Composting improves garden soil, increases plant health, can help reduce disease and pest attack, and is good for the environment. Here’s how to do it.
Composting! The mystical art of turning kitchen scraps, leaves, grass cuttings and twigs into the elixir of life for plants. So many methods, so many options. In this article, I’m going to be giving you everything you need to start making organic compost at home.
We’re going to focus on how to compost at home for beginners with zero experience of compost, by the end of this article you will have the actionable steps you need to get started.
We’re going to discuss why creating compost from scratch at home is such an awesome idea, what compost actually is, the composting process. We’ll then look at a variety of methods for making compost, methods that you can choose to suit your available space and the amount of compostable material you produce. Including:
- How to start a compost pile from scratch
- Composting tips for beginners and experienced composters
- Composting with worms
- What to compost and what to avoid
- Composting basics, step by step
And a whole lot more.
We’ll finish with some incredible organic composting ideas from keen composters around the world, a sort of roundup of some of the most exciting organic compost methods that you might enjoy using, or at least, gain some confidence to start your own compost pile. Backyard composting bins and a cool DIY composting barrel setup, which I’m tempted to try myself. Ok, let’s dive in!!!
Table Of Contents
- Why Composting Is Good and How It Helps The Environment
- Benefits Of Composting At Home
- Composting 101: How To Make Compost
- How Composting Works And Why It Is Important
- What To Compost and What You Should Avoid
- How To Make Compost Step By Step
- Composting Steps
- How Long Does It Take To Make Compost?
- Composting Methods
- How To Make Compost Fast – Hot Composting Method
- Cold Composting Method
- Trench Composting Method
- The Bokashi Composting System
- Composting With Worms
- HugelKultur Garden Beds
- Inspirational Composting Systems
Why Composting Is Good and How It Helps The Environment
Waste is everywhere. Landfill is an ever-increasing problem for developed countries around the globe. We’re just throwing so much stuff away, and the planet is having to deal with the ramifications of our consumerist natures.
Huge amounts of food are thrown away every day, much of that not just excess from meals, the little bit on the side of the plate that was just too much to manage. It’s food that was fresh, delicious and ready to eat, but just got left in the vegetable rack of fruit bowl for just a little too long.
Or it’s the offcuts from the food preparation. Vegetable peelings, apple cores, banana skins. All items that really don’t need to go into the trash. They can be recycled into the ‘gardening gold’ we call compost.
If you take a moment to reflect on how much you throw away each week, and then imagine families all over the country doing the same, it soon becomes clear that if every home started a small composting practice, we’d change the world…perhaps.
As a small scale homesteader, food production is an essential skill for myself and millions like me. Vegetables and fruit need nutrition. What better than to combine your need for fresh fruit and vegetables with a compost bin or pile that will feed those vegetables and fruits while they grow.
Benefits Of Composting At Home
Compost is a truly excellent way to utilize your waste vegetable scraps, reduce landfill, and to increase the productivity of your vegetable garden. Even if you don’t grow food yet, you can use compost on flower and herb beds. What we’re really trying to achieve is create a system where less waste leaves our properties, and less comes in.
Composting and vegetable gardening are central to this process. What is so cool is that the actual composting process is carried out, free of charge by naturally occurring creatures, no need for any special human intervention.
Composting is beneficial in many ways, here’s a list of some of the main ones:
- Composting as a soil conditioner – Compost creates an extremely rich humus layer to feed your garden. It adds essential nutrients to the plants while helping to maintain moisture in the soil. As your soil becomes richer in organic matter, plants thrive and you need to water less often.
- Recycles kitchen and garden waste and scraps – As mentioned, households throw a huge amount of scraps away. Composting can help to recycle up to 30% of household waste, keeping it out of a landfill.
- Adds beneficial organisms to your soil – As well as many microscopic organisms that help break down the soil when compost is added, worms will flock to your garden, creating a network of tunnels that will help with drainage, and they also provide some great fertilizer themselves…from their poop 🙂
- Environmentally awesome – As well as an alternative to chemical fertilizer, composting also reduces waste that has to be dealt with in landfill or by other polluting means.
