Composting is a great way to save on gardening costs. If you have ever gardened, you probably already know that it isn’t exactly the cheapest “hobby”. And if you are gardening to cut out some of your food costs (by growing your own food), you can definitely benefit from learning ways to cut costs for the garden as well.
Lately I’ve been in “compost mode”. It’s January, but the unseasonable warm days have gotten me into thinking about the garden. So I’ve been reading all sorts of articles on composting so I can learn how to properly do it.
Since we now have our farm, complete with animals (and of course, lots and lots of poop!), composting just makes sense to me. In addition to dealing with the mounds of poop, I can make my own beautiful soil amendment.
I don’t have many kitchen scraps that go into my compost. Most of the kitchen scraps go straight to the chickens. I do have a bowl on the counter that I put crushed eggshells (though I sometimes give those to the chickens as well) and used coffee grounds and filters into.
Benefits of composting
Composting adds nutrients to your soil.
Composting is a wonderful way to add necessary nutrients to put in your garden. If you use organic methods in your garden, this is the best way to amend the soil. Good compost will help you reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. That in itself will help you save money and avoid unwanted chemicals.
I mean, that’s probably part of the reason you started gardening in the first place, right?
It adds lots of other good things too.
Composting allows the proper growth of beneficial bacteria and suppresses the bad bacteria. It can also add earthworms to your soil, which help aerate the soil and add nutrients as well.
Composting is very green.
Not the color green, but the idea, of course! Composting is very eco-friendly. It keeps some waste out of the landfills, and reduces emissions. Talk about reducing your carbon footprint!
How to compost
Composting involves combining brown materials, green materials, moisture, and heat. The ratios of green to brown matter are really important. Most experts recommend a ratio of 25-30 parts brown (carbon) to 1 part green (nitrogen).
If you have too much green and not enough brown, your compost will stink. On the other hand, if you have too much brown matter and not enough green, it will take a long, long time to decompose.
Decide on your setup.
If you want a small amount of compost, a compost tumbler is a great investment. Tumblers make it so easy to turn and aerate your compost. Here is a good article on making a few different DIY compost bins.
Another good setup for composting is the 3-bin compost system. It is basically 3 bins (often made of pallets or chicken wire around a frame) that separates the compost into stages. The first bin will be basically raw material. The second will be partially decomposed. And the third bin will be beautiful, finished compost.
I need a lot of compost to amend my garden, and I have a lot of manure to deal with. So I just do a basic compost pile. Throughout the year, I gather manure, straw, wood chips, etc. and just put it all into a pile. This pile is usually easy enough for me to move, as long as I do it fairly frequently.
Know your greens and browns.
Green matter is the nitrogen-rich additions that help break down the browns. Green material is fresh green leaves, grass clippings, manure, used coffee grounds, and kitchen scraps.
Brown matter is the carbon base. This can be wood shavings or chips, straw, hay, shredded paper, or dried leaves.
Start with fine materials.
You want your compost materials to be pretty fine. Think wood shavings, chopped leaves, and grass clippings. If you put big chunks of bark or branches in the compost, it will take a very long time to break down.
Run over the leaves with a lawn mower, put branches through a wood chipper, and raise the blades of your mower so you take less length off with each mow.
When adding kitchen scraps, think small here too. Chop up banana peels into small chunks, cut up carrots into small pieces, and shred your lettuce.
My first attempt at composting was a bunch of poopy, spoiled straw from cleaning out the barn. This pile was so very heavy to move. And it took FOREVER to decompose! Moral of the story: The smaller the material, the better.
Layer up the materials.
When adding material to the compost pile, make sure you use small layers. Start by putting down a 2-3 inch layer of wood shavings or other brown material. Then add about an inch of manure. Then another layer of wood shavings, and another layer of manure.
Alternate the browns and greens in layers if possible. After every 2 layers or so, spray the pile with some water to keep it moist throughout.
It is totally fine if your materials are already mixed when you add them to the compost pile. Just don’t add them in a big mat. We’ve used a lot of straw in the barns that get really compacted and clumpy. When I put these in the compost pile, I just break them up.
Ideally, you want your compost pile to be about 3 feet tall, by about 4 feet wide. This will allow for the best decomposition, and keep the pile manageable.
Turn the pile and wet down every week or two.
I like to turn my pile at least once a week. If I need my compost sooner, I turn it more often. In order to get the compost going, it needs to stay damp like a wrung-out sponge. So if it hasn’t rained since I last turned the compost pile, I add some water.
You don’t want the compost too wet, though, as it will smell and won’t decompose properly. So if you live in a very wet climate, you might want to cover with a tarp.
When I turn my pile, I like to use a hoe or shovel (I prefer a hoe), and just pull the material from the top down, moving it about a foot in one direction or the other. The material at the top becomes the bottom material, and it all gets fluffed up nicely.
Here is a video showing a couple of my compost piles.
Monitor the heat.
I don’t personally use one, but you can certainly use a compost thermometer. In order to kill all bad bacteria and weed seeds, you want your compost pile to heat up to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit. In the Berkley method, they say that compost can be ready in as little as 18 days if you do true hot composting.
You don’t want your compost pile to get too hot, as this can result in spontaneous combustion. But a nice, steady heat will help the decomposition process along nicely.
Call me weird, but in the winter, I just love seeing the steam rolling off of my compost pile. It lets me know that I’m on the right track to have a beautiful, productive garden in the spring.
Once the material is dark brown and fluffy, and you can’t identify the individual components in the compost, it is ready for use in the garden. Good, finished compost will smell and look like really rich soil.
What to compost
These things are good to put in a compost pile:
- Grass clippings (but watch for matting)
- Shredded leaves
- Wood ash and char (adds potash)
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Manure (except from humans, dogs, cats, and pigs)
- Fruits and vegetables
- Banana peels (diced up)
- Cooked noodles or rice
- Shredded paper (not coated paper)
- Used tea bags
- Spoiled hay
- Human or pet hair (lots of nitrogen)
- Dryer lint
- Eggshells (adds calcium)
- Nut shells
- Weeds and old garden plants (but not if they’ve gone to seed)
What not to compost
These are things that you shouldn’t put in a compost pile:
- Dairy products
- Charcoal or coal ashes
- Diseased plants
- Pig, cat, dog, or human manure
- Oil, fats, or lard
- Yard trimmings that have been chemically treated
- Black walnut leaves or branches
- Paper or newspaper that is “shiny”
Do you compost? Please share any tips, tricks, or hacks that you have in the comments!
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