Making compost is pretty simple, once you get started:
- Choose a site for the compost pile.
- Choose a structure.
- Add the ingredients.
- Care for and feed the compost pile.
- Collect the finished compost for use.
Choose a Site
Where to place your compost pile is an important thing to consider. You want to be able to keep the pile away from your house, but not so far away that you won't go out and attend to it. But you don't want it too close to the boundaries of your property that your neighbors might complain. Your local housing ordinances or homeowner organization rules may specify where you can place it. Other factors to consider include the following:
- Downwind from your house: Even a well-managed compost pile may occasionally emit unpleasant odors. Although wind provides air, too much wind can dry and/or scatter the material.
- Sunlight: Sunshine can help warm the compost pile in the winter, but too much sunlight can dry it out. If the pile is located by a large deciduous tree, you will have cool shade in the summer and sunlight in the winter.
- Drainage: You want good drainage so too much water doesn't collect by the pile.
- Surface: Bare earth is better than concrete. Make sure to give yourself a sufficient work area around the pile (6 to 8 feet or about 2 meters).
Choose a Structure
Compost structures can be as simple as a heap where you just pile all the ingredients and let nature take its course; this is passive composting. Passive composting is less efficient and slower than active composting, in which you manage the compost process daily.
You can also build more complicated compost bins out of chicken wire, wood or concrete blocks. They can be simple, one-compartment structures in which you add new materials to the top, turn the compost frequently and collect the finished compost from the bottom.
Multi-compartment (three-bin) structures allow you to add new material to one bin, transfer partially completed compost to the middle bin and move finished compost to the final bin. There should be some covering on the top of the bin to minimize excess rainwater and reduce scattering from the wind.
You don't have to do it yourself, however. There are many kinds of compost bins you can buy, including tumblers that allow you to turn the compost with a handle. There also are stacked bins for composting with the help of worms. And don't forget to check with your city or garbage collection company. They may offer inexpensive or even free composting bins.
The choice depends entirely on the effort and expense you wish to devote to the project, as well as the amount of compost you want to make. Also, local ordinances may dictate what kind of bin you can use.
You can compost the following materials easily:
Almost anything you chop on a cutting board can go in the compost bin. This forms the "green layer" that you'll often read about in composting guides. These provide plenty of carbon for the microorganisms to break down.
- fruit and vegetable waste: peels, skins, seeds, leaves
- coffee grounds (including paper filters)
- corncobs: shredded so they break down quickly
- nut shells
- tea bags
- used paper napkins
Anytime you do yard chores, collect the debris in a bucket and dump it into the compost bin. This forms the "brown layer," which provides lots of the nitrogen necessary for the composting process.
Word to the wise: Weeds will technically break down to become compost, but they are tough buggers. Home compost bins don't usually get hot enough to break weeds down all the way, so adding weedy compost to your garden can introduce weeds to your flower veggie beds. Not what we're looking for here.
- grass clippings: Some grass is OK, but too much will add excess nitrogen to the compost pile and make it smell bad. It may be best to use a mulching lawn mower instead.
- pine needles
- woody materials (branches, twigs)
- straw or hay
- fireplace ash
The following materials SHOULD NOT BE COMPOSTED:
- Human or pet waste, or cat litter: They carry diseases and parasites, as well as cause an unpleasant odor.
- Diseased garden plants: They can infect the compost pile and influence the finished product.
- Invasive weeds: Spores and seeds of invasive weeds (buttercups, morning glory, quack grass) can survive the decomposition process and spread to your desired plants when you use the finished compost.
- Charcoal ash: It is toxic to the soil microorganisms.
- Pesticide-treated plant material: These are harmful to microorganisms, and pesticides may survive into the finished compost.
You might be wondering about composting meat, since you can compost eggs. Meat and bones take a long time to compost, especially in at-home compost bins. As we mentioned, they usually don't get hot enough to break down meat quickly, which means it sits in your compost for a long time. Long enough to become stinky, which means your yard will start to smell bad and attract critters who would love a meat buffet and a side of greens that haven't broken down yet.
Large-scale municipal composters, which your city might have, do get hot enough to handle meat and bones, so you can usually compost those materials at the curb.