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How to Start Composting in the Backyard

Compost, sometimes referred to as “black gold” because of its value as a nutrient-rich amendment to garden soil, has had a hand (or shovel) in creating many beautiful landscapes. Composting is an eco-friendly method of enhancing the soil while reducing the steady stream of waste that flows into our landfills daily. But where do you start if you want to create your own compost pile in the backyard?

Generating your own compost at home doesn’t have to be an intimidating venture. A little planning, the right mix of food and vegetation waste and water, plus occasional attention along the way will yield rich compost for your garden. Grab a pitchfork, and let’s get started.

Quick Start to Composting

Composting is a fancy word for setting aside an area in the backyard where you collect various organic waste and materials and allow them time to decompose into a nutrient-rich soil amendment that is then returned to the garden soil.

Can I Compost in My Yard?

You can compost in your yard. While it’s not the only way or place to compost, creating a compost pile in your yard is the best way to get the space and natural benefits of water and air needed to maximize your composting efforts.

If your yard isn’t suited for a composting area, there’s still the option to compost inside using specially designed indoor bins. Your compost output will be smaller in quantity, but it still provides you with a quality soil amendment.

I recommend this All Season Indoor Composter (link to Amazon) for starters. Even if you have an outdoor compost, this will save you from making trips outside after every meal.

Types of Composting

There are two basic types of composting: the cold (or passive) method and the hot (or active) method. Which one you choose depends on:

  • The amount of effort you want to spend
  • How quickly you want to see results
  • The amount of space you have
  • The type and quantity of organic waste you have

Cold Composting

Cold composting is called passive composting because it requires much less effort and maintenance. While it takes less time from the gardener, it actually takes longer to develop usable compost—potentially one to two years.

The cold composting method works for those who don’t have a lot of organic waste to compost or who don’t want to spend a lot of time creating just the right environment. Everything will decompose eventually, so cold composting simply takes advantage of this natural process and lets matter decay at its own rate.

Note: The temperature in cold compost piles may not get high enough to kill harmful organisms or weed seeds. Harmful pathogens could stay in the compost and be spread back into the garden.

Hot Composting

Hot or active composting is a quicker way to get quality compost but requires more attention and effort from the gardener. Usable compost may be ready in anywhere from four weeks to a year.

Successful hot composting is a result of getting the right balance of carbon and nitrogen, air and water that provide the optimal environment for organic decomposition. It takes a much more hands-on approach from the gardener.

Here’s a quick video by a master gardener about the difference between hot and cold composting:

How to Compost in the Backyard

Now that you know the basics of composting, the following are some easy steps for starting a compost in the backyard: 

Select the Ideal Composting Location

A compost pile requires a spot that is dry and shady. You’ll need to have a water source nearby to keep the pile moist, but the compost spot itself should not be in an area that retains water or stays muddy.

Avoid places with poor drainage or those that receive excessive water run-off, like under the eaves of a house or garden shed. Rain pouring off the roof will cause your compost pile to stay too wet.

For sunny climates, put your compost pile in a spot that gets shade from the direct afternoon sun. The sun will tend to dry out your pile quickly, and you’ll have to spend more time adding water to promote the breakdown of the material.

Create the Right Size Compost Bin or Area

For best results, you need an area of three to five cubic feet in size. Too small a space, and your pile won’t get hot enough internally to support the aerobic organisms to live and do their job breaking down matter. Too large a space, and it’s difficult for air to reach the middle of the pile. A larger pile is also harder to turn and mix as needed.

Compost piles can be as simple or as fancy as you want. From an unstructured pile on the ground to ready-made bins you can buy, the options are endless.

Start a Pile

Using the size recommendations above, clear out an area in a dry, shady spot and begin adding organic material. If you choose, you can cover the top of the pile with a tarp to promote more heat in the pile’s interior.

Build a Bin

Here’s where your creativity can shine. Even the occasional DIY-er can manage to create a functional compost bin using commonly found items. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

  • Plastic tote box or garbage can: Use a drill to put holes in the sides of the box or can and its lid. Start adding material.
  • Wood pallets: Repurpose old pallets by standing them up as a square box and attaching them to each other.
  • Lumber and chicken wire: Build simple box frames out of lumber (size and length are up to you). Space the lumber apart for airflow and add chicken wire (link to Amazon) on all four vertical sides.
  • Wire mesh: Buy a roll of wire mesh here. Stand it on edge and unroll it until you can create a round bin in the size you desire. Cut and connect the two ends.

Purchase a Bin

Visit any home improvement store or yard supply website, and you’ll find quite a selection of compost bins ready to purchase and use. For the absolute non-DIYer, this is the way to go.

Check out these options:

  • Tumbling composter: This 43-gallon model comes with a stand and lets you spin it with the flick of a finger.
  • Heavy-duty bin: A 65-gallon trapezoidal-shaped bin offers access doors at the bottom and a snap-on lid.
  • Durable plastic round bin: The roll design of this bin allows you to adjust its size as needed. With a 220-gallon capacity and ventilation holes, it’s optimized for good air circulation and quick composting.
  • Cedar wood bin: At 48 inches square and 31 inches high, this attractive cedar bin boasts a capacity of 309 gallons. The slatted sides provide good airflow.