Creating a compost heap in your garden serves many purposes. As mentioned, it’s a recycling plant for kitchen and garden waste. The end result is a wonderful soil improver which is really first class, better than most of the off the shelf products you find at the local garden center.
As part of the better homesteading ethos, I am making organic composting a central part of my ethos, and want to spread the word that composting is exciting, important and very easy to do. Compost improves nutrients in the soil, it increases the number of worms in the soil, and it helps your soil to retain water…pretty cool huh?
Keeping your home vegetable and fruit garden as organic as possible is a great idea. Avoiding chemicals that harm the micro-fauna in the soil should be really high up on the agenda of any homesteader or gardener. But does it matter when it comes to compost?
Composting 101: How To Make Compost
How Composting Works And Why It Is Important
We throw our kitchen and garden scraps onto a compost pile, cover it to prevent it getting soaked with rain, maybe turn it once or twice, and as if by magic, after a few months, this wonderful, soft, rich soil
What happens inside a compost pile if a natural occurrence, one that has been breaking down organic
matter for millions of years. Many varieties of fungi, bacteria, small insects, microbes, worms, and snails are attracted to the pile and begin to break down the material. The composting process in a compost bin or pile as an ‘aerobic’ one, which means that the tiny critters doing the work use oxygen as they break down the pile.
In the compost heap, bacteria are the backbone of the breakdown process. As they break down the organic matter, they produce heat and carbon dioxide. This is why compost piles are usually quite hot inside, at least at the start.
After a while, the temperature attracts micro-organisms that love the heat. They take over the process and can raise temperatures in the center of the pile to 140 deg F (60 deg C) in some cases.
The worms, snails, and slugs come in and eat some of the composting mater. They then poop out the waste products. It is this poop that improves the texture of the compost and gives it that nice light, crumbly texture that we associate with good compost.
What To Compost and What You Should Avoid
What goes into your compost pile is going to play a major part in the quality of the composting process, and whether you end up with a rich high-quality humus or a bin full of slime and sludge.
Good composting requires a mix of carbon and nitrogen providing elements, in the appropriate ratios. This sounds technical but in reality, it’s simple. Ensuring you have a variety of green and brown materials in your composting pile, kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings, twigs, straw etc, then you are much more likely to attract the plethora of composting creepy crawlies and fungi that will get the job done effectively.
All these materials are relatively easy to find at home or in the surrounding neighborhood, but sometimes, picking up a bail of straw from the local store is a good plan. Yes, attempt to recycle everything you can from your home, but bringing a little material in for such a good purpose isn’t something you should scold yourself about.
How To Make Compost Step By Step
As we’ll cover in the next sections, there are many different systems that you can use to make compost. But at the most basic level, you are going to be adding brown and green materials (as shown in the infographic) to a compost pile or compost bin. So, to start with, choosing the type of compost storage system you are going to use is important.
An open compost pile is literally, a place where you pile your compostable materials up, either all at once, or over time as they become available. This is the most common way to compost for a family or homesteader who wants to reduce waste by recycling kitchen scraps.
A compost pile tends to expand its footprint over time, so I always prefer to contain it in some way. A cylinder of wire works well, or old pallets nailed together to make a 3 sided cube with an open front. (Scroll back up to see a couple of variations to the theme), there will be plenty more at the end of this article for inspiration.
This graphic gives you an in-depth view on how to make compost from scratch. But here is a quick summary.
Step #1 – Start with a layer of course materials, twigs or small branches are good. This allows airflow to circulate around the pile. It also helps with drainage.
Step #2 – Create alternating layers of green, nitrogen rich materials with brown, carbon rich materials.
Step #3 – Continue building, layer by layer until you have used all your initial materials.
Step #4 – Save your raw vegetable and fruit scraps in a container in the kitchen, and add them to the pile. Always top the new green layer with a brown layer. This could include shredded non-shiny newspaper or small pieces of cardboard.
Step #5 – Continue to add layers of green and brown materials until your bin is full.
