Starting a backyard compost pile is actually a relatively easy thing to do. Don’t be discouraged by all the gurus you see that say you need certain ratios of browns to greens. While these numbers can be helpful (I’ll explain a bit more about it later) they aren’t the end all, be all for making compost.
First, lets understand a bit more about why you should compost.
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Why Should You Start a Backyard Compost Pile?
When you compost, you are keeping food scraps out of the landfill. While fruits and veggies will decompose in the landfill, all those nutrients are being wasted.
When you compost at home, you are reducing methane gas. By reducing the amount of food waste that goes into the trash, you are removing odors from your home as well.
Additionally, by making compost at home, you are making valuable fertilizer for your garden. And that may be the very best reason for starting a compost pile!
So whether you grow flowers, vegetables, or just have a few shrubs in your yard, if you have any kind of yard, there really isn’t a good reason not to compost. (Apartment dwellers, you get a pass on this one, even though there are options for in-home composting for those of you who may be serious about this.)
Let’s Talk About Compost Bins and Buckets
If you decide to start composting, you will need just two things-a bucket or container with a lid (to store the kitchen scraps inside the house until you carry it outside) and a compost bin.
For the bucket, you can probably find an old container that you can re-purpose. It can be helpful if it has a lid, especially if you don’t carry it out very often.
However, one of my boys takes ours out every other day as part of their chores, so there is no smell. If you wanted to purchase something specific for this task, this bucket on Amazon looks super easy to clean. This one even includes a replaceable charcoal filter to help control odors.
There are also many types of compost bins available on the market today. From tumblers to stand alone barrels almost everyone should be able to find something that meets their needs. I actually have two composters-a tumbler and a stand alone unit.
And if you don’t want to go to that expense, there are tutorials on composting directly in the ground. Called pit or trench composting, you just bury the scraps in a hole and let nature take its course.
The 4 Elements to Successful Compost
There are really only 4 things you need for successful compost:
The nitrogen comes from what is commonly referred to as green material and the carbon comes from brown material. (More details below.) A successful compost pile will be moist from water, but not too soggy or it can create odors.
Decomposing material also needs oxygen to complete the process of breaking down. A compost pile that gets too densely packed will not decay as quickly as one with sufficient oxygen.
Greens & Browns?
Most composting tutorials will talk about “greens” and “browns.” Greens are plant material such as kitchen scraps and grass that are rich in nitrogen. Browns consist of dried leaves and newspaper that are carbon rich.
An ideal ratio is 1 part greens to 3 part browns. However as long as your backyard compost pile stays moist, it will decompose.
Think of the leaves in the forest and how rich the soil is underneath all those trees. That’s from the leaves decomposing over time. There is no special “formula” for that compost.
So What Can You Put in a Backyard Compost Pile?
- fruit scraps
- vegetable scraps
- coffee grounds
- tea bags
- weed-free grass and plant trimmings
- dry leaves
- wood chips-no treated wood
- shredded newspaper
- hay or straw
- ashes from a fire place or a fire pit
A few things to note: Smaller pieces decompose faster, so if you throw in a huge chunk of watermelon, it will take longer to turn into compost. (But don’t worry, it eventually will still decompose.)
Also, your compost pile does need moisture to turn scraps and yard waste into compost. Usually, as long as you have enough vegetable scraps, you won’t have any problems here, but it is worth mentioning. If you add too many browns at one time, you may need to water the pile to help it along.
If your compost starts to smell, you most likely have too many greens (kitchen scraps) and not enough browns. The easiest way to remedy this is to add some additional leaves or shredded newspaper.
What Not to Compost
There are a few things you shouldn’t compost:
- any type of meat
- oil or grease
- dairy products
- diseased or bug infested plants
Not only will these items cause your compost to stink, they will also attract rodents and other nighttime critters that will dig through your backyard compost pile looking for the meat.
And if you compost diseased plants or bug infested plants, the diseases and bugs can survive the composting process and be even more prolific the following year.
There are also a few things that can be composted but that I personally have chosen not to include. I don’t add peach pits or corn cobs to my backyard compost pile since they seem to take forever to break down.
I still have peach pits in my garden from compost I made years ago. They aren’t hurting anything but it can be annoying to dig up a peach pit when I am planting something. (They are hard!)
How to Speed Up Decomposition
You can also purchase a product called compost accelerator or activator. Compost accelerator typically contains a harmless microorganism that helps to speed up the composting process.
Turning the compost regularly (at least weekly) will also help improve the rate of decomposition. This allows air to get to other areas of the compost. If you have a bin, not a compost tumbler, you can use a pitchfork to turn the compost.
Alternatively, there are special tools on the market that you can purchase to help turn the compost. These are particularly helpful in smaller compost bins where it can be hard to maneuver a pitchfork.
How to Maintain Your Backyard Compost Pile
Maintaining a backyard compost pile doesn’t require much time or effort. The compost ingredients will decompose without any help. However, to speed things up, you should stir your compost occasionally. If you have added lots of brown ingredients, you may need to water it every so often as well.
Keep adding to the compost bin as you get additional kitchen scraps, adding leaves and other brown materials as needed.
The best way to do this is to save some leaves in the fall and store them separately from your compost pile. As you add a layer of green scraps to the compost, top it off with some leaves. In this way, they are keeping the ratio of greens and browns relatively stable.
How to Use Your Backyard Compost
When you are ready to use your compost you have two options: Sift the compost or start a new compost pile.
The easiest way is about 3 months before you want to use your compost, stop adding to that pile and start a new one. Keep stirring the old pile until it is finished. Keep in mind that what starts out as a mountain of debris will break down to just a small amount of compost.
The other option is to use a screen to sift out the veggie scraps and leaves that have not finished composting. This is definitely the more time consuming of the two options. But if you only have room for one compost bin, this allows you to “harvest” some compost while the rest decomposes.
Once you have your finished compost you can apply it to your garden at any time. Compost doesn’t burn plants like other fertilizers can.
You can add some to your garden in the winter if you have a nice day or turn some into the soil in the spring before you plant.
Add a little compost to the hole when you plant your seedlings. Sprinkle it around your existing vegetable plants or pile it on thick. No matter how you apply it, your garden will be thankful.
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