What is Composting and How to Make Your Own Compost?

Did you know that in America alone 210 million tons of solid waste is produced each year? Most of the waste is disposed off in municipal landfills. Recycling and compositing are the two viable alternatives for reducing the amount of waste generated. Recycling paper, plastic and cardboard can save close to 56 million tons of waste and in the process save a lot of natural resources. Composting allows the solid waste to be transformed into natural soil fertilizer. It is a fairly inexpensive process and helps take care of house hold wastes. It can be employed by any householder in their yard or even in their kitchen.

Garden compost

How Does Composting Work?

Composting simulates the natural process of decay and rotting which takes place in nature. Organic wastes are eaten up by micro organisms to produce a carbon containing and fiber rich product called the humus which also contains inorganic nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. The four elements which are essential for composting are as given below:

  • Organic waste
  • Water/Moisture
  • Air
  • Heat/Sunlight

A few conditions that should be satisfied in order to have a quick compost are as below:

  • Plenty of air accomplished through regular turning of the compost
  • Adequate water accomplished through regular sprinkling of water
  • Organic waste with proper mix of carbon and nitrogen the right ratio is 30:1
  • Small particle size accomplished by shredding and cutting big pieces into smaller pieces
  • An adequate amount of heat. Heat is generated automatically because of decomposition but sunlight is required for the decomposition to happen at a faster rate.

You don’t need to worry about the excess growth of bacteria or fungi because nature takes care of the balance. The bacteria and fungi are eaten up by the protozoa and nematodes which are further eaten up by mites and beetles. Thus a balance is maintained on the population growth. This also improves the efficiency of the decomposition process.

Here are some great articles on composting basics for beginners.

Compost – how to make?

Given below are a few basic instructions on how to make compost in your own backyard.

Choosing the Site for the Compost Pile

The first step to consider in making your own compost is the site. The parameters to be considered while choosing a site for building the compost pile are:

  • If the compost pile is medium sized or large, prepare the site outside your home at a distance where you can walk comfortably.
  • Avoid building the pile near your house boundaries so that the neighbors are not discomforted by the smell of decomposition
  • If possible have the compost pile placed in the direction of downwind so that the breeze can carry the odor away.
  • The site should be protected from winds and strong air currents
  • The site should receive at-least some amount of sunlight through the day
  • There should be some drainage facility around the pile to get rid of excess water
  • There should be sufficient work area around the pile so that you can comfortably accomplish the tasks of turning the compost and sprinkling water on it.

Choosing a structure for the compost pile

You can either dig a hole in the ground to make your compost or consider going for a composter. A composter is a device that contains the compost in a little area allowing you to aerate and water the compost with ease. A composter can either be a static bin with a covering (to prevent rain water from affecting the pile and prevent scattering by the wind) or a bin suspended on an axle to facilitate turning also known as the compost tumbler. Both of these can be made easily at your own home.

You can build your own bins using chicken wire, plastic barrel, wood, concrete and PVC. You can also consider purchasing a traditional or tumbling composter. The compost container to be used for composting can be a single bin, in which you keep adding the waste materials and turn it regularly, or it can be multiple bins like a 3 bin structure. You can transfer the decomposed compost to the next bin and when the process is completed you can move the finished product to the third bin. The first bin will always contain the fresh waste.

Once you have the composter in place the next step is to start adding organic waste with the right proportion of carbon and nitrogen content so they start decomposing quickly (the right ratio is 30 parts of carbon to 1 part nitrogen waste). If you do this right you should have your compost ready in around 1 or 2 months time. It can sometimes take up to six months or more if you do it wrong. But don’t worry about it. Just get started and you will learn by experience. The important thing is to get started making your compost.

What to Compost?

Below is a list of ingredients which can be used as the organic component in the compost pile.

Wastes from the kitchen

  • 1. Vegetable peels, fruit skins, seeds, leaves and other wastes like corn cobs
  • 2. Tea bags, napkins and coffee wastes
  • 3. Eggs shell finely grounded

Make sure these wastes are properly grinded into fine and small pieces to allow for quicker decomposition a blender or food processor can be used for this process.

