Composting doesn’t have to be complicated. See how to turn garden waste and kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich goodness—whether it’s “hot” composting or “cold” composting. Our guide will show you how to make beautiful, earthy compost for free – quickly and efficiently.
What is Composting?
Composting is simply decomposing organic matter—mainly from fallen leaves, grass clipping, plant debris, and yard waste. What would you might normally throw away decomposes into a soil amendment rich in nutrients that helps plants grow!
Hot, or Active Composting
The best way to produce rich garden humus is to create a hot, or active, compost pile. It is called “hot” because it can reach an internal temperature of 160°F (140°F is best) and “active” because it destroys, essentially by cooking, weed seeds and disease-causing organisms. The size of the pile, the ingredients, and their arrangements in layers are key to reaching that desired outcome.
Size: A hot compost pile should be a 3-foot cube, at minimum; a 4-foot cube is preferred. The pile will shrink as the ingredients decompose. Consider keeping the contents in place with chicken netting; wooden sides would be even better to keep the pile contained.
- Browns: High-carbon materials (shredded, dry plant matter such as leaves, twigs, woody stems, corn cobs, cardboard that is plain type and not glossy). If your ingredients are dry, moist before adding to the pile.
- Fresh Greens: High-nitrogen green plant matter (green plant and vegetable refuse, grass clippings, weeds, trimmings, kitchen scraps—but avoid meat, dairy, and fat)
- good-quality soil
Ideally, you want approximately two parts “browns” to one parts “greens.” In reality, achieving the precise mix is hard but keep that “ideal” mix in the back of your mind.
Note that shredded leaves, chipped wood, and chopped food scraps generally decompose more quickly than whole or large pieces.
Cutting up or shredding materials helps speed up the process.
- Pile the ingredients like a layer cake, with carbon materials on the bottom (twigs and woody stems here will help air to circulate into the pile).
- Next, cover the layer with soil.
- Add nitrogen-based materials, followed by soil. Repeat until the pile reaches 2 to 3 feet high.
- Soak the pile at its start and water periodically; its consistency should be that of a damp (not wet) sponge.
Add air to the interior of the pile by punching holes in its sides or by pushing 1- to 2-foot lengths of hollow pipe into it.
Check the temperature of the pile with a compost thermometer or an old kitchen thermometer. A temperature of 110°F to 140°F is desirable. If you have no heat or insufficient heat, add nitrogen in the form of soft green ingredients or organic fertilizer.
Once a week, or as soon as the center starts to cool down, turn the pile. Move materials from the center of the pile to the outside. (For usable compost in 1 to 3 months, turn it every other week; for finished compost within a month, turn it every couple of days.)
Video: See exactly how to make beautiful, earthy compost for free – from start to finish!
Cold, or Passive Composting
Cold, or passive, composting requires less effort. You essentially let a pile build and decompose, using the same type of ingredients.
It requires less effort from the gardener, yet the decomposition takes substantially longer—a year or more.
To cold compost, pile organic materials (leaves, grass clippings, soil, manures—but avoid dog, cat, and human waste) as you find or accumulate them. Bury kitchen scraps in the center of the pile to deter insects and animals. Avoid adding meat, dairy, and fat. Also avoid weeds; cold compost piles do not reach high temperatures and do not kill weed seeds. (In fact, weeds may germinate in a cold pile.)
In addition to the ingredients mentioned above, any of these items may be added to a compost pile:
- Coffee grounds and loose tea or compostable tea bags (note that most tea bags are not fully compostable so tear them before adding to compost)
- Dry goods (crackers, flour, spices)
- Pasta (cooked or uncooked)
- Shredded paper/newspaper
Composting Problems and Solutions
- Avoid soggy piles by alternating wetter ingredients (such as fresh grass clippings) with drier and more fiberous ingredients (such as dry leaves, cardboard, woodier crop residue). The resulting mix should be damp but not sodden. You can also sprinkle wood ash onto your heap but, importantly, it must be wood ash and not coal ash.
- Avoid cooked food waste and animal products like meat and dairy which attract rats. If rodents are a problem, ease off adding potato peelings which are a favorite snack.
- Avoiding dumping your fall leaves into the heap all at once, which slows things down. Add them in modest qualities along with fresh green ingredients. Or, compost them separately over one or two years as leaf mold. See how to make leaf mold.
- Weeds are fine but make sure they haven’t set seeds. Avoid invasive perennial weeds such as bindweed.
- If a foul odor emanates from the pile, flip the compost to introduce more air. Mixing the compost heap not only gives it plenty of air, but give it a finer end product that is easier to spread.
Tips to Supercharge Your Compost!
One way to supercharge your compost is to include ingredients with a very high nitrogen content. Animal manure or bedding from chickens or pets like rabbits is powerful at firing up decompoistion. Nettles are another great booster while urine is also a famous compost activator. Add it directly.
Take the plunge and get composting! You’ll feel great doing it. Or, if you’re already composting, share your tips for supercharging your compost!
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