How to Start a Compost Pile
What is Compost?
Before we talk about how to start composting, it is important to know what compost is, how to use it in your garden and the benefits of using compost.
Compost is a nutrient-rich soil amendment that is the result of aerobic biodegradation of organic materials. Microorganisms process this organic matter and turn it into compost that can be used in your vegetable garden or flowerbeds or around ornamental landscaping features or fruit trees.
Benefits of Starting a Compost Pile
The benefits of starting a compost pile are many. Here are five of the most common reasons people start backyard compost piles for use in their gardens.
1. Reduce waste: Instead of tossing kitchen scraps and unbleached coffee filters in the trash, you can reduce the amount of waste you send to landfills by adding these items to your compost bin.
2. Reduce recycling: Recycling is wonderful and is an important part of reducing our collective impact on the environment. However, recycling things like cardboard and paper still requires transportation, energy and water. We can reduce the amount of paper and cardboard we send to recycling centers by adding it to our compost bins instead.
3. Improve soil: Compost improves your garden soil by adding nutrients, increasing porosity for better soil structure, increasing the number of microbes in your soil, and feeding both the new and already present microbes for better plant health.
4. Conserve water: Compost helps soil retain moisture better. This allows your plants to benefit from the moisture retention and allows you to reduce the amount of water required to keep your plants healthy.
5. Reduce erosion and run-off: Compost absorbs water and holds on to it, which means it can reduce run-off and slow erosion.
Further reading: 14 Reasons to Start Using Compost in Your Garden
How Do I Use Compost?
Compost can be mixed in with soil before planting, can be added around established plants as top dressing or can be sprinkled throughout your garden as a light mulch that will add nutrients to the soil over time. If you have flowerbeds or a vegetable garden that you need to overwinter, you can spread a thick layer of compost over the area, and then till it into the soil in spring. You can also use compost to make compost tea, which you can then use to both water and provide nutrients to your plants.
Where Should I Put My Compost Pile?
One of the most important parts of how to start composting is choosing a location for your compost pile. Your compost bin is going to have bugs, might smell a little bit sometimes and, depending on the type of enclosure you use, may attract rats or other wildlife or may leak compost tea. Compost bins and piles are also not necessarily attractive, so, if this is of concern to you, you will also need to take that into consideration.
You want to place your compost bin or pile close enough to be easily accessible from your kitchen, since you are less likely to make the effort to take kitchen scraps to your bin if it is not in a convenient location. However, you do not want it right by your back door or too close to your outdoor living areas. This is particularly true if you plan to use an open compost pile, since this may attract rats, mice and other critters — and will definitely attract insects.
If you have a vegetable garden where you plan on using your compost, you may want to locate the compost pile near your garden. This will make it easier to transport the finished compost to the beds in which you want to use it.
Be sure to keep your pile away from fences and other wooden structures, since the moisture and decomposing matter can hasten rot in wood or, at the very least, discolor it.
If you are using a compost bin that allows liquid to escape from the bin, you will probably not want to place your bin on hardscapes, such as concrete or paving stone patios, since this may require regular rinsing off to keep your patio clean and free of stains.
What Type of Compost Bin Should I Use?
There are a handful of compost bin styles to choose from, including options that sit on the ground and options that are raised above the ground on a stand or other structure. Some are stationary, some can be turned to mix your compost, and some have more than one compartment.
The first choice you will need to make is whether you want to use a manufactured compost bin, build your own compost bin, or simply make a compost pile with no bin at all.
Anything that is open or sits on the ground may attract rodents. Therefore, if you purchase or build a bin that sits on the ground, you may want to place gopher mesh on the ground under your bin. If you choose to use an open bin or just a pile, you can use a product like hardware cloth to partially close off the area, but if there are rats or mice in the vicinity, they will probably find their way into your compost.
Rotating bins that are off of the ground generally do not attract rodents and are easier to mix. Stationary piles or bins require you to use a pitchfork or shovel to turn your pile, but rotating bins can simply be tumbled to mix your compost ingredients.
There is nothing wrong with using open bins or simple compost piles; just keep in mind that you will be throwing things like eggshells, vegetable peelings and torn up cardboard on the pile. So, if you are the type of host that does not want your guests to see rotting kitchen scraps at your next social gathering, you may want to choose an enclosed bin for your composting needs.
How to Start Composting
After you have chosen a location and either purchased a compost bin, built a bin or created a spot for your pile, it is time to figure out how to start composting.
The easiest way to start is to simply start tossing kitchen scraps in your bin or pile. Ideally, you want to layer your ingredients by adding a few inches of green ingredients alternated with a thicker layer of brown ingredients. Your green ingredients are materials that are higher in nitrogen, such as fresh lawn clippings or vegetable peelings. Your brown ingredients bring in the carbon and include things like dried leaves and cardboard.
Once you have created several layers of green and brown materials, you patiently wait for the ingredients to decompose and turn into nutrient-rich compost that can be used around your yard.
While it is ideal to layer your compost pile in this manner, there are plenty of folks who just toss stuff in the bin and stir it every once in a while to mix the green and brown materials. This method of composting is usually more convenient for backyard composters who do not start out with enough materials to make green and brown layers and may have only a handful of ingredients to put in the bin some days.
If you choose to go with this more-casual approach to how to make a compost pile, just try to keep an eye on your ratio of brown to green materials. If you add a large amount of lawn clippings after mowing your grass, look around from brown ingredients, such as twigs or dead leaves, to balance things out. If there are no dried leaves or sticks around, tear up some cardboard to add in with the lawn clippings.
What Can I Put in My Compost Bin?
You can put most of your kitchen scraps in your compost bin, such as vegetable peelings, the ends you cut off carrots, fruits and vegetables that have been in your fruit basket a little too long, and the remnants of the salad you had for lunch. You can also include things like coffee grounds, unbleached coffee filters, tea bags, and eggshells.
You can put some cooked foods, such as bread, in your compost bin, but keep in mind that this is going to attract critters and is usually considered a bad idea.
Outside of the kitchen, you can add paper, cardboard, fireplace ashes, weeds that have not gone to seed, grass clippings, herbivore manure, and dead plants that did not have fungus or disease.
Further reading: 20 Things You Can Compost in Your Backyard
What Should I not Put in My Compost Bin?
There are composters out there who put pretty much everything in their compost piles, including their own feces, so it can sometimes seem like anything goes in regard to how to start a compost pile. However, you are better off sticking to the above-mentioned items and avoiding additions that may cause issues or could even be dangerous for your family.
For example, omnivore and carnivore manure can contain harmful bacteria and disease. If you use compost made from this manure on plants grown for food, you could be putting your health and the health of your family in danger. This is why only herbivore manure is recommended for compost piles.
Some folks compost animal products, such as dairy, meat and bones, but it also best to avoid these. While they will eventually break down, introducing animal products into your compost pile will attract critters and can cause your pile to smell really bad. You may want to avoid adding cooked foods – particularly foods cooked with oil — to your pile for the same reasons.
Do not include weeds that have flowers or that have clearly gone to seed. This will introduce seeds into your compost that may not be destroyed if the temperature in your pile does not get hot enough. This means that you may spread those weed seeds throughout your garden when you use your compost.
Further reading: 15 Things You Should NOT Compost
Going Beyond the Basics
Once you feel like you have a handle on how to start composting and want to go beyond the basics with your backyard compost pile or bin, check out Backyard Composting Tips: 16 Accessories to Take Your Compost Pile to the Next Level.