How To Get Started Composting!

There are lots of great reasons to start a compost pile right in your own back yard. Using compost will save you time and money. Since it helps the land hold moisture, you water less. Compost helps hold back weeds, so you are on your hands and knees pulling weeds less, too! And you aren’t purchasing compost or mulch from the garden center, but using from your own backyard stash. Convenient, huh? Oh, and it lessens the burden on our county waste facilities as well, so you can save yourself and your neighbors some money in the long run.

How It Works

Ever noticed how the floor of a wooded area isn’t waist high with waste? Leaves, twigs, fruits all fall to the ground and are slowly broken down into delicious nutrients for plants to thrive on. Plant debris composts naturally, so it isn’t much of a stretch to get the same effect in your own backyard. Then the nutrient-rich compost can be sprinkled on flower beds as fertilizer, used as mulch in your vegetable garden, or dropped in the hole before you plant a new rose bush.

There are two ways to compost, depending on the materials you want to use. You can just use your yard waste, or add in kitchen waste as well.

Yard Waste Only

For composting yard waste only, you would be fine to just use an open pile. For the richest compost in the shortest time, alternate layers of green (nitrogen-rich) plant material, such as lawn clippings, plant cuttings or coffee grounds, with brown (carbon-rich) material such as dry leaves. Keep the layers about equal, or maybe a little more browns.

For woody waste, cut branches and stems into three to six inch pieces, no more than about 1/2 inch thick or you will be picking out large chunks later. Keep the pile slightly moist, like a wrung out sponge.

If your compost pile will be too much of an eyesore for yourself or your neighbors, you can corral the trimmings in a bin. Contact your local solid-waste agency to see if they offer any subsidies or maybe even provide the bins. Otherwise, you can buy one or build one yourself.

The “Concord Compost Bin” is made of flexible plastic with holes and will run from $100 to $175 at composters.com. You could also build one from wood and “chicken wire” from the hardware store for a smaller price tag.

Hot or Cold?

Hot composting is faster (3-6 months), but you need to have all of the materials for your pile in the beginning. This method will kill most of the weed seeds that made their way into your materials. Every month or so turn the pile with a pitch fork to give all of the materials a chance in the warm center.

Cold composting is when materials are layered as they’re collected and kept damp as needed with the garden hose. It takes longer, and may look like nothing is going on. But 6-12 months later if you expose the under layers you will notice the beautifully rich black soil underneath. When it loses the form of the original materials, it is done and ready to use.

Whichever method you choose, having multiple bins will allow you to sort out the “done” compost from the rest as you’re turning your hot pile or exposing the underside of your cold pile.

Food Waste Composting

Kitchen waste is high in nitrogen, so it will speed up your composting process and give you a richer product. It can also even out your ratio of green to brown, since brown materials are generally easier to come by in large quantities.

One thing to remember is not to put food waste in an open compost pile, or you will have unwanted visitors dining in your back yard. To make your compost pile rodent-proof (and raccoon proof and opossum proof…) build a metal mesh enclosure (called “hardware cloth”) with openings no larger than 1/4 inch. Don’t forget the top and bottom, rodents and varmints are smart critters!

Another option would be a tumbler-style composter. It looks like a cement mixer with a drum on an axis that can be tumbled to turn the pile instead of using a pitchfork. The tumbler is much quicker, if you shred everything first and tumble every day or two, you could have compost as early as two to four weeks. But they aren’t cheap, at about $300 to $400 from compostbins.com and other online outlets.

While many things can be composted, here are a few to leave out of your pile:

  • Weeds—some may survive the composting and resprout
  • Plants or clippings with disease or insects—they may reinfect your new plants
  • Anything that was sprayed with a pesticide, including grass clippings
  • Dog or cat waste—some may contain parasites or diseases.
  • Meat—it stinks as it decomposes, may contain harmful bacteria, and attract unwanted diners
  • Wood ashes—some plants can’t handle the alkaline material

It’s always greener on the other side and if you’re thinking about moving up, down or out to greener pastures, I can help. Don’t waste any more time, contact me today!