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I have a love affair with compost—no, seriously, I do. It’s not just the magic of witnessing the breakdown process (how did my soup scraps turn into this?), but also how the resulting compost then becomes the hardest worker in my garden. Enriching poor soil? Check! Retaining moisture? Check! Helping suppress plant diseases and pests? Check, check! Healthy plants need healthy soil and the best way to get there is by adding compost and its beneficial microbes to your garden.
No garden? No problem! Compost is also a great fertilizer for houseplants, outdoor potted plants, and seed starting mixes, too. You can even package it up and donate it to your local community garden. No matter how we use it, it’s time to take responsibility for our waste.
If you haven’t started on your own personal compost journey, I’m here to encourage you to just do it already!
How To Contain It
First things first: Let’s set you up with a scraps sanctuary that serves your personal needs. There are a few options to consider, depending on the outdoor space you have and how much work you want to put into it.
Called “continuous” because you add material to the pile all the time, this method generates compost a bit slower, usually only offering compost from the bottom of the pile a few times a year. You can start your own pile without any commercial products by simply piling up your browns and greens in a designated area, but most find that building a corral or purchasing an expandable cage will keep the pile more manageable. There are also enclosed bins made from recycled plastic created specifically for this method in which the bottom of the bin has an access door to the compost that’s ready to use. This is a great option for those with outdoor space.
I love the tumbler option, which makes turning your pile super simple—no pitchforks needed! This method cranks out compost fast, usually in 4 to 8 weeks if you’re checking in on moisture and turning often. There are a lot of different sizes and styles depending on the needs of your garden, even for those living in smaller spaces (yes, even ones that could fit on a tiny balcony patio!). If you’d like to pull compost more frequently, consider a two-barrel design where one side cures while the other compartment allows you to keep filling in more material.
Bucket (The Bokashi Method)
Looking for ready-to-use compost in as little as 10 days? Perhaps the Japanese fermentation method bokashi is for you. This process uses an airtight container and layers your kitchen scraps with an inoculant that is most commonly a mixture of wheat bran and molasses. By placing the bucket in direct sunlight, the materials break down quickly into a liquid that is a perfect “fertilizer tea.” This method is very popular with apartment dwellers and homesteaders alike.
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There is no perfect recipe for composting. This is one of the biggest hang-ups that people have when starting to compost—they think it’s too complicated. I agree it can be confusing when some experts recommend a 3:1 ratio of brown to green while others say you can just go 50:50 (I personally try to stick to the 3:1 recommendation). Just start adding to your pile, monitor it, and make adjustments if any “problems” should arise (I’ll walk you though those solutions, too).
Kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds/brewed loose leaf tea, garden clippings, and eggshells all count. Herbivore pet manure such as cow, horse, sheep, chicken, rabbit can also be used, but please note there are usually additional curing times and temperatures needed to make sure that compost that contains manure is safe for use.
This is your drier, more fibrous organic matter—quite literally tan or brown in color. Dry leaves, twigs, straw, sawdust, pine needles, shredded paper, cardboard, and that eco packaging you’re getting deliveries or lunch in—just remove any attached tape or labels.
What to Avoid
Do not add meat, fat, oil, dairy, or pet feces, all of which can turn your compost rancid fast. Your home composting system also might not sterilize adequately to prevent E. coli or salmonella contamination. To save yourself additional work in the garden, hold off on adding any weeds, especially those that have gone to seed, which could potentially sprout and spread wherever you place your final compost.
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Steps to Success
Here are a few things to consider to get your pile producing on the quick.
Size & Spot
While composting can be done on a smaller scale, to really get your pile hot and curing quickly you should consider working with a space that’s at least one cubic yard (that’s 3 feet by 3 feet). This allows the center of the pile to heat up quickly and efficiently, breaking down materials faster. Smaller piles will still produce usable compost, just on a much longer timeline.
When it comes to location, convenience is key. Yes, a warm location helps break down your pile faster, but it can also dry it out quicker. Find a spot that gets both sun and shade, but not somewhere you have to hike out to. I have mine in the back of the garden, where I don’t mind bringing a bucket of kitchen scraps while also doing my garden rounds. Put your pile where you’ll tend to it most.
Mix & Moisture
Oxygen and water are your two best friends when it comes to breaking down your goods. By turning your pile every 1 to 2 weeks, or right after adding in a new batch of greens, you are providing air flow and speeding up the breakdown process. While your organic matter breaks down, it should have the consistency of a damp—but not soggy—sponge. If it gets too dry, the breakdown will come to a halt. I like to add freshly brewed tea or coffee grounds to the pile to add extra moisture when needed, but if your pile is in need of hydration, a quick shot with the hose works, too.
Speed It Up
I keep a pair of kitchen shears near our compost tumbler to cut up larger pieces of kitchen scraps straight into the bin (some people blitz them up in a blender before adding). If you’re dealing with a lot of heavy brown matter, a mulcher might come in handy, but just cutting up cardboard with a box cutter works, too. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the composting.
Get It Hot
Yes, heat is a factor when trying to break down organic matter fast, but I’m not going to tell you to run out there with a thermometer every day to try to keep it at 140°F—it will break down regardless. However, if you plan to use compost for seedlings, it needs to be completely sterilized, as they are more susceptible to lingering bacteria (which means it needs to hit a consistent 140°F to 160°F before being usable).
A note for those living in cooler climates: You should definitely continue to compost through the winter season. The process will just take a little longer, so keep at it and know that come warmer days, you’ll have plenty of material ready to break down fast. However, do try to move or transition your pile to a sunny spot and insulate your barrel with leaves, straw, cardboard, or sawdust to keep it as warm as possible.
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The Good, The Bad…The Stinky?
There are really only three main reasons that can contribute to your pile becoming problematic: poor air flow, too much moisture, and the incorrect balance of nitrogen and carbon materials. But here’s the good news: It’s all easily corrected. Here are a few common problems that are easily resolved.
Contrary to what so many think, compost should never smell. Ever. If you have a stinky situation on hand, you may have gone too heavy on the greens, and need to add in some browns to balance things out. Another reason is the lack of oxygen, which means you just need to turn your pile a little more often. Add some extra browns, turn it more than usual that week, and you should have almost overnight relief.
Bugs happen, and it’s honestly nothing to be too concerned about, especially since they actually aid in the breakdown process. Most often, an influx of bugs means your greens are overwhelming the browns. Try adding in more carbon (that’s the brown stuff) and you should see a decrease in squirmy activity. Another reason is not turning the pile enough or covering your food scraps with browns. Bugs will see a fresh batch of scraps exposed at the top of your pile as a welcome mat. Cover, turn, repeat.
Nothing Is Breaking Down!
The breakdown process usually slows down dramatically when there’s not enough heat or the pile is too dry. Try adding more greens or even a little bit of water to reactivate the microbes. Some people swear by adding “enhancers” to speed up the breakdown process—alfalfa from your local feed store being a popular choice—but it’s not necessary, as your compost is designed to be self-sufficient.