Compost 101: Don't Start a Garden Without It! - Eat Drink Better

Compost 101: Don’t Start a Garden Without It!

a garden compost pileNo garden would be complete without its own natural recycling system, a compost pile. Without a way of dealing with compost, weeds and scraps are waste. But why create more trash when you can turn your garden and kitchen waste into valuable soil-building fertilizer?

One of the first steps to starting an organic garden should be to begin a compost pile. Composting will break down organic matter into nutrient-rich material that builds soil and nourishes plants. And just like anyone can garden, no matter their situation, there are composting possibilities for everyone! Read on to learn how to close the loop and start composting…

Possible Composting Methods

  • A big outdoor compost heap or bin. If you have the space in your garden or yard, a large compost heap is the best way to make the most of all your organic matter waste and fertilize a large garden. Your compost pile can be as simple as a loose heap in a sheltered area of the yard, or as fancy as a pre-made tumbling bin. For my garden, I created a simple 3-sided structure (pictured above) along the fence using free shipping pallets held up by rebar posts that were pounded into the ground. A compost pile should be at least 3′ x 3′ x 3′ to break down the organic matter well. It’s best to allow it to breathe, and you’ll need to be able to easily access it to stir your compost every so often to keep it going. You can find bin construction instructions and ideas here.
  • A worm bin for vermicomposting. The idea of keeping a bin of worms to eat garbage freaked me out at first, but now that I’ve harvested a few rounds of rich worm castings and seen the results, I’m a big believer in worm power. You can build your own worm bin or buy a ready-made stacking bin (I’ve had great results with the Can o’ Worms). Worm composting can be scaled to your available space, so it’s great for keeping in a garage, deck, or even in the kitchen. I use both a worm bin and a garden compost pile because my worm bin can only digest so much, so I only give the worms kitchen scraps. Some worms often don’t like things like onions, citrus, and hot peppers, so those can go in the compost pile.
  • Small-scale container composting. Bokashi, or bucket composting, is a high-speed and scalable composting method developed in Japan. This is ideal for apartment-dwellers or for generating compost quickly. It uses special microbes to speed up the composting process.
  • Collective composting. Some municipalities will collect yard waste for composting much like they collect recycling and trash. This is an option if you have no room to compost or no use for compost. Alternatively, you could organize a collective compost pile for your apartment complex, neighborhood, or community garden.

Once you have chosen the best composting method for your needs and lifestyle, you can learn how to build a composting set-up and start turning your veggie scraps and weeds into valuable garden fertilizer. But before you start, here are a few tips and reminders…

Composting Guidelines

  • Layer your pile. If you’re building a large compost pile, you’ll want to layer it with alternating layers of “green” and “brown” organic matter. It helps to throw some soil, manure, or completed compost on top to get the microbes working. I like to put woodier things like dead plant stalks on the bottom and layer veggie scraps, weeds, and dead leaves on top. The amounts of the various types of organic matter will determine how long your compost takes to decompose.
  • Know what to compost and what not to. Before you throw just any organic matter into your bin, make sure you research what your bin can handle. For instance, worms don’t seem to like citrus (too acidic) or anything too spicy, but they love coffee grounds. Keep meat and dairy products out of compost piles, as they can go rancid and also attract critters, though eggshells are ok. And large pieces of wood or sticks may take a long time to break down, so they’re best left out of the compost bin.
  • Let it breathe. For most compost bins, the organic matter needs a way to get oxygen so that it can break down (the exception to this is a Bokashi system, since it uses unique microbes that don’t need oxygen). Worm bins usually have ventilation holes, and allowing some air to get into your compost bin or container helps for this. My compost container is only 3-sided and air can get in through the slats in the pallets that are used for walls.
  • Keep it moist. Compost needs moisture to aid in decomposition. I water my compost pile a little bit every time I water the garden. It doesn’t like to be soaked though, so in the rainy season you may want to put a tarp over the pile or bin.
  • Turn it occasionally. How often you turn your compost pile depends on how fast everything is breaking down. Normally the center of a compost pile will be warm. Once the heat starts dying down, you can stir or turn it with a garden fork to get the decomposition going again. Stirring your pile every few weeks can help it decompose faster.
  • Multiple piles for a constant supply. If you keep adding kitchen scraps to a compost pile, each addition will be at varying stages of decay. This can make it difficult to know when to harvest finished compost. It may help to start a big pile in the spring, then let it sit (stirring occasionally) and start a new one to add new waste to. This way you always have compost in the works. With vermicomposting, you can keep adding and harvest a layer of the bin, moving the worms to a new layer. With container composting, usually the turn-around time for compost is pretty quick, but multiple containers can’t hurt.

