Starting Guide to Composting
What is compost?
When organic matter has finished decomposing the end result is compost. Although there are many types of organic matter such as manure, leaves, garden waste and kitchen scraps etc. although there are many types of composting organic matter will eventually do its job with or without you.
Composting does not have be a difficult task, most people can achieve quick results it’s just a matter of managing your time properly. If you want your compost to be ready faster then let’s get started.
To start we will use kitchen and garden waste. The only materials required at this time are a shovel or pitchfork. If you do not know where to build your compost pile there are compost bins or tumblers that you can use. In this case we will just use the ground but in the future a bin is more effective and keeps unwanted animals from your site.
Make sure that the compost is a safe distance from the house. All you need now are the ingredients. In the house you can start to collect kitchen scraps in a large coffee can or you may even use a large pail with a lid. You know when to take the scraps to your compost when you start to smell an odor. Make sure not to mix the compost too much, start out by mixing the compost once a week or less. This will speed up the process your compost needs to complete itself.
Try to obtain grass clippings and leaves for your compost. Leaves will provide carbon and your kitchen scraps will provide nitrogen. Try to stay away from scraps that are oily or greasy this will only attract unwanted pests. The best things for your compost are egg shells, coffee grinds, tea bags, bones and even hair. Many baseball diamonds have used hair to get their grass started. Undertake if possible a search for green manure if you can, if not regular steer manure will do.
When is the compost complete?
Once the organic matter has finished decomposing your will know by the texture and smell. When your compost has a strong odor your will know that it is not getting enough oxygen. If the end result smells woodsy or earthy then your compost is complete.
If you are concerned that you are using too much compost then stop worrying as your soil will never reject the amount that you use. The end result should be a proud yard, garden or plant you can enjoy.
Improving Soil with Compost
Soil modification is a key ingredient for how to start a garden. The content and texture of your soil is critical. To have a successful garden, you will need to have good soil. The best soil is not sandy, and it’s not too much like clay. It needs to be able to drain adequately, but hang on to enough moisture so that your plants don’t go thirsty. Too much sand and the water runs off, too much clay and you drown your plants. You may need to modify your soil before you start your garden.
If your soil sticks together, it’s too much like clay and you will need to amend it. If your soil is too sandy, meaning it won’t hardly stick together at all, you will also need to amend it. The way that you amend both kinds of soil is to add organic matter, or compost.
Luckily, organic matter is nothing more than plant or animal matter that is decomposing. The easiest way that you can add organic matter to your soil is to add compost or apply mulch. If you have a heavy clay like soil, it’s best to add manure, or green plant material since they break down more rapidly, instead of peat moss, straw or shredded bark, because they don’t break down as quickly. Even if you have good soil adding compost is always a good idea.
Adding compost to clay like soil makes it more pliable and improves its ability allow water to flow through. Sandy soil doesn’t have enough organic matter, so adding large amounts helps to give sandy soil a better ability to hold water. Large amounts of organic matter are likely to be needed to make your soil suitable. You will usually want to use a ratio of 2 to 1 compost to soil for it to be effective.
Air, water, minerals, and organic matter are all components of healthy soil. There are benefits of adding decomposed matter to good soil, in addition to compensating for poor soil like sand or clay, and that is it adds carbon, which promotes good bacteria growth, and it is more likely that you will have hearty plants.
You can’t have too much compost. In fact, you shouldn’t till your soil more than once or twice a year after you have worked in appropriate amounts of organic matter. This is because as the soil is turned, oxygen is added and it feeds the microbial activity that breaks down the organic matter. So if you don’t till it, it slows down the destruction of your organic matter.
If you invest the time to make sure you soil is healthy it will pay dividends when it comes to growing your garden.
You can compost for nothing ( zero pounds / dollars) by piling your garden and food waste up in a corner. How do you decide whether to pay 20, 60, 140 or even 900 pounds (yes really!) for a compost bin? You ‘justify’ the cash by convincing yourself of the ‘value’. We show you how to do this by checking the composting features meet your needs at a price you can afford.
