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A Gardening Guide: How to Make Compost at Home

A Gardening Guide: How to Make Compost at Home

Full wooden compost bays in a row

The benefits of learning to make compost at home are many, from becoming a more sustainable household by recycling kitchen scraps, to adding nutrients for good soil health.


By Amanda Williams

Introduction: Make Compost at Home

The world moves like a pendulum, swinging back and forth between trends. The last hundred years have seen us swinging towards technology, towards synthetic processing and the idea that “new is always better”.

Now, western culture is starting to see another shift. As screen addiction becomes more and more prevalent, we are losing age-old methods of being able to take care of ourselves, basically of survival. In today’s turbulent world, there are growing groups of people working to instigate the swing back to sustainable methods of living. This means not only supporting ourselves but supporting the environment.

There are so many different facets to life, and to start being more sustainable means examining each one of them individually. They should be taken at face value, broken down and examined to figure out what can be done to make each part function more sustainably. As a gardener, there are a plethora of effective options out there to learn about and apply. One of these is learning to make compost at home. 

Home Made Compost Varieties

When it comes to making compost, there are establishment choices to be made. What are the easiest ways for it to fit into an individual’s lifestyle? What materials can be used? Where should it be stored?

There are three common types of composting to consider: cold, hot, and vermicompost.

Cold composting is the least involved of the three. When making a cold compost pile, it may be as simple as just throwing the right types of house waste, like food scraps, into a confined area so it stacks up. Then, it should be allowed to decompose. It is one of the slower versions of composting as it can take a year or more to completely rot down to black organic material that can be used in the garden.

For more involved gardeners, it may be worth looking into hot compost. It is a much faster process, taking only one to three months during warmer seasons. When creating a hot compost pile, there are more specific “ingredients” that should be used. This is discussed in further detail below, but the basic elements need to be nitrogen, carbon, air, and water.

A red worm on soil
The red worm – a friend in the garden

Vermicompost is a combination of cold composting and worms. Adding worms to the mixture gives them the chance to eat the food scraps. Then, they release castings that are rich in nitrogen and add more nutrients to the new soil. They also help to speed the process along. Worms can’t simply be collected from the garden. Red worms will need to be found or purchased online. They are a relatively cheap investment.

Keeping It Real: What to Use

If considering going the way of cold composting, know that finding the right material to use will be fairly easy. Since there is no strict methodology to follow for this type of composting, just about anything can be used. Whenever there are food scraps available or lawn cuttings, simply throw them on the pile. Every once in a while, turn it to allow air in. This will help the pile to break down faster into a usable form. It doesn’t even need to be turned if there isn’t the time or if there is a distaste for it.

Creating a hot compost pile takes a little more planning. This type of compost pile will need to be layered with rows of green and brown plant materials, food waste and plenty of water and air. Use these materials to supplement your hot compost pile:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Straw
  • Grass and lawn clippings
  • Dry leaves
  • Coffee grounds
  • Farm animal manure
  • Eggshells

As exhibited, many things work well in a compost pile. However, some things should be avoided when adding materials to the pile. This is because they may attract the wrong crowd to the pile, looking to scrounge through instead of add to it.

  • Wood pieces (sawdust or chips) from treated wood
  • Dog or cat feces
  • Weeds that go to seed
  • Dairy products
  • Foods containing meat, fat, oil or grease
  • Magazine or chemically-treated newspaper clippings

The Process: How to Make Compost at Home

Enough materials should be gathered together to make the pile at least three feet deep. These can be stored in pales or bags inside of a cold storage area to keep them from stinking until the pile can be made.

The Foundation

Many refer to the types of layers that are created as “green” and “brown” material. The green material is referencing the kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, manure and green grass clippings or fresh trimmings from garden plants. The brown material is anything dry, such as dry leaves, shredded paper, branches, cardboard or straw. 

