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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.
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. After all, 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. Food, and all living things, 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.
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 food. 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:
- You can buy a compost tumbler—-> Head here to see my favorites.
- You can start your own pile in your backyard—-> Here is my favorite book about backyard composting.
- You can make a worm bin—-> Make your own with these steps.
- You can compost meat and dairy with soldier flies—–> Buy a soldier fly composting bin here.
- You can buy an electric composter for your kitchen—-> These are my favorite electric composters.
- You can try the Japanese Bokashi method where you ferment your waste first—-> Get the details on how to make your own bokashi bin.
- You can use chickens or pigs to turn your compost—-> Get details here.
- You can hire a compost pick up service—-> This is the one I started in Naples.
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?
Now, this is where things get confusing and where most people get overwhelmed with composting. There is a specific carbon to nitrogen ratio. The most commonly cited ratio is 30:1 brown/carbon to green/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 to keep food out of a 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/ nitrogen rich) with a layer of nitrogen rich material. 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.
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.
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, fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, hair, dryer lint, cardboard pieces, paper towel rolls, toilet paper rolls, cardboard egg cartons, 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”.
Want to learn more about composting?
Read some of these other articles:
- How to Make Your Own Worm Composting Bucket
- How to Make a Bokashi Bucket
- The Best Compost Tumblers
- How to Troubleshoot Flies in Compost
- Best Electric Kitchen Composters