One of the simplest ways to reduce your impact is to start composting. When food waste ends up in landfills, it breaks down through the process of anaerobic decomposition. This process produces methane gas which contributes to global warming.
Composting, on the other hand, is aerobic decomposition. Just like when leaves decompose on a forest floor, compost material is broken down by microbes and fungi and doesn’t produce methane.
It’s estimated that Canadians throw out 7.7 million tons of organic matter each year and in 2017 alone, the EPA estimated that 30.6 million tons of food waste made it into landfills in the United States. This organic material could all be composted, preventing the release of harmful emissions.
Composting comes with other benefits too! Keeping food scraps out of your trash means a more pleasant smelling home. Of course, gardeners and plant lovers also get the benefit of the compost itself, a rich, organic fertilizer. Create a more sustainable life in 2020 with this easy composting guide.
Selecting a Compost Bin
There are a variety of compost bin designs. What you choose to make or purchase will depend on your property, how much organic material you need to compost, and your style.
How to Build a Compost Container
One great option is to build a compost container. Compost bins are easy to make yourself for little or no cost. A bin with sides about 4 feet long and 4 feet tall is a good size for most home composts.
Wooden Compost Bins
Having a bin with three sides is enough to help you keep your compost tidy but if you have pets or wildlife like raccoons in your area having a completely closed bin is probably the best choice. Though not everyone does, adding a lid to your compost bin is a good idea. It will help keep out pests and prevent your compost from getting too wet or dry with changes in the weather.
Rot-resistant woods like cedar or black locust are good choices if available. However, you should avoid pressure-treated lumber as it can leach chemicals into your compost.
Creating a bin from old shipping pallets is a great way to recycle and cut costs. Shipping pallets can often be found for little or no cost, just check with area businesses or your local Freecycle, Craigslist, or Facebook groups.
When designing your bin, remember that the microbes that break down compost need air circulation to survive. Leaving gaps in the bin's walls or using shipping pallets that already have gaps is key to efficiently making compost. Covering the inside of the walls with hardware cloth or chicken wire can help keep it pest-proof.
Also, consider how you’ll access your compost. Having one side of your bin that can easily be removed is ideal for when you need to maintain or use your compost.
Wire Compost Bin
The easiest DIY compost bin is made from welded wire or another sturdy fencing material. You can make a simple hoop, attaching the ends with zip ties or additional wire. The downside to this style is that you must move the ring to access the compost.
For a sturdier bin make a square of wire around four fence posts. Leave one end so that one side can be opened for easy access.
If you have space, creating multiple bins is another popular technique. This allows you to have compost in different stages.
When the compost in your first bin is fairly decomposed, start adding fresh material to the second bin and then repeat the process with the second and third bins. As the first bin matures you can use it in your garden while still adding fresh material to the third bin.
If you decide to purchase a pre-made compost bin here are a few options to consider.
Some garden supply stores near you may carry wooden compost bins. Look for one made of rot-resistant material like cedar that offers good air circulation to the compost. Like the homemade wooden bin discussed above, having a removable side comes in handy when you need to access your compost.
Easy to set up and affordable, many people opt for plastic bins if they want to get started right away. These have the obvious environmental downside of being made from plastic. Make sure to purchase one that allows you to access the compost easily and offers good air circulation.
Much like the wire bins we discussed above, you can purchase pre-made wire bins. They’re sturdy, allow good airflow, and generally hold a good bit of compost. Some may come with a lid.
You can also purchase compost tumblers which are essentially barrels on a stand. They allow you to easily flip or turn your compost. They’re a great choice for those who may not be physically able to turn compost by hand.
Tumblers also produce compost quickly, in as little as 6 weeks. However, they’re generally more expensive, hold less material, and many of them are made of plastic.
To make composting convenient most people opt to keep a small compost bucket in their kitchen to collect scraps throughout the day which can be transferred to their compost bin later. Like compost bins, you can find a variety of ready-made compost buckets available in a variety of styles.
Alternatively, recycling a plastic coffee can or another container will work just as well. Stainless steel will last the longest and won't absorb any smell. Kitchen scraps can also be frozen until you’re ready to compost them.
Alternatives for Apartment Dwellers
Living somewhere with limited outdoor space doesn’t exclude you from composting. There are many ways to compost even if you live in an apartment or condominium.
A great in-home composting option is a vermicompost system or worm bin. These systems allow you to compost fruit and vegetable scraps indoors with the help of worms. The worms eat the scraps and turn them into worm castings which are excellent for adding fertility to your garden. Like traditional bins, these can be made yourself or purchased.
These bins use microbes to ferment organic material right in your home. You can learn more about them here.
Alternatively, many towns and cities are now offering community compost programs. You can also check with local farms or community gardens to see if they have a program or would be interested in starting one.
For more alternatives check out our post, How to Compost in an Apartment.
Materials to Put in Your Compost Pile
There are a surprising number of items that can be composted. They fall into two basic categories, “brown” or carbon-rich material and “green” or nitrogen-rich material. Having a mix of these two types is key to the composting process.
- fallen leaves
- brown cardboard
- sawdust/wood chips
- small branches
- nail clippings
- shredded paper
- paper towels
- pine needles
- dry cornstalks
- wood ashes
- Pela cases and some other compostable plastics
- natural fabric scraps like cotton, linen, wool, or silk
- grass clippings
- plant trimmings
- vegetable and fruit scraps
- stale bread, crackers, and chips
- old condiments
- pasta, rice, oatmeal
- livestock manure
- coffee grounds/tea bags
- cut flowers
Materials to Avoid
There are a few things you should avoid putting in your compost. Feces from dogs and cats can have parasites that can be spread to humans through contact with the compost. Sawdust from treated lumber, shiny paper/cardboard, and ashes from coal and charcoal have harmful chemicals and won’t decompose well. Pest ridden or diseased plants should also be excluded to avoid contaminating your compost.
