simple guide to compost

A Beginners Guide to Compost

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Looking to start composting, but don’t even know where to begin? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. This beginners guide to compost gives you a solid foundation on the basics on composting so you can figure out the best method of composting for you, and what steps to take next in order to enrich your soil and keep food out of the landfill. We have the scoop on all the different composting methods to give you the best black gold, from a traditional compost heap to diverting kitchen waste through a pick-up service, we have details!

Compost is a natural process, don’t overthink it

To a novice, composting can feel overwhelming. It is true that there is a science to proper composting, but that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. Organic materials naturally decay and become compost. 

Think of it this way, if an apple falls from a tree in the wild, it will eventually decompose. The same goes for animals that die in the wild- living things naturally go back to the earth without the help of people or proper composting methods.

So rest assured that no matter what you do to keep food out of the landfill, you can’t mess it up too much. Kitchen scraps, and all organic matter, have a way of naturally breaking down on their own. You truly can’t mess up the process because decomposition will happen with or without you. 

Composting is simple because nature does the hard work. The composting process is nature’s way of returning nutrients to the soil.

That being said, there are still some hiccups with composting that most people want to avoid. This includes: keeping bugs out of the compost, not attracting rodents or bears, and keeping your compost from smelling like sewage. There are a bunch of really informative books about composting, but if you are just starting out and want to learn a little more about composting, this article is for you

What is compost?

Compost is one of those fun words that can be a noun or a verb. You can compost your household waste. You can also use compost on your plants. Such a fun word, right?

But, what exactly is compost?

Used as a verb, compost is the the action of making food and yard waste into compost.

Used as a noun, compost is decayed organic material that is used as plant fertilizer.

When we say organic, we don’t mean “organic, free range, pesticide free”, although that is definitely a plus for your nutrient rich compost. Organic in this sense means carbon based living matter. Basically, all living things can be composted, or at least returned back to the Earth. 

In simpler terms, compost is typically food waste that has decomposed enough to make nutrient rich soil that doesn’t need as much water, fertilizer, or pesticides.

How do you make compost? What are the different types of composting methods?

There are dozens of right ways to make compost and a bunch of different types of composting methods. The one you choose should be the one that fits your lifestyle.

These are the most common composting methods to make compost:

Or you can just toss your food scraps outside and see what happens. That is how I grew up. We had 12 acres of land and literally just threw our food scraps outside. We had a pig and a dog who ate most of the food scraps, but the rest went directly on the land to decompose naturally. And don’t tell the HOA, but I still do this with some food that I know the birds will eat.

What are the steps of composting?

The first thing you need to decide is your method of composting. Once you pick a preferred method of composting from the list above, you can figure out the next steps.

The first step in basic outdoor composting is to collect your food scraps (called your green matter a.k.a. nitrogen). Next you layer it with brown matter a.k.a. carbon. Finally, you let it sit for a long time until it decomposes. You keep adding green matter and brown matter in a sort of lasagna type layer pattern.

What do I need to know about the carbon and nitrogen ratio in compost / brown materials to green materials ratio?

What do you put in your compost bin?

Well, that depends on a lot of factors, including the method of composting that you decide to use.

Now, this is where things get confusing and where most people get overwhelmed with composting. There is a specific carbon to nitrogen ratio. You might have heard about balancing out green materials with brown materials. The most commonly cited ratio is 30:1 brown material /carbon to green materials /nitrogen rich materials. 

If you are a hard core gardener or a farmer who needs a specific type of soil to grow different types of plants, then you should learn more about the carbon to nitrogen ratio. If you want to learn more, I suggest buying the book Let it Rot. It is a simple guide to composting.

Since this is a beginners guide to compost, you are probably someone who is simply trying divert food from the landfill, enrich your soil, and try your hand at composting without the hassle of learning chemistry. Don’t fret about these ratios. Do your best with what you have and file it away as something to learn more about later.

The simplest way to mix your carbon and nitrogen is to cover your food waste (typically green materials / nitrogen rich) with a layer of nitrogen rich material, also knowns as brown materials. If you are doing a tumbler or pile, you can toss dead leaves, small pieces of paper towel rolls, cardboard, or paper bags on top. As long as you are covering up the green material, the nitrogen will keep bugs and animals away.