Sounds like hard work – why not just go online, look for a 5 star ratings and best price – job done. Almost all the online reviews look like this “arrived/did not arrive on time (score 1-5), it was easy/hard to set up (score 1-5). I’d let you know how it works! The all important bit is missing – few return 12 months to let you know if it worked and how well.
We can summarize the process of how do choose the ‘right compost bin’ or the ‘best compost bin’ for you into seven steps:
Step 1 – WHY – define your goals
Step 2- WHERE – review your available space and site for the bin
Step 3 – WHAT & WHEN – how much garden and food waste you produce
Step 4 – EFFORT – how much time and effort you are willing to invest
Step 5 – HOW – which method (ex. hot, cold, digesters, vermicompost) and which bin features are essential and which are nice to have (ex. low odor, no rats, no flies, handle all food waste, kills pathogens, kills weed seeds)?
Step 6 – CHECK – build a feature list
Step 7 – MATCH – which compost bin will deliver the best price / performance
Before we go any further, let’s consider your time and effort to read this article. You might have the time and interest in composting to fully research the topic – if so read the detail below), but many will just want a ‘fast track’ to help them make a quick decision with a degree of confidence that they are choosing a one that will work.
The fast track
Read between the lines of the vendor marketing hype (that’s the polite term!).
Seek user recommendations. Ignore the ‘arrived/did not arrive’ on time, ‘easy/hard’ to assemble. Look for reviews that state “It works, it does what it says, I have great compost out fast, worth every penny, best compost bin used in 20 years.
Validate vendor promises (ex. compost in 7-days). Look for detailed scientific study from reputable independent organization that supports the claim. Walk away if nothing.
Check vendor ability – do they offer in-depth hands-on composting advice or just regurgitate the ‘list of things to compost’ that only applies to ‘cold’ composting? Look for advice that explains hot versus cold composting, how long it takes in each situation an why it differs when hot composting.
Look for vendors with ability in composting science & engineering. Composting obeys the laws of nature such as heat loss & cooling, rates/speed of biochemical reactions. You do not need to know about the science and engineering of composting – but I believe your compost bin vendor should.
For those who want to look into the detail, here is a little more depth around the seven steps to help you choose a compost bin
Step 1 – Consider your composting goals
Do you want to make lots of rich/great compost for your garden that will improve its fertility and cut down how much fertilizer and maybe even peat you use?
Do you just want to keep the garden tidy?
Do you want to make a more positive contribution to the environment by recycling all your food waste so your local council no longer has to collect and transport it to landfill?
Are you just fed up with allocating more and more of your flower or vegetable patch to overflowing compost bins that never seem to do anything?
What are your goals on sustainability, organic gardening, good use of limited resources.
Step 2 – Review your available space and site for the compost bin
Some compost bins need a certain site (ex. a sunny spot, or the opposite keep in the shade’, ‘only use on soil’, ‘do not use on clay soil’. You may have very little choice (ex. it needs to go on the concrete by the garage). Your site may limit your compost bin choice.
You might have a small garden and no space for a large compost bin, conversely you might have very large garden and taking 9 square feet for a traditional 3-bay compost bin system might pose no issues.
Do you want to the compost bin close to the kitchen so you can pop out easily in the rain to empty your food caddy?
Step 3 – Review the volume of garden and food waste you produce
Are you just going to compost seasonal garden waste (summer/autumn)
Do you want to compost grass cuttings (spring, summer, autumn)
Do you want to compost food waste – produced all year-round – ie compost through winter
How much of each type of waste do you have? In my experience, very few garden composters or food waste recyclers accurately know how many litres (or Kgs) of waste they produce. Very few want to record and measure it either. Choosing the right compost bin size is also further complicated as compost bins can (given the right conditions ‘hot compost’). Hot compost 32 times faster than a competitor bin that only facilitates ‘cold composting. So 5 gallons of waste a week in one bin would rapidly break down within a week, but in another bin build up over time and need a 100 gallon bin.
Step 4 – Consider if you want to ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ compost?
