Home composting has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years as more households look for creative ways to cut down on waste generation, particularly food waste. Learn how you can get started with backyard composting today with this helpful introduction.
What is composting, and why should you do it?
You can think of composting as giving a helping hand to the natural decomposition process that occurs when organic waste breaks down. In a compost bin or pile, food and kitchen scraps, along with leaves, grasses, and other garden debris are “processed” (in other words, eaten) by natural organisms including bacteria, worms, and fungi. Through this process, organic material is gradually converted from waste into a rich, dirt-like substance that can help infuse gardens and soil with much-needed nutrients.
The huge benefit of composting is that it diverts food waste from the landfill and transforms it into a valuable product. Given that food waste makes up a significant portion of household garbage, composting can be an important step in substantially reducing the amount of household waste that is sent to the landfill. An increasing number of communities are now starting to offer green waste pickup or municipal composting options, but many people still choose to compost at home so that they can make use of the resulting compost material in their own gardens. And even if you yourself don’t have a use for compost (or don’t have any space for a garden), many community gardens or local smallholding farms are happy to accept compost donations from home composters.
Step 1: Choosing your container
The first step in starting a home compost operation is deciding what you want to store your compost in. To find the most appropriate container for your situation, you’ll want to think about things like how much organic waste you typically generate, how much effort you plan to put in maintaining your compost, how much space you have, and where you want to put your bin.
A wide variety of bins and containers are available from local hardware and garden stores. Most are made from molded plastic, some from wood, and you can find shapes and sizes to suit any location and amount of organic waste. If you’re a dedicated DIY-er, you can also try building your own bin: many ideas and designs are available online. And if you’re a free-form person with lots of available space, it’s not necessary to have a bin at all. You can simply create a compost heap or pile in the corner of your yard.
Step 2: Choosing your location
The composting process works best with some water and sunlight, so if you are planning to keep compost system outdoors, be sure to put your compost bin within easy reach of a garden tap or other water source and in an area where it will receive at least a few hours of sunlight every day. Try to ensure a balance of sunlight and shade. A moderate amount of heat from the sun will help to speed up the composting process, although too much may dry out your composting material. Make sure that the ground area where you put your bin has good drainage, and keep the bin away from buildings, as direct contact with compost can cause siding and other structural materials to rot.
Even if your home does not have access to outdoor space, it is still possible to set up a compost system. One popular indoor composting option is vermicomposting: keep a small bin of red wriggler worms under your sink or in a spare room, feed them your fruit and vegetable scraps, and harvest the fertile compost they produce. However, if you’re not keen on worms, you can still create a smaller version of an outdoor composter. You’ll just need to punch some holes in a plastic box or garbage container and keep the bin on a newspaper-covered tray rather than on backyard dirt as you would with an outdoor composter. Otherwise, the basic steps are the same.
Step 3: Putting your ingredients together
A successful compost system needs three main ingredients:
Air circulation—The microbes that break down the organic matter need air to do their job properly. If your compost mixture is deprived of oxygen, anaerobic breakdown starts to occur, and that’s the process that makes your compost pile smell like garbage. Make it easy for air to circulate by keeping your container properly ventilated and turning your mixture frequently with a garden fork or spade.
Moisture—A helpful rule of thumb is that your compost mixture should be kept at about the same dampness as a wrung-out sponge. If you don’t have enough moisture, then the microbes will die of dehydration. However, if there is too much water in the compost, there won’t be any space for air. Water your compost mixture gradually each time you add new material, and feel it carefully it to make sure it’s at the right consistency.
The right organic matter—In general, you’ll want to add three parts of dry or “brown” ingredients such as grass or leaves for every one part of “green” moist food waste. A layering system is helpful for getting started: begin with a thick brown layer, add a balanced green layer, then cover with another brown layer to finish. Water lightly, as described above, and turn. As you add new material, always be sure you are alternating brown and green layers and finishing with a brown layer. As for what goes in your green layer, remember that you can add fruit and vegetable scraps, as well as coffee grounds, tea bags, and egg and nut shells. However, you should never compost dairy products, meat scraps or bones, or grease in a home compost system.