Step #6 – Maintain your compost bin by ensuring that new materials are mixed in a little with the layer below. Turn the pile every week to help with the breakdown process. A two pile system can work really well, you just use a garden fork to turn the compost from one bin to another.
Step #7 – Harvest your compost when it is dark and crumbly and smells like soil. A normal compost pile should give you that black gold in 4-6 months, although there are faster systems, we’ll consider those in a moment.
How Long Does It Take To Make Compost?
As I just mentioned, there are a number of ways to speed up the composting process. By turning your compost pile weekly or every two weeks, the process is much faster. Keeping a good balance of brown to green materials is essential for a speedier composting process.
The size of the pile can also make a difference. Too small a pile and the process is slowed as there is not enough mass to allow for heat to build up and be maintained. A pile between 3-5 cubic feet is ideal. You can increase the length of the pile, but keeping the height the same will be beneficial.
Too much brown material can also slow the process. Add more green material and turn to get the composting process back on track.
Frequent turning can reduce the composting time to around 3 months. Let’s consider some of the main composting systems. You can choose which one best suits your needs, location and available space.
How To Make Compost Fast – Hot Composting Method
Hot composting is a faster method of creating finished compost when compared to the cold method, which we’ll discuss in a moment. As the name implies, hot composting results in a build-up of heat in the pile, which maintains for some time. This is in contrast to just throwing your scraps onto a pile and letting it happen. Both work great, but the hot method (we’ve already discussed it above) is preferred if you want a quick turnover of compost for the garden.
The hot method does require you to pay somewhat closer attention to the nitrogen/carbon balance. A ratio of 2:1 in favor of carbon seems to work best. Ideally, having all the materials gathered to create the entire pile in one go works best for hot composting.
Keeping the materials slightly damp, but not soaking wet will aid in the process.Use different sized brown materials, like twigs and dried leaves, this helps create air pockets so the pile can breathe.
If you’ve done it right, the pile will be really quite warm within 24-36 hours of building it. You can use a compost thermometer to check how things are going. The high temperatures kill off pathogens and weed seeds too.
Hot Composting Tips
Cold Composting Method
The cold composting method works well and takes less maintenance than the hot method. However, it can take upwards of a year for this method to produce the ready compost for your garden. This method is really focused on just adding materials as they become available to you.
The cold compost system as the name implies doesn’t get hot. There may be a rise in temperature when you first start building it if you have a decent amount of materials to compost. But it cools quickly, and the addition of material is never in large enough quantities to get the heat back into the pile.
Cold compost heaps also fail to get warm enough to kill weed seeds. The system is a two-step, simple process.
The Cold Composting Process
These steps will tell you exactly how to start a compost pile using the cold method. It’s ideal for DIY backyard composting if you don’t want to get tied up in the slightly more involved hot method. This works great, just takes longer.
Step #1 – Put your materials in a pile, adding green and grown materials as they become available. The smaller the particles, the quicker they will break down. Turning will help with the process but isn’t essential.
Step #2 – Wait for a year or more until the compost is light and crumbly. Use as required.
This is a good system for people with plenty of space, where they can almost compost and forget, or where you don’t need compost in a hurry. Here is a simple composting bin that I use for grass cuttings and food scraps, it’s a cold process.
If you don’t even want to bother with a compost pile, there is another way. It’s composting for the lazy, and it works a treat, with certain caveats. It’s called trench composting.
Trench Composting Method
Trench composting is easy, it’s a method I love to use. No need to turn anything, or focus on brown vs green ratios. Composting doesn’t get any simpler than this.
Creating a composting trench is a perfect way to get rid of kitchen scraps, and to add nutrients directly to the soil where they will be broken down quickly over winter, ready to feed your vegetable garden next season.
There is a little preparation needed, but it’s all about strategy. Ideally, adding scraps to the areas where your greedy and thirsty plants will be grown allows you to target them with a composting trench. Think runner beans, pumpkins, courgettes (zucchini) etc.
