How To Get Started Composting

For many gardeners, taking the leap into composting causes a little anxiety. There’s those puzzling brown and green ratios, assorted bin choices, and the nagging suspicion that a compost pile will stink, look unsightly, or draw rodents and flies, makes the whole process a bit daunting.

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As you grapple with composting, simple questions will arise. How often do I need to turn the pile? Can you compost newspapers? How about weeds? Why is there kitchen scraps all over the yard?  Here are some tips that will provide answers and help you get started creating your own compost.

Composter’s Shopping List

You probably already have much of what you need to start composting: fallen leaves, spent annuals and vegetables, kitchen scraps and grass clippings. A mower with a bag attachment or a leaf shredder/vac can also come in handy for chopping leaves before throwing them on the pile.

What you probably don’t have is a bin to hold the raw ingredients. You can purchase a compost bin or fashion one from wooden pallets, sturdy wire fencing, cinder blocks or even straw bales. What you choose depends on how large a compost pile you want and how much you want to spend, in time and money. And don’t forget, as long as you add the right materials, keep it moist and turn it often, a simple pile can be a very effective composter.

Types of Compost Bins

Basically, there are two types of compost bins you can buy or build yourself: tumbling or stationary.

Tumbling compost bins usually create one batch of compost all at once (called batch composting). This type of composter is typically mounted on a stand that allows you to easily rotate the bin. Some have handles, making them even easier to turn. Your job is to gather material for a single batch of compost, fill the bin, keep it moist and turn every day or two. Tumblers generate small amounts of finished compost in five weeks or less, especially if you shred material before you add it. You can also buy tumblers with two compartments, so you can work on two batches of compost at once. In fact, don’t feel like you have to work on a single batch at a time. If you are not in a hurry, add materials as you have them and keep the composter working over a longer period. As the materials breakdown, they’ll create more space anyway.  It may take longer, but in the end, you’ll have more compost.

Stationary bins compost continuously, as you add material to the bin over time. Finished compost is ready in stages, with material added early breaking down first. With continuous composting, the bin design can allow you to load on top and access finished compost at the bottom through some kind of door. There should be air vents and a removable lid. Use a single bin, or fill several bins one by one. The first bin should hold (nearly) finished compost while you load fresh materials into the second one. Arranging multiple bins side by side allows you to easily move materials from one bin to another – a great way to turn your compost.

Continuous composting is ideal for larger yards and for those who tend a mix of gardens (planting beds, container gardens, shrubs, trees, and/or vegetables). During the growing season, add kitchen scraps, along with green material from weeding, trimming and mowing. This method also easily accommodates a large volume of autumn leaves.

In areas with strongly pronounced seasons, you can load a bin in fall by layering chopped leaves with green landscape material (annuals, grass clippings, finished vegetables, tender bulb foliage, etc.) and harvest finished compost by mid- to late summer, if not sooner.

Bin Size Is The Key

The size of your bin is very important if you will be trying continuous composting. The ideal size is about 3 to 4 feet square. If you are making a round pile from wire fencing, it should have a diameter of 3 to 4 feet. With this size, it’s easy to maintain the temperature necessary for decomposing organisms to do their job.

For more information about the right ratio of composting ingredients, read Composting: Recycling In The Garden.

 

Do's of Composting

Location:  Place your composter where it's convenient to fill and unload. Most gardeners prefer to keep the compost out of sight, which works fine if you have a riding tractor with a cart (or a good wheelbarrow and a strong back) to move materials to and from the pile. However, if you have a composter you are proud of, it can also be a natural addition around the vegetable garden or other area of your yard.

Moisture: Composting stops if a pile is too dry. A working compost pile should feel like a damp sponge. Don't place your pile beyond the reach of the garden hose. During drought or dry spells, you'll need to water it. Placing a slow running sprinkler on top of a large pile is an easy way to get it wet.

Starter:  Jump-start your pile by adding "hot" compost starter or a half shovelful of finished compost between layers. Both materials contain the necessary microorganisms. You can also add a half shovelful of nitrogen-rich meal (blood meal, alfalfa meal, etc.) or composted or well-rotted manure between layers.

Turning:  If you have layered materials properly, you don't have to turn the compost pile, but turning does speed up the decomposition process. Turning the pile aerates and moves outer, less decomposed layers into the center, where the action is. Some gardeners only turn the pile once a growing season. Others prefer to do it more frequently.

Kitchen waste:  Bury plant-based kitchen waste towards the middle of the pile (see below for what not to add). If you throw it on top or barely cover it, critters may find the free buffet. Corn cobs make great additions to compost piles because they add air pockets. They can, however, be slow to breakdown.

Shredding:  Smaller pieces decompose more quickly.  Many gardeners will chop fallen on the lawn by running over them with a mower and grass catcher attachment. It also creates a nice combination of grass clipping and leaf material that composts quickly. Chop fruit and thick items, like broccoli stems, melon skins, pumpkins and gourds with a spade. Set aside larger sticks and stems for an annual chipping with a rented chipper-shredder or purchase one of your own.

Slow going: Heavily textured leaves of Holly, Southern Magnolia, Rhododendron and Oak decompose more slowly. Shred or chop these and keep them in a separate pile to prevent slowing the process in the main pile. Oak leaves produce a nice acidic compost ideal for acid-loving plants.

Odd compostables: You can add shredded newspapers, but only in moderation. Dryer lint decomposes if it contains natural fibers, but won’t add much nutritional value. Freshwater aquarium water and plants are great additions. Wood ash is okay in small amounts but can create an alkaline compost. Pet hair breaks down slowly so add it only in small amounts.

Recycle: As you harvest finished compost, throw uncomposted branches, stalks or corn cobs aside and work them into the new compost pile. They'll aerate the pile and eventually decompose.

Screen: Screening finished compost to filter out larger chunks and rocks is a good idea and gives you the cleanest material.  You can easily make your own screen by attaching metal screen to a square wooden frame.

Finished compost:  Make a holding bin for finished compost. Ideally, it should have air holes and be open to surrounding soil so, if necessary, the decomposition process can continue.  Plastic garbage cans are a good place to store completely finished compost.  Either way, protect compost from rain to avoid the leaching of nutrients. Add finished compost to every planting hole or bed for slow-but-steady soil improvement.

 

Don'ts of Composting

Don't add weeds that have gone to seed or root easily from cuttings, such as Creeping Charlie, Bermudagrass or Purslane.  Even though compost that is working properly can generate enough heat to kill some weed seeds, if you can, avoid adding them or cut-off the seed heads before you throw them on the pile. If you're not sure, don't compost it.

Don't add thick layers whole autumn leaves. They can mat together, limit water penetration and aeration, and won't decompose.

Never add dairy products, meat, bones or animal waste.

Don't add insect-infested or diseased plants. This is especially important when composting vegetable plants. If Mexican Bean Beetles infested your beans, composting the plants could spread the insects to next year’s crops when you amend the soil. The same is true with Powdery Mildew on squash vines.

Don't add thick layers of grass clippings without mixing them with something brown (like shredded dry leaves or newspapers). They will rot instead of compost and eventually stink.

Don’t add grass clippings from lawns recently treated with pesticides or herbicides. They could contaminate your compost.

Start Composting Today

In reality, composting is one of gardening's simpler projects. It's way easier than starting a new planting bed or growing vegetables. Start a pile, and with a little practice, you’ll be composting in no time!

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