Layering

Green and brown layers will need to be made and then mixed up. Creating layers is the easiest way to start the project since it aids in keeping track of how much of each type of material has been laid down. 

mass of partially-decomposed leaves
Leaves, an example of ‘brown’ material. Other types include branches, sticks, and bark.
pile of food scraps, banana peel and strawberry tops visible
Food waste, an example of ‘green’ material. Other types include grass clippings.

For best results, the ratio of brown to green should be around three parts brown to one part green materials. Create the size of your layers accordingly. Then, take a pitchfork and make it all together thoroughly.

Air is crucial to the breakdown of the materials into a usable soil substrate. Poke holes into the material with a stick or the end of a shovel. Be sure that there are plenty of them to keep the pile from stinking or just sitting there.

Once finished with these steps, the last thing to do is to spray it with water. It should have the appearance, or texture, of a damp sponge. Overwatering means drowning the microorganisms that need to eat through the pile to break it down into compost and it will rot instead.

Maintaining

Continue to aerate your pile about once a week. Water the pile so that the texture stays the same without overwatering. To ensure that the mixture is composting, monitor the temperature. It should reach between 120-170 degrees Fahrenheit (49-77 degrees Celsius), in the middle of the pile.

Once the pile is first made and starts the decomposing process, save other scraps to make another pile after the first is over or start another pile closeby. The pile should never stink. This means that something is going wrong and needs to be remedied. The pile may need to be aerated more often or might be overwatered.

two hands holding a mound of rich brown compost
Finished compost should be rich, crumbly, and consistent

Putting Compost to Use

The compost pile will be ready for use when it stops generating heat. This means that the microorganisms have finished breaking down the material that they can. The pile should mostly appear brown and crumbly. If the general guidelines for size and ingredients were followed, the pile should only take about four weeks to completely breakdown.

Compost can be used in the top four to six inches of a garden bed or flower pots to load it up in needed nutrients for the plants. Compost can also be turned into a “tea”. To make a compost tea, allow the finished compost to “steep” in water for several days and then strain it, collecting the leftover liquid and using it as a fertilizer throughout the growing season.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Trying something new out will always take some practice along with a healthy dose of trial and error. To make the process run a little bit smoother, be aware of some of the most common things that can go wrong with a new compost pile.

hand holding a hose that is spouting water
The correct ratio of water is key to making good compost

Not watering properly

Mentioned above, overwatering is a common problem for overzealous composters. The microorganisms that will make the compost pile their temporary home are essential to the process of creating compost. If they are drowned over and over again, your pile won’t prosper.

Don’t allow the pile to dry out, but water should not be draining out of it. Then it is oversaturated and not able to collect the water inside anymore.

Underwatering is also a problem. Microorganisms thrive only in humid conditions and having a dry pile will not create any activity. One way to know if the pile is too dry is if the temperatures are not consistent between the range given above.

Not Aerating Enough

Just like people need air to breathe, so does the community eating away the compost pile. Aerating the pile about once a week will also keep it from smelling since it doesn’t allow fumes to build up by reacting with oxygen.

Adding the Wrong Ingredients

Adding the wrong ingredients won’t always mean that the pile won’t end up creating compost. It can mean that the compost could do more harm than good for the plants. Adding things like meat and dairy products also tend to attract scavenging animals that will tear the entire pile apart to get what they smell.

Conclusion: The Benefits of Learning to Make Compost at Home

There is a long list of potential benefits to making compost at home. Some of the biggest ones include the capacity to become a more sustainable household by recycling kitchen and paper scraps instead of throwing them out. This helps to save space in the landfills and recycles materials that recycling facilities are currently unable to.

Another huge benefit is additional nutrients in the garden. Making compost and adding it to the soil helps to increase the overall health of the soil in that area. It puts needed nutrients back into the soil for the plants to use instead of using synthetic fertilizers with all of the environmental and health-related problems it creates.

Whether the household decides to do it to have somewhere to go with kitchen scraps or if there are avid gardeners present, know that this action helps to make the home more sustainable and the environment healthier.

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