Here’s how to make a composting trench:
Step #1 – Dig a trench around 2 feet (60cm) deep in the late autumn, after you’ve harvested all your crops. Consider what you’ll be planting there next year. Fill the trench with any of the kitchen scraps you have, vegetable peelings, tea bag, fruit, onion skins etc. Add a layer of soil to cover.
Step #2 – Keep adding scraps as they become available, spreading them out evenly through the trench. Cover with a layer of soil.
Step #3 – When it comes time to plant your beans or seedlings out in May or June, plant directly into the top of the filled trench. The roots will grow down to access the rich nutrients and you’ll see healthy and rampant growth.
Trench Composting In Raised Beds
Trench composting works really well in raised beds too. The soil is generally less compacted, so digging a trench is easier. If your beds are wide enough, consider digging side by side trenches and filling them accordingly. Any plant will access the rich soil when it comes time for planting.
Trench Composting Disadvantages
Trench composting doesn’t have a lot of disadvantages, but a couple spring to mind.
- Depending on the size of your bed and trench, you may not produce enough scraps to fill it over the winter. Anything you can add will be valuable, if you can only sprinkle a thin layer of scraps into the trench, just add a little extra soil and be happy 🙂
- Trench composting requires you to dig, and to cover scraps with soil. It seems on the surface, more work than normal composting, but remember there is no turning, or moving compost to the beds, digging in etc. It’s all done in situ.
- Avoid cooked food, this can lead to rats digging around in your trench. Be sure to cover all green scraps with soil each time you add them. This will also keep flies away and prevent smells.
The Bokashi Composting System
Bokashi is a Japanese word that means fermented organic matter. In the Bokashi composting method, one is not limited to only vegetable and fruit scraps, you can ferment bread, meat, dairy products, materials that would not be able to be composted using the traditional aerobic composting methods.
Bokashi composting is anaerobic in nature, which means the process takes place WITHOUT oxygen. If you think about fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, that also is an anaerobic fermentation process.
Bokashi organic composting takes place in a sealed bucket, with the materials being mixed with a handful of Bokashi bran and placed into the bucket. It’s sealed and set aside out of sunlight. Once full, it’s left for 10 days or so and the composting process is complete
Trench composting is, in theory, a Bokashi method, Soil placed on the top of scraps, if thick enough, excludes oxygen, making it an anaerobic process.
This TEDx talk on the Bokashi composting system is super interesting.
The Bokashi Composting System Explained (video)
How To Do Bokashi Composting (video)
An in depth how to video explaining exactly how to do this form of composting. If you’re interested in trying it out, you can check out the bins on Amazon HERE.
Bokashi is a really low-cost composting system, and it’s ideal for the apartment or home where there is no suitable space for an outside compost bin. You can certainly make your own Bokashi Bucket but there are plenty available on Amazon, like this one pictured to the right.
Bokaski Composting Benefits
Here are a few benefits of the Bokashi composting system:
- Practical and simple, Bokashi bins are easy to use.
- Composts waste in a safe and hygienic way
- Extremely fast. Composting is complete in a couple of weeks.
- Produces a liquid fertilizer that can be drained off and used to water plants.
Bokashi Composting Problems
The Bokashi system shouldn’t be a smelly process. If you notice smells of rotting food, something has gone wrong.
A sweet smelling odor indicates that fermentation is taking place. If you smell a disgusting odor, that usually indicates decay, and you should remove the affected materials and start over.
On occasions, adding more bran can reverse the decaying process, but if that fails, dump the whole container full and start over.
Bokashi – An Easy Apartment Composting System
The Bokashi One system or even a homemade setup is perfect for composting in an apartment or small space. Everything can be done inside, you are able to process more foodstuffs than a normal compost method would allow, this reduces waste leaving your property, which is awesome for landfill and the environment.
Preventing Apartment Composting Smells
When composting indoors, in a relatively small space, one is always worried about odors. Even with Bokashi, there can be some odors, although not always ones that indicate an issue. I advocate placing your composting bin near a window that is slightly open and will allow airflow in the room.
If you have a laundry room or a closet that stays cool, that is a great place for an apartment compost bin.