Grass clippings would be considered green materials, while fall leaves would be brown materials. 

What do you put in your compost bin?

What you can compost depends on a lot of factors, including the method of composting that you decide to use. 

Traditional backyard composting methods are limited and don’t let you compost oils, meat, dairy, or bones. But remember, all living things eventually decompose so it is possible to compost these items. The reason people who use traditional composting methods avoid oils, meat, dairy, and bones is because they want to avoid flies, rodents, and disgusting smells.

Here’s a breakdown of what you can compost with each different type of composting method:

Backyard composting piles and tumblers– non-diseased plants, dry leaves, garden waste, fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, hair, dryer lint, cardboard pieces, paper towel rolls, toilet paper rolls, cardboard egg cartons, egg shells, breads and pasta and leftovers without added oils and meat.

Worm composting/ vermiculture- Everything above, but go light on coffee, oranges and other acidic foods. Worms don’t need as much cardboard and non food items. They do really well with small bits of food.

Soldier fly composting/ bokashi composting/ electric composters– Everything above, but with the added benefit of meat, dairy, oils, bones and in some cases bio plastics.

What should you not put in compost?

Definitely refer to the section above because it depends on the method of composting that you are using.

Traditional methods have you avoid meat, dairy, oils and bones, but newer methods of compost allow you to compost anything that grows. One of my favorite sayings for compost is “If it grows, it goes”.

The best thing is that no matter what composting method you choose you always know you can compost your vegetable scraps and get finished compost in return. 

What is the finished product of composting?

The end product of composting is known as compost or humus. Compost is a dark, crumbly, nutrient-rich organic matter that results from the decomposition of various organic materials through the composting process. This process involves the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and other decomposers in a controlled environment.

Compost is highly beneficial for improving soil structure, enhancing its fertility, and promoting healthy plant growth. It enriches the soil by adding essential nutrients, improving moisture retention, and encouraging beneficial soil organisms. Here are some key characteristics of compost:

  1. Nutrient-Rich: Compost is rich in essential nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and trace elements. These nutrients are vital for plant growth and development.
  2. Organic Matter: Compost adds organic matter to the soil, which enhances its structure, aeration, and water-holding capacity. This is particularly beneficial for improving compacted or sandy soils.
  3. Microbial Activity: Compost is teeming with beneficial microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. These microbes contribute to the biological health of the soil, aiding in nutrient cycling and disease suppression.
  4. pH Neutral: Compost tends to have a near-neutral pH, which is favorable for most plants. It can help balance soil pH and reduce acidity or alkalinity.
  5. Reduction of Waste: Composting effectively reduces the volume of organic waste that would otherwise end up in landfills, contributing to waste reduction and more sustainable waste management.
  6. Environmental Benefits: Utilizing compost in gardening, agriculture, and landscaping reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, thus minimizing pollution of groundwater and water bodies.

How to use finished compost

Gardeners and farmers often use compost as a soil amendment to enhance the health and productivity of their gardens, lawns, and crops. It can be mixed into the soil or used as a top dressing to enrich the existing soil with nutrients and organic matter. Compost can be a valuable and sustainable alternative to synthetic fertilizers, promoting eco-friendly and sustainable gardening and farming practices.

Ready to start your own compost pile?

I hope that after reading this post, you know that a good compost pile doesn’t have to be difficult. You don’t need a ton of bells and whistles to start making usable compost. A simple backyard pile will attract red wigglers, take on your garden waste, and make healthy soil and nutrient-rich fertilizer. 

Not ready to commit to maintaining a healthy compost pile? Don’t worry. You can still fight climate change and divert your compostable material from the landfill. The easiest way is to sign up for a local compost pick up service or buy an electric composter. 

Want to learn more about composting?

Read some of these other articles:

Check out some amazing books on composting:

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4 thoughts on “A Beginners Guide to Compost”

  1. Thank you for explaining that compost is food waste that has decomposed to make nutrient rich soil. I’ve been hearing about composting from some friends of mine who have started gardening this year. It seems like it could be a big help with their plants, so I think it could be fun to take a stab at it for my own garden.

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