The headline benefits of ‘hot’ composting over ‘cold’ composting are:
- Hot composting will destroy weed seeds – saving you time and effort in future
- Hot composting will destroy dangerous bacteria – you can compost all food waste
- Hot composting requires far less space to compost the same amount of waste
- Hot composting requires dramatically less time (ex. 30 days Vs 360 days)
- Hot composting works all year-round (cold heaps stop in winter below 5C)
Step 5 – How much time and effort you are willing to spend on composting
This is hard – everyone tends to answer – ‘none / minimal’. The more a vendor knows this is critical to your choice, the more pressure to use the term ‘easy’ and the bigger the potential expectation gap and likely hood of user disappointment. There is always some effort (ex. collecting food, turning, mixing, shredding). In our experience, it is easier when you follow simple steps. Investing the time to form habits is challenging – especially at the start when people perceive the habits are taking more time not saving time.
So, now you have a clear picture of what you want. Next, how do you check and match the compost bin against your composting goals?
Step 6 – Build a compost bin feature list
Build a feature list, find the top 10 commercial bins, score each feature, ignore those compost bins that do not fit your needs to produce a short list; then weight/score the remaining compost bins to find the best match.
Step 7 – Assess which compost bin will deliver the best price/performance
Score each compost bin against each feature to find the overall value for money score – the million dollar question!
Commercial Product managers do this kind of work as their day job – but it is likely very few composters, gardeners or food waste recyclers have the time or inclination to do this. Follow our link to the ‘compost bin competitive evaluation sheet’. You will find 12 widely available compost bins types and brands analyzed. You can play around with the scores and weighting to see which you think is best.
How To Improve Garden Soil Naturally
Healthy garden soil is teeming with life: there are earthworms and micro-organisms by the millions, each with a particular function in making soil fertile. Like any living thing, the soil must have food. Without food, the life in soil either leaves or dies. Eventually, the garden itself weakens and dies.
Soil life eats organic matter, decomposing it and creating a crucial soil element called humus. Humus is decayed organic material. The process of decomposition releases nutrients in forms that plants can absorb. In other words, decomposition of organic material has a fertilizing effect.
But fertility is only part of the value of regularly feeding the soil with organic material. Humus also contributes to the sponge-like soil texture that allows air circulation and moisture retention. Loam — the ideal soil for growing plants – is a balanced mixture of sand, clay, silt, and organic matter. Humus will bind sandy soil or loosen hard-packed clay.
For these beneficial results (for fertility and texture), the life in soil needs fresh food. Regular doses of organic material will ensure that garden dirt is enhanced rather than depleted over the lifetime of the garden. Every year, a 30 by 40 foot garden needs around 400 pounds (equivalent to 10 bales of hay) of organic material, but it doesn’t need to be added all at once.
Additions of organic material take a variety of forms. For starters, chop garden residues into the soil: weeds, mulch, and plants left after harvest. Hauling in compost by the yard from nurseries or hauling animal manures from nearby farms is also an option. But the easiest and most cost effective method of continuous additions of organic material is to grow cover crops, also known as green manures.
Cover crops are grown and tilled into the soil, replenishing rather than removing nutrients. Even in a small garden, this is an effective method when a harvest crop and a green manure are grown in rotation. For instance, plant a late summer green manure after an early crop such as peas or broccoli.
Some suggestions for cover crops include legumes, buckwheat, and rye grass.
Legumes such as peas and soybeans fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil when inoculated seeds that attract certain micro-organisms are used. In addition, these legumes are vegetables, making a single planting both a harvest crop and a green manure.
For bulk and quick growth, rye grass or other annual grains are good choices. In colder climates these are especially good cover crops for the end of summer because they die over the winter and are easy to till in the spring. For the poorest soils, buckwheat is most useful.
Green manures can work with or without using powered equipment, but in larger gardens a rotor-tiller certainly makes the process easier. In smaller gardens, the question of whether it makes financial sense to invest in renting or buying a rotor-tiller has to be weighed against the cost of hauling in compost and animal manures.
Either way – hauling or tilling – some form of additional organic material beyond chopping in garden residues must happen in order for the soil to function and for the plants it supports to thrive.