With Bokashi, make sure you use the right quantity of bran, this will speed the process and prevent food rotting.
Another great composting method that lends itself to organic composting indoors is creating a worm farm.
Composting With Worms
Worm composting is a composting method that uses worms to eat the food scraps you would usually throw in the bin, and turn them into a great soil improver called vermicompost. The worms eat your food waste, process it, and their poop becomes the compost you can use in your garden.
The worms devour your nutrient-rich food waste which goes in one end and comes out the other as nutrient-rich compost.
Composting With Worms (Video)
This video from the University Of Maine is a great introduction to composting with worms. Read this article on how to use vermicompost when your worms have created it for you.
Setting Up A Worm Farm
Setting up a simple worm farming system is easy. A box (I like to use the polystyrene boxes that vegetables are shipped in), some damp newspaper strips and a starter kit of worms. There are premium worms farms that are multi-layered, allowing the worms to migrate up and down between sections, and also come with a tap that allows you to drain the ‘worm juice’ off to use as fertilizer for your plants.
Buying Compost Worms
Worms can be purchased online and shipped in the post. Buy red worms or red wrigglers. The Latin name for the two most common red composting worms is Eisenia foetida and Lumbricus rubellus.
Worm farming a great way to compost food scraps, you need to feed them just green scraps and not meat, dairy or cooked food waste.
The kids love having a worm farm. It’s a clean, odorless setup that is ideal for a small space.
Remember that composting worms are susceptible to the cold, so keep them indoors or in an outbuilding where they won’t be exposed to freezing temperatures.
This explains everything about worm farming
HugelKultur Garden Beds
Hugelkultur is an odd sounding word. It’s German and can be translated as ‘mound culture’. At it’s most basic level, it involves building raised garden beds that are built on mounds of organic material like logs and branches. The focus should be only on using materials that are not suitable for heating or building, making it a very sustainable and ethical way to improve the soil.
Once the logs and branches are laid, leaves, grass clippings, manure, and compost can be layered on top. This system of composting has been used in Germany and Eastern Europe for centuries and is making a big resurgence around the world.
The concept behind Hugelkultur is that it mimics the nutrient cycling found in nature. Soil fertility is improved, water retention is better too. The smaller materials break down more quickly, with the larger logs taking a long time and providing a long-term source of nutrients to the plants.
The decaying process generates heat which improves soil temperature. Growing plants close to these mounds will help extend the growing season as well as creating sheltered micro-climates that will protect the plants from wind and cold.
Hugelkultur works really well for areas where the soil quality is poor, and a well-constructed bed requires little to no irrigation, with moisture being held within the organic matter and humus that is created.
Hugelkultur Raised Beds (video)
Inspirational Composting Systems
I always think that seeing what creative ideas other people are using to create their compost or to enhance their homesteading lifestyle is really exciting. Here are a few creative compost ideas to inspire you to get started.
3 Bin Compost System using Pallets And Wire
This is an awesome use of pallets, I love the roofing sheets to keep the water out. Must have taken a while to build. There are wooden compost bin plans all over the internet, but I love the recycling ethos in this one.
Cinder Block Compost Bin
Angled Compost Bin
Compost Bin Tumbler
This set of 4 DIY composting barrels are awesome! Compost tumblers are a great way to keep your compost aerated and mixed without having to use a fork and turn it from one pile to another. You can buy tumblers online, but this is a nice example of a do it yourself project.
Willow Basket Compost Bin
Composting is a wonderful way to help the environment, prevent waste, and to enhance your own garden. For a very small amount of effort, it’s a really useful process that once embraced, is really rewarding. Learning how to close the system of waste leaving your property is becoming more and more important as the landfill is becoming overloaded, and new sites are starting to impinge on natural environments.
Start composting today and begin creating a self-sustaining garden system, and take pride in the fact that you are improving the future for your children and grandchildren, even in just a small way.
University Of Illinois: Composting Methods
University Of Florida: How Does Composting Work
Oregon State Extension: Bokashi – Pickle Your Kitchen Waste
Gardening Australia: Trench Composting