Compost Basics: How to Get Started with Composting

Start composting with these easy gardening tips.

Step 1: Getting Started

Consider both aesthetics and function as you look for an area in your yard to store compost.

The area should be convenient for adding materials and removing the compost. But you don’t want it to detract from the beauty of your (or your neighbor’s) landscape. Make sure the pile is located on a level, well-drained area.

Also, locate the pile close to the garden hose so you can moisten it during dry periods. Learn how to make a DIY compost bin.

Step 2: Let the Sun Shine

Composting works in both sun and shade, but warm sunlight speeds up the decomposition process.

Drainage is just as important. Poorly drained sites result in waterlogged piles that decompose slowly and tend to smell bad.

Improve drainage by building your pile on top of a screen-covered wood pallet. You also can dig a shallow hole and lay wood or metal supports across it to hold screening. Then set the pile on top of the screen.

Step 3: Layering Method

Place larger materials on the bottom of the heap (like sunflower stalks, shrub trimmings, twigs or old tomato vines). This increases air flow at the bottom of the pile to speed up decomposition.

The next layer should be equal parts green and brown plant material.

Step 4: Air Circulation

Every time you add material, mix it with a garden fork. Be sure to move less decomposed matter to the center of the pile.

Also, poke air holes into the compost pile with a broom handle. A chimney of PVC pipe with several holes drilled in it also works well. Just stack your materials around the pipe.

Step 5: Finished Product

It can take 3 months to 2 years to make finished compost. The more attention you give the pile (frequent turnings, proper ingredients, maintaining proper moisture, etc.), the faster it breaks down.

When the composting process is finished, the dark rich treasure at the bottom will crumble in your hands…and help your garden thrive.

The Compost Mantra

“Equal parts of green and brown help to break the compost down” is a good basic gardening guide for creating fast compost. If your compost has an ammonia odor, you need more carbon-rich brown debris. If your compost isn’t decomposing fast enough, you can add more nitrogen-rich green debris. Here are a few common sources of green and brown debris.

Green Waste (Nitrogen)

  • Fruit wastes
  • Spent annuals
  • Grass clippings (free of weedkillers)
  • Manure
  • Seaweed and kelp
  • Vegetable peelings
  • Coffee grounds

Brown Waste (Carbon)

  • Cornstalks and cobs
  • Evergreen needles
  • Paper
  • Sawdust and wood chips
  • Straw and hay
  • Tree leaves

What NOT to Compost

  • Disease- and insect-infested plants
  • Charcoal ashes
  • Fabric
  • Grass clippings treated with weed killer
  • Meat, fish, bones, egg whites or yolks, and fats
  • Pet, bird and human waste
  • Perennial weeds that can take root in the compost (bindweed, quack)
  • Weeds gone to seed
  • Invasive weeds

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