While it is possible to compost them, dairy, meat, fish, bones, fats, and oils can all cause your compost to stink and can attract pests. Especially if you’re adding significant quantities you’ll want to add a lot of brown material at the same time.
If you’ve been looking into home composting you may have seen ads for compost activators or starters. These little bags contain microbes that are supposed to help jump start your compost but they’re not necessary. Microbes are naturally present and will make it into your compost without your help.
If you want to ensure your compost has a lot of microbes in it from the beginning, just add a scoop or shovelful of soil from your garden or yard. Purchased compost activators may not have the microbes that thrive in your area anyway. Plus, most come in plastic bags which just creates more unnecessary waste.
How to Maintain Your Compost Pile
Ideally, you want a mix of greens and browns in your compost. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by keeping some brown material like leaves, straw, or wood chips on hand. Add a layer of these each time you need to add a layer of green material like your kitchen scraps.
If your compost pile stinks or appears wet and slimy you need to add more brown material. However, if it appears dry and isn’t decomposing quickly you should add more green material. You may also need to add a bit of water. Your compost should be moist but not drenched.
It’s okay to start composting with whatever material you have but compost decomposes fastest when you have a fairly good-sized pile. If you want compost quickly aim for a pile about 1 cubic yard at minimum. You can add to your compost pile as often as needed.
In cool weather, you may notice steam coming from your compost pile. Not to worry though, it’s just the microbes at work. When your compost pile is decomposing well the inside will reach temperatures between 120° and 170°F (49°-77°C).
It’s ideal to keep it below 150°F (66°C) as higher temperatures can kill the microbes. While most folks composting at home don’t, you can purchase a large thermometer to check on how your pile is doing.
This heat also helps to sterilize your compost. The high temperatures can kill weed seeds and plant diseases that may have gotten into your pile.
Turning Your Compost
You should also try to turn your compost pile about once a week or when temperatures begin to rise above or dip below the optimum range. To turn your compost pile just flip the material over with a pitchfork or shovel. This helps aerate and mix the compost, accelerating the composting process.
Backyard chicken keepers can employ their flock for this task. Chickens are great at turning compost while adding nitrogen-rich manure to it. Just know that they tend to spread it out, so keeping it in some sort of enclosure like a large compost bin that the chickens can get into is a good idea.
We all have busy lives and it isn’t the end of the world if you don’t turn your compost as often as is ideal. Your compost will break down more slowly but it will still decompose.
Composting in Winter
If you live in a cool climate and want to keep your compost going into the winter there are a few compost hacks to know. First set up your compost pile somewhere it will get plenty of sun in the winter if possible. You also want to make it as big as you can handle as this will help it hold heat.
A lid on your compost bin or even just a tarp will help prevent your compost heap from getting too wet if your area experiences a lot of precipitation. You can also use piles of leaves or even hay bales around your bin to insulate it.
Just like in the summer you’ll want to turn your compost and add materials. Monitoring the temperature can be especially helpful so you can turn the pile and add more materials as the temperature starts to dip. Indoor setups, like those we discussed for apartment dwellers, are another great option for this time of year.
Finishing Your Compost
When your compost pile begins to resemble soil more than the original organic materials, it’s getting close to being finished compost. At this point, if you want to use your compost soon you should stop adding new material. This is when a multi-bin system can come in handy!
Keep turning your compost until it looks like crumbly, dark, moist soil. Then it’s ready to use. You may still see a few pieces of large materials like sticks that don’t break down as quickly as the rest of your compost.
If you find there are still pieces of material that aren’t decomposed, you can screen your compost through a piece of hardware cloth over a wooden frame if desired. Alternatively, just pick out any large pieces as you notice them. What you screen out can be added to your next compost heap.
How to Use Your Compost
Compost is one of the best ways to build healthy soil! It adds nitrogen back to the soil which is key for plant growth. Compost also adds structure, improving the soil's ability to hold moisture which reduces the need for watering.
Compost is easy to use in the garden. Add 1-2 inches of compost to the top of your garden beds each fall or early spring to improve your yields. You can also add a handful of compost to the bottom of a hole when transplanting. Use a shovelful for larger plants or a couple for trees and shrubs.
Making Compost Tea
Compost tea is an easy way to give plants a quick boost. It’s perfect for plants that look like they need extra nitrogen (look for yellowing leaves) or vegetables that are getting ready to produce like tomatoes when they are flowering.
To make compost tea add a shovelful of compost to the bottom of a five-gallon bucket. If desired add a few tablespoons of powdered eggshells for extra calcium. Fill the bucket with water and let it sit for 48 hours to one week, stirring occasionally. Strain your mixture into another bucket. Recycled fabric like an old t-shirt or pillowcase is great for this.
Water each of your plants with 1-2 cups of tea around their roots. Water in the cool, early morning or evening to prevent evaporation.
Using Compost in Container Gardens
Compost can also be used to create a homemade potting mix for seed starting in the spring, container gardening, or houseplants. Check out this article for a full tutorial. Compost can also be mixed with existing potting soil to give houseplants a boost.
Composting is an easy way to help the planet. No matter where you live you can set up a compost system to help reduce emissions and create nutrient-rich soil.