile in your greenhouse. Plants can be started in cardboard boxes on top of your compost pile to keep them warm when it is still chilly outside.
- Ideally, you might keep your compost pile in the corner of your garden, where it can be easily accessible to your plants and your water supply!
Should You Use a Compost Container?
There are benefits to using a compost container. First, you can purchase commercial composters, which are typically a large drum on a stand. The drum has a crank to spin the drum to mix the compost. These are great solutions for smaller yards or where it would be inappropriate to have an open compost pile. These types of drums prevent animals from getting into your pile and contain odors, but they can be expensive, and they don’t hold large amounts of yard waste.
Other suggestions for a compost bin would be a large, clean trash can, a barrel, or even just an open pile. I have seen people make a large circle out of some extra fence as a container. Personally, I use a three-sided bin constructed from untreated pallets. It’s large enough to hold lots of yard waste and allows for plenty of ventilation.
Also, since it is open on the bottom, there is lots of surface area in contact with the ground for worms and beneficial organisms to migrate into the pile. It’s also close to the chicken coop, so the chickens can visit the pile and scratch through it, which not only turns the pile but also adds some nitrogen (their poop!) and feeds them, too.
What Ingredients Go In a Compost Pile?
A good working compost pile is made up of three easy ingredients:
Browns are the dry, ‘dead,’ carbon-rich matter you put into a compost pile. This should make up anywhere from 50% to 80% of your compost pile and include things like dry leaves, twigs, cardboard, straw, sawdust, dryer lint, and paper.
Greens should make up 20 to 50% of your compost pile. These are the nitrogen-rich parts of the compost that help it heat up and decay. Greens include grass clippings, kitchen scraps, tea bags or coffee grounds, and animal manure.
The third ingredient is water. It won’t heat up and decompose if your compost pile gets dry. So if it rains often, you may not need to spend much time watering your pile. But if it starts to dry out, give it a good hose down to activate it again.
Unusual Items You Can Compost
- Napkins and paper towels (as long as they don’t have chemicals on them)
- Dryer lint
- Coffee filters and tea bags
- Hair or fur
- Cotton clothing
- Woodstove ashes (in small quantities)
What Should Never Go in a Compost Pile
There are so many things you can put in your compost pile, but there are some things you shouldn’t. Avoid composting these items:
- Diseased plants
- Weeds that have gone to seed
- Black walnut trees give off a chemical that kills other plants
- Pet waste
- Charcoal ash
- Meat and fish
- Dairy products
- Pesticides or herbicides
- Chemicals, paints, etc.
- Inorganic items
- Chemically treated yard waste
Maintaining Your Compost Pile
Layering and Turning
When you start or add to your pile, you may want to use layers. Imagine you are layering your compost pile like a lasagna. You’ll want to put a layer of larger items down first, like twigs or bulky things.
This will allow for good draining from your compost pile. The next layer can be a layer of dried leaves. After that, alternate layers of browns and greens. Whenever you add something green, like kitchen waste or grass clippings, always cover it with a layer of browns to control smell and pests.
If possible, it’s a good idea to turn your compost pile over about once a week. This will help the microorganisms spread evenly throughout the pile. It will also help with aerating the pile because you need oxygen for the microorganisms to work their decomposition magic.
A shovel or pitchfork work great to turn your pile over. If you have chickens, you may want to allow them access to the pile. They’ll turn it over for you while they are looking for bugs and bits of vegetables to eat.
Watering Your Compost Pile
The materials in your compost pile should feel like a wrung out wet sponge. In other words, it should be damp but not at all soggy. If your pile is too wet, it will rot. To prevent this, add more browns. If your pile is too dry, it won’t heat up or decompose. In this case, add water with a hose.
Does Your Compost Pile Need Worms?
If your compost pile is in contact with bare ground, you don’t need to add any worms. They will make their way to the pile on their own! The heat, nutrients, and other stuff will attract all kinds of worms and bugs to help break down the pile.
If you have chickens, this is a great benefit! They can eat from the buffet of bugs in your compost pile, reducing your feed bill.
You can add extra worms if you want to speed up your composting process. Ideally, you should add red wigglers to your compost pile. These worms can tolerate a wide variety of temperatures, and they can also take crowded conditions. They will speed up the process to have your finished compost more quickly.
You’ll want to purchase your red wigglers from a reputable source, such as Uncle Jim’s Worms. You can include worms in your indoor composting systems, as well.
How Big Should Your Compost Pile Be
A compost pile can be just about any size you would like it to be. However, a good rule of thumb is to make it twice the size of the amount of finished compost you would like to have. Of course, this will depend on the size of your garden or containers!
You also want to make sure your compost pile is manageable. You need to be able to get in there and turn it over, and if it is too big, you won’t be able to reach all of it. Greenupside.com provides a detailed mathematical formula for figuring out exactly how big your compost bin should be.
On the other hand, if your compost pile is going to be larger than 3 feet by 3 feet squared, you might want to create several bins that are side by side. This will make it easier to manage faster to decompose, and you can stagger your containers to have a steady supply of compost.
A compost tumbler can be very small, just a few cubic square feet. This won’t give you a lot of compost, but it will provide you with some for your gardens. An indoor composter is usually only the size of a one to three-gallon bucket.
Can You Make a Container Compost System?
You can compost in a container system if you don’t want an open compost pile due to the possibility of rodents or pests. You can purchase premade systems or create your own using several plastic bins or buckets.
You’ll need to drill holes for aeration, and you’ll still need to follow all of the same principles of standard composting, including getting the right mix of ingredients and moisture. Here’s an idea of how to create your compost container system.
How to Harvest Your Compost
You’ll know your compost is ready when it is dark, rich, and earthy-scented. This can take anywhere from 2 months to 2 years, depending on how hot and fast your pile decomposes. Chicken manure and other ‘hot’ (nitrogen-rich) manures should typically compost for a year, so they don’t burn your plants.
You can shovel out the humus from your pile or run it through a sieve to filter out any large chunks that might be left. It’s always a good idea to leave a little bit of finished compost to mix into your new compost pile to help it get off to a great start. Then, apply your compost to your garden or flower beds to give them a great nutritional boost.
Composting if You live in an Apartment
You can still compost even if you live in an apartment. One idea would be to put a small tumbler on your porch or balcony for your kitchen scraps and plant trimmings. Another idea is to purchase an indoor compost bin. These range in price from $50 to $500, depending on the size and style you want.
Uncle Jim’s Hot Frog Indoor Composter is made to also farm worms, which gives you extra benefits, especially if you have a balcony container garden. Finally, ApartmentTherapy offers a tutorial on creating your own indoor compost bin if you’re handy!
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