How to Make Compost
This page is about how to make compost, including information about the composting process, materials to compost, composting with leaves, and types of compost tumblers and bins.
It also includes information about how to build your own compost tumblers and bins.
Making your own compost has many benefits. First, you'll save the cost of buying compost for your garden.
Also, it's a great way to recycle leaves, kitchen scraps, and yard waste. You'll help the environment by making good use of these materials, instead of having them hauled away.
And, finally, there's something indefinable about participating in the process of making compost and then using it in your garden to grow vegetables that you eat - or flowers that you enjoy. That "something" has to do with being a part of a natural cycle.
Photo Â© Jack Schiffer | Dreamstime.com
The Composting Process
To make compost, you need organic material plus microbes (bacteria, fungi, etc.) and other small creatures that will break down that material.
The type of organic material needed will be detailed below. We'll focus now on those little microbes that work so hard to make the compost for us.
If you want to get the best compost the most quickly, you'll need to keep the microbes happy. The three elements that make them happy are: the right amount of moisture, enough oxygen, and the right types of food.
Composting and Moisture
Your compost pile should be damp, but not too wet. It should be about as wet as a moist sponge.
If the rain doesn't provide enough moisture, you'll need to add some water to your compost pile - using a watering can or hose.
If there's too much rain, you'll want to add some organic material to reduce the wetness.
During dry spells, you'll probably want to sprinkle some water on each layer of material you add to the compost pile.
Composting and Oxygen
The organisms that make compost need oxygen in order to survive.
In order to provide this oxygen, you should turn your compost pile or use a compost aerator, which is basically a stick that you push into the pile to open passages for the air to enter.
If you're using a compost tumbler, then you'll just need to turn the tumbler itself.
Turning or aerating should be done at least every 3 to 5 days. Turning the compost pile more often will hasten the decomposing process.
Also, adding some coarser materials - such as wood chips or coarse straw - will allow more air to enter the pile.
Materials to Compost
To survive, the microorganisms in your compost bin need both carbon and nitrogen.
Carbon is supplied by "brown" ingredients such as leaves and straw. Nitrogen comes from "green" ingredients such as grass clippings and kitchen waste.
Green ingredients are usually moist and fresh materials. Brown ingredients are apt to be older, dryer materials.
The suggested ratio of browns to greens in your compost bin is 25 to 1 - that is, you want 25 times more browns than greens.
What Not to Compost
Do not compost:
- any type of meat or bones
- diseased plants
- weeds that have gone to seed
- cooking oil or fatty foods
- dairy products
- pet waste
Examples of Carbon-rich Materials (Browns)
Oat or wheat straw
Dry tomato stalks (assuming your tomato plants were disease-free)
Dried potato vines (assuming your tomato plants were disease-free)
Dried pea and bean vines
Examples of Nitrogen-rich Materials (Greens)
Kitchen scraps, such as parings or leftover greens
Tea bags and tea leaves
TIP: If you live in an area where bears are present, avoid adding apple peels or other fruit to your compost bin or pile. The fruit attracts bears and, while I very much like bears, I don't want them tearing up my compost bin.
Leaves are an easily-obtained source of carbon-rich material for your compost pile or bin.
For composting, it's better to use leaves gathered freshly in the fall than to use leaves that have been on the ground over the winter.
As the leaves get older, they lose their nitrogen content. Also, when leaves are drier, they don't decompose as easily.
If you add leaves to your compost pile as is, they tend to pack down and resist decay. A better solution is to shred your leaves.
This shredding can be done by running your lawn mower over the leaves or by using a leaf shredder.
I use a leaf shredder and it works really well. You end up with finely shredded leaves that decompose much more quickly than whole leaves. And the shredded leaves can also be used as mulch in the garden.
Composting and Heat
If you've got the right ingredients and the right amount of moisture and oxygen in your compost pile or bin, it will begin to heat up.
As it heats up, the decomposition process will speed up. The heat will also kill any harmful pathogens and weed seeds.
It's useful to monitor the temperature in your compost bin with a compost thermometer. When the temperature begins to cool, you'll know it's time to turn or aerate the pile.
Additional Resources on Making Compost
- Making Compost
Includes information about how to compost, what materials to add to compost pile, what not to add, carbon to nitrogen ratio, plus many more tips on making compost.
- Compost Guide
Provides tips about passive composting and managed composting, including facts about carbon/nitrogen balance, temperature, moisture, and air circulation.
- How to Make Compost
Learn basic information about composting as well as a fast composting technique and alternative methods.
Compost Tumblers and Bins
You can make compost in a pile, with no structure around it. But many people like to use some sort of container - for example a compost tumbler or bin.
Compost tumblers are round drum-shaped containers that are designed to be turned on a periodic basis in order to speed up the process of making compost.
Composting bins come in various shapes and sizes, from a simple wire structure to more elaborate wooden enclosures.
Types of Compost Tumblers & Bins
- Homemade Compost Bins
Describes how to make your own compost bins. Includes info on wood pallet compost bins, concrete block compost bins, wood and wire compost bins, and homemade compost tumblers.
- Types of Compost Bins
Describes holding units, portable bins, turning units (tumblers), heaps, sheet composting, and trench composting.
Building a Compost Bin
If you choose not to purchase a compost tumbler or bin, you can build your own compost bin.
The resources below include directions for building many types of bins - from wire mesh bins to New Zealand boxes to garbage can bins.
Resources: Building a Compost Bin
- Build Your Own Bin
Describes how to build an E-Z wire bin, plastic worm bin, closed air composter, 3-gin system, urban all wood bin, and 2-person wooden worm bin. Includes illustrations, materials lists and detailed instructions.
- Building a Compost Bin
Step-by-step instructions for building cement block bins, cylindrical wire bins, portable ratwire bins, Seattle bins, New Zealand bins, Lehigh bins, pallet bins, and snow fence bins. (See links in left columns for page on each topic.)
- How to Make a Garbage Can Bin
Simple instructions for building a compost bin from a plastic or galvanized garbage can.
Making a Compost Bin
This video describes how to make a simple compost bin from chicken wire.
Making a Compost Tumbler
Describes how to build a compost tumbler from a used pickle barrel (or other food-grade barrel).
Intro: Â© Jack Schiffer | Dreamstime.com
Composting and Moisture: Â© Jackie Egginton | Dreamstime.com
Materials to Compost: Â© Piotr Kozikowski | Dreamstime.com
Composting Leaves: Â© Vitaly Titov | Dreamstime.com
Building a Compost Bin: Â© Franz Pfluegl | Big Stock Photo
These photos are being used under a royalty free license. The original copyright belongs to the photographers and/or agencies listed above.
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