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Composting Guide for Beginners

Have you been interested in composting but are worried that it is too difficult to learn?

With little more than fallen leaves from your yard and kitchen scraps, you can make dark humus-rich compost to add to your house plants and garden. Many gardeners refer to compost as black gold because it adds so much value to your soil.

Here are 5 tried and true steps to make your composting dreams reality...

Step 1: Choose a Compost Bin

You can make your own by building a square box, or you can buy one commercially made. While some people choose to go bin-less, opting for a simple heap on the ground, many prefer to use some kind of an enclosure for making their compost. There are a number of types of containers used to make compost but which type is best?
Well, the answer depends largely on how much space you have in your yard or garden and how much material you will be composting.
In general, the commercially made plastic compost bins are better for beginner composters, while the larger homemade bins are more suited to those who have a large volume of material to be composted. Let's look closer at the different types of compost bins as well as some of the advantages and disadvantages of each type.

Plastic Bin:

Due to their generally smaller size, commercially made plastic compost bins tend to be better for those who are not avid gardeners but want to compost some leaves and kitchen scraps. Adding wire mesh to the bottom of the bin ensures that vermin and other local wildlife do not become pests. Look for a model made from 100% recycled plastic.

Advantages of Plastic Compost Bins:

  • Locking lid keeps out vermin and local wildlife
  • Inexpensive and readily available

Disadvantages of Plastic Compost Bins:

  • Challenging to turn the compost through the top opening with a shovel or garden fork -consider using a compost aeration tool for best results
  • Lack of air circulation due to solid plastic sides and top
  • Removing finished compost from the bottom opening can be awkward
  • High temperatures needed to kill pathogens and weed seeds not often reached - plastic compost bins are often too narrow to enable the compost to fully heat up

Homemade Compost Bin:

Usually, but not always square, these are most often slatted style bins made from wood, or a combination of wood and wire mesh.

Here are some examples:

  • Wood posts driven into the ground with wood slats attached to sides
  • Wire mesh compost bin with wooden stakes at each of the four corners
  • A cylinder of wire mesh attached to two wooden posts driven into the ground
  • Shipping pallets set vertically and wired together to make a three sided compost bin

Advantages of Homemade Compost Bins:

  • Better air circulation than other bins
  • Generally hold a large amount of material
  • Easy to turn the materials
  • Easy to add new material and remove the finished compost
  • Placing two or three open style compost bins side-by-side is very effective as material can be moved from one bin to another as it nears completion of the composting cycle

Disadvantages of Homemade Compost Bins:

  • In areas where rodents or other unwanted creatures are a problem it can be challenging to keep them out of the bin. One solution is to use an open bin for garden waste and a second plastic bin for kitchen scraps and materials that attract animals.

Compost Tumbler:

Using a compost tumbler is one way to get finished compost in a reasonable amount of time with minimal effort. Although most of us will not be able to make finished compost in two to three weeks as some manufacturers claim, there are advantages in using a tumbler.

Advantages of Compost Tumblers:

  • Ease of turning the pile. The significance of turning your compost should not be underestimated. Turning an established compost pile can be a lot of work, so much so that most people simply don't do it enough
  • Shorter time to obtain finished compost than most other methods

Disadvantages of Compost Tumblers:

  • More expensive than plastic bins
  • Holding capacity is smaller than open compost bins
  • Some models can be quite difficult to turn when full
  • More difficult to build homemade version

Step 2: Select a Location for Your Compost Bin

Choose a site that is level and well drained that is easily accessible year round. Place the bin over bare soil rather than concrete or paving to ensure that worms and other beneficial organisms can make their way into the pile. It's a good idea to remove any grass or plants and turn the soil to a depth of about 6 - 8 inches.

Step 3: Add Good Composting Materials

Generally, composting ingredients can be divided into two categories:

  • Brown Materials such as leaves, hay, straw and paper
  • Green Materials: Vegetable peelings, fruit peelings, grass clippings, coffee grounds, fresh manure, green plant cuttings, annual weeds and young hedge trimmings. Make sure your garden and yard waste is untreated with pesticides if it is going into your bin.

What not to add to your compost:
Meat & bones, poultry & fish, fatty food waste, whole eggs, dairy products, human and pet feces, pernicious weeds, and treated wood.

Step 4: Making Great Compost

Making great compost is like making a giant layer cake! Well, not exactly but you will soon see what we mean.
Start with a 4 inch layer of brush, twigs, hay or straw at the bottom of the bin. Then add a 4 inch layer of brown material, then a thin layer of finished compost or good garden soil. That's one layer.
Then add a 4 inch layer of green material topped with a thin layer of compost or soil. Moisten each layer by misting it lightly with a garden hose. Keep adding materials in alternating layers of greens and browns until the bin is full.
Once you have a full bin you can turn the pile every 14 days or so. The more you turn the pile the faster you will have finished compost!

Step 5: Using Your Compost

Congratulations! Your compost is ready to use!
It can take anywhere from 14 days to 12 months to produce your finished compost. The time it takes can vary widely depending on the materials and methods used.

The point at which the compost is ready varies based on how the compost will be used. In general, though, compost is ready when dark and crumbly and mostly broken down with a pleasant, earthy, soil-like smell to it. For most uses it is acceptable to have some recognizable pieces of leaves or straw remaining.

Compost can be used for:
  • House Plants
  • Soil amendment
  • Flower and Vegetable Beds
  • New planting areas
  • Established planting areas
  • Lawn top dressing
  • Compost Tea
  • Around trees

You can now pat yourself on the back. You have put effort back into the soil. Your house plants, flowers, vegetables and trees will thank you by growing stronger and healthier than ever.

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