Compost is an artform that’s best learned through practice. Everyone has different methods, which you’ll learn as you experiment. Composting is simple, inexpensive, and very eco-friendly. It’s recycling you can do right at home! You may be amazed at how little ends up in the trash can once you start composting, and instead of filling the landfill, you can turn waste into delicious home-grown produce!

I’ll share more on how to start a garden in upcoming articles, so stay tuned and find out how my garden grows.

Photo: creating my haphazard, inexpensive compost bin. It is kept inside the garden for easy access and to keep critters out of it.

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About the Author

I grew up camping and hiking in the woods of Idaho, leading to a connection with and deep respect for nature. I recently moved to the Mendocino coast in Northern California, where I was happy to find not only beautiful redwoods and beaches, but a high level of green consciousness. I am a graphic and web designer who focuses on making the world a better place through sustainable design and communication. I specialize in green design solutions for small businesses, non-profits, and activist organizations. When I'm not designing, I'm hiking, camping, traveling, taking pictures, blogging, and spending time with my boyfriend and our "fur-kids." You can find out more about me on my sites and blogs: my personal site, volksvegan.org, or unplug magazine.
  • Great tips, thanks. We had a compost bin up until a couple of years ago and we had to give the bin away due to space restrictions when we re-landscaped our garden (it was a big plastic thing that couldn’t fit beside the greenhouse and wall). Currently all our waste goes in the council green recycle bin. Later this year I am going to contruct a new one, to my own design out of wood that will fit neatly beside the greenhouse and not get in the way.

  • That’s one of the ugliest compost bins I’ve seen and it’s still beautiful.

    Great guide. In my bins, I usually skip the layers because I’m going to turn the contents anyway but it’s still a good way to start out.

    Looking forward to more compost updates.

  • amazing tips, and a great article,m thanks for sharing it with us.

  • Garry, thanks for the comment, and happy composting!

    I just wanted to add another tip. In addition to keeping meat & dairy out of the compost bin, don’t put anything too oily or greasy in your compost. Recycled veggie oil is meant for biodiesel, not compost! :)

  • Lili

    I have a large compost bin that does not get air, it has a tight lid and a tap at the bottom.
    It has all turned to sluge.
    How do I use it, it does not look like compost.
    Can I put this into the garden??
    How long do I wait til I can plant things in my veggie patch?

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  • Lili, compost needs air in order to properly break down. I would start a pile outside using the tips in the article and try dumping your sludge into the pile along with grass clippings, leaves, and any new kitchen waste.

    As for how long you can wait to plant, check out the hardiness zone map and frost dates for your area to use as guidelines. You’ll want to wait until there’s no chance of frost to plant veggies that are delicate, like tomatoes. A general rule of thumb that I’ve heard is wait until Mother’s Day to plant outside, but you’ll want to harden off plants by taking them outside for a bit at a time first.

  • Very informative article with lots of helpful tips. Thank you!

    A tip for those who think they don’t have time to compost: if you put some effort into your compost pile, you’ll get rewarded sooner, but you’ll still get compost if all you do is let it sit for a year or so. As the saying goes, compost happens. Once you get into the habit of putting kitchen and yard scraps into the pile, you’ll be so pleased with the eventual results. Another tip, if you’re plagued with a weed that you’re trying to eliminate from your yard, it’s best not to put it into your compost unless you are able to keep your compost pile hot enough to kill weed seeds (and good luck with that!).

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  • Lili, one of the main benefits of composting is that you’re using aerobic microbes to break everything down, and then they keep doing that work in your garden. Your problem is that you’ve created a perfect environment to grow anaerobic bacteria and they are not at all friendly to the garden. If you can open it up and add new materials, keeping it properly aerated, you might be able to grow a new army of aerobic bacteria to fend off the anaerobic ones. Basically, if it smells good, it is good. If it smells bad, it is bad.

    Also, wanted to mention that I’ve got a ton of info on my site about worm composting. Our family has done it for many years and it is so worth it. No turning, no drying out. Just fresh worm castings every few months. And that stuff is expensive at the garden centers. I’m sure we’ve made thousands of dollars worth of it.

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  • Of course, you can always add red worms to your compost and have the added benefit of the castings. Adding red worms to unfinished compost will speed things up. We’ve grown our vegetables using only <a href=”http://www.organicgardenworks.com/”worm castings and a liquid made from the castings as fertilizer and have gotten fantastic results.