Waste from your garden and yard

  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Barks
  • Pine needles
  • Weeds
  • Branches
  • Straw and hay

Paper wastes

  • Newspaper
  • Wrapping paper
  • Writing paper
  • Tissue paper

Other materials which can be used are

  • Cardboard
  • Saw dust
  • Wood clippings
  • Sea weed
  • Cotton rags
  • Nut shells

A few innovative ideas for compost materials are as below:

There are several thrash items which we discard that can be used as compost material. Next time you are about to trash something just consider if it can be used in your compost pile. A few examples of house hold wastes that can be used for compost are as below

  • Stale bread, cooked rice leftovers, cooked pasta leftovers (as long as it is plain)
  • Pretzels, pizza crusts, jam, jelly
  • Paper bags, pizza boxes, egg cartons, cereal boxes, paper cups
  • Fur, hair, wool
  • Stale beer, wine and wine corks
  • Toilet paper, nail clippings, loofahs, tissues

What not to compost?

Here is the list of waste products you should not be using in your compost pile:

  • Human and animal excreta: the presence of harmful disease causing bacteria and parasites in these wastes makes them unsuitable for the compost.
  • Infected garden plants: Never place diseased garden plants in the pile. They have the tendency to infect the whole pile and the end product.
  • Invasive Weeds: Certain weeds survive the decomposition process, examples are buttercups, morning glory and quack grass. Be sure to avoid their use in the compost pile. The seeds of these weeds will end up in the end product which will result in the propagation of weeds in the area where you spread the compost.
  • Charcoal: toxic to the microorganisms
  • Pesticide treated plants: The presence of pesticide chemicals is harmful to the microorganisms.
  • Oils, Meat, fats, lard and grease: Attracts pests and vermin and also create a bad odor.

How do you know when the compost is ready?

The simplest measure of whether the compost is ready is to determine if there is anything in the pile which can be identified as the original waste. A complete decomposition always results in a crumbly and earthy end product which is black or dark brown in color.

Once the decomposition is over the temperature of the pile will come down and you can touch the surface of the compost after turning and see if it is relatively cool.

There should be no foul smell coming from the finished compost. The most common smell of finished compost is that of earth.

The compost after decomposition reduces by close to 50% in volume.

The common advantages of using compost in your garden are as below

  • To improve the soil structure
  • To increase the activity of soil microbes
  • To enhance the soil nutrients
  • To increase the soil pH or acidity
  • Improve disease resistance
  • Allow for more air circulation
  • Improve soil water retention capacity
  • Allow for easier growth of the roots due to increased porosity of the soil
  • Reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers
  • Improve yields
  • Cost effective and natural remedy for soil pollution

Composting is eco-friendly for the following reasons

Putting yard wastes and food wastes in landfills causes the production of harmful methane gas. The emission of this gas is carefully controlled by the authorities to prevent it from entering the residential areas. Methane is a greenhouse gas and it is highly toxic. Composting allows for effective utilization of yard wastes and food wastes. Waste reduction prevents greenhouse gas emission from increasing, helps combat soil pollution, saves energy, reduces the need for new disposal facilities and conserves resources

Buying compost commercially

There was a time when compost manufacturing was completely a public enterprise. But now there has been huge investment from private companies and high grade compost is being manufactured and packaged utilizing the yard trimmings and the food residuals collected by the municipal corporations. The usual cost of a ton of compost is close to 26$ and can go up to 100$ for high-grade compost.

Dealing with commons problems of composting

The two major problems associated with composting are odor and pests. You can safely combat both the problems if you follow the suggestions given below.

Dealing with odor:

a.) The major cause of obnoxious odor is the absence of air circulation in the compost pile. Decomposition which takes place in conditions of insufficient oxygen will result them becoming anaerobic. Another technique to avoid odors is to maintain a proper balance of carbon producing wastes like paper, cardboard and wood chips and nitrogen producing wastes such as grass clippings and food scraps

b.) Adding saw dust and wood clippings will increase the porosity of the pile allowing for better oxygen supply.

c.) Avoid the use of diary products and non-vegetarian wastes. The presence of these products is the major cause of foul odor in most compost bins.

d.) Keep the moisture levels low. Increased wetness in the bin will block air passage. Slight sprinkling water around the compost on daily basis should be more than sufficient to maintain the moisture content of the pile.

e.) If there is too much moisture, keep the bin lid open so that it can evaporate.

f.) Clean the bin using soap water after the compost has been cleared out.

Dealing with pests:

a.) If you are householder and are employing backyard composting, it makes sense to avoid the use of meat wastes, diary product wastes like cheese, yoghurt and greases like oils, fats, salad dressings. The odor of these food products will attract rodents and vermin.

b.) Keep the bin tightly covered at all times

c.) To avoid fruit flies from infesting the compost piles, you can consider wrapping up the wastes in paper before adding it to the pile. Freezing the wastes overnight before adding it to the compost pile will also help.

d.) Surrounding the compost bin with barb wire will discourage rodents from entering the bin.