Here’s a quick video about how to add compost material to your compost pile, with more info below:

Add Composting Materials

Now that you’ve got a spot picked out and a bin in place, it’s time to add organic materials to the compost pile. Successful composting requires three ingredients: brown materials, green materials, and water.

Browns Provide Carbon

Carbon is one of the essential elements for life and can be found in dead or dying plant material. Carbon is a food source for the decomposing organisms that will work to break down all the waste you add to the compost pile.

Browns for the compost pile include:

  • Dead twigs, branches, sticks, leaves
  • Pine needles
  • Hay and Straw
  • Cornstalks
  • Paper and cardboard
  • Dryer lint
  • Cotton fabric

Greens Provide Nitrogen

Nitrogen is another basic element that plays a critical role in the growth of plants. Damp organic material that has recently been growing is loaded with nitrogen. These greens will help the decomposers in your compost pile increase quickly.

Greens for the compost pile include:

  • Vegetable and fruit scraps
  • Grass clippings
  • Coffee and tea grounds or bags
  • Plant clippings
  • Eggshells

As you mix in greens, particularly food waste, on an ongoing basis, be sure to bury them within the compost pile about 8-10 inches deep. This will deter wildlife and pesky insects like flies from becoming a nuisance.

Water and Air Are Essential

The decomposers working on the organic compost material need water and oxygen to survive and thrive in the pile. Maintaining the right mix of water and air will help speed up the composting process.

  • Moisture: Ideally, the compost pile will be about the same dampness as a sponge that’s been wrung out.
  • Oxygen: To generate airflow through the compost pile, turn the pile regularly with a pitchfork or by rolling a barrel-shaped bin.

If you are cold composting, getting a good mix of air and water is not so important. The pile will eventually decompose on its own—it will just take longer.

What Can You Compost?

Anything that comes from the ground can be composted. Animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs will attract animals and insects and should not be composted.

DO Compost TheseDON’T Compost These
Fruits and vegetablesDairy products (odor problems and attracts pests)
Coffee grounds and filtersEggs (odor problems and attracts pests)  
Tea bagsMeat or fish bones (odor problems and attracts pests)
EggshellsFats, grease, or lard (odor problems and attracts pests)
Cardboard, paper, shredded newspaperDiseased plants (may contain diseases that can transfer to existing garden plants)
Sawdust, hay, and strawCharcoal or coal ash (can contain substances that will hurt garden plants)
Hair and furBlack Walnut tree leaves or twigs
Untreated yard trimmingsPet waste (may contain harmful parasites, germs, viruses, and pathogens)
Grass clippingsChemically treated yard trimmings (chemicals may kill good organisms that fuel composting)
Fireplace ashesInorganic materials like plastic or glossy/colored paper

Provide the Right Mix of Compost Ingredients

Begin to layer in the compostable materials you’ve collected. Add brown and green matter as you generate them, and moisten any dry ingredients as you add them. Be sure larger pieces are chopped or cut up into smaller bits so they will decompose quicker.

To get the pile started initially, it’s a good idea to build layers of brown and green materials. Later you can simply add materials as they are generated in the yard or house.

  1. First, put in dry brown matter like twigs and leaves as a base layer to allow airflow.
  2. Cover the browns with a layer of dirt.
  3. Next, add the damp, green materials
  4. Cover the greens with a layer of dirt.
  5. Continue layering and end with a layer of browns.
  6. Wet the pile as you assemble it and water as needed to maintain a slight dampness throughout.
  7. Leave the pile alone for the first four days after constructing it initially. Then you can begin to turn on a regular basis.

Getting the right mix of browns and greens makes for a rich pile of compost. The most effective ratio is 3-4 parts brown to 1 part green.

Achieve the Right Temperature

Hot composting is all about the temperature of the pile. The right balance of brown and green ingredients plus water and oxygen will generate the perfect environment for decomposers to do their job of breaking down organic matter.

Ideally, the temperature of a compost pile should stay about 130° -140° Fahrenheit.

This temperature level helps kill off any bacteria lurking in the pile and gives aerobic organisms what they need to reproduce quickly and maximize decomposition.

Use the Compost When It’s Ready

It will take some time for the compost to develop and be ready to use in your garden. Depending on whether you are doing hot or cold composting, you’ll need to allow anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years for the compost pile ingredients to break down into a usable soil amendment.

  • A hot compost pile is ready when the pile no longer heats up, even after being turned over again. Let the pile sit for a few more weeks to cure. Decomposing microbes will continue to work at the lower temperature while earthworms and larger organisms can move in.
  • A cold compost pile can be a little trickier to figure out, but most will be ready after a year or so. The bulk of the pile should look like rich garden soil with no specific ingredients visible.

Mature compost will have a rich, dark brown color, be slightly moist but crumbly, and smell like dirt. Fully decomposed compost will have no recognizable individual ingredients.

Compost that isn’t mature enough may contain acids and pathogens that can damage healthy plants. Plus, it will continue to decompose, using nitrogen and carbon that your growing plants need to thrive.

Final Thoughts

Not only is composting useful for improving local garden soil, but it’s also an activity homeowners can be proud to undertake on a global scale. Composting slows the stream of waste to our landfills and impacts the effects of our human footprint on the world.

Developing good quality compost takes some time and effort. But, as you shovel that rich, dark organic matter into your garden beds and watch your flowers or vegetables flourish, surely, you’ll agree that it was worth the wait.

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