Once upon a time at our first house, we used to have a compost pile. It was in a back corner of our backyard, in an area the size of a small sandbox, and it was mostly my husband’s project. He built the low wooden sides for it, and used it mostly as a place to put dead leaves and fresh grass clippings. It was hidden by shrubs on one end so it wasn’t super noticeable. I’d have fun once in awhile throwing banana peels and coffee grounds on it, and he’d turn the pile every week or so, just like it’s supposed to be turned, and it got rained on, and got baked in the sun, and it turned into compost– good rich compost that he used when he planted a tree, or when we had a vegetable garden, or other yard projects. Because it was turned enough, it never smelled, and it didn’t attract pests.
The backyard of our next house came with a tall, commercially made, plastic compost barrel sitting on a metal stand (the whole thing is called a compost “tumbler”), but we hardly ever used it. It was too narrow and sat too high up for leaves or grass to be easily dumped in, and when it was turned, the narrowness of it made it a “flop” when it came to mixing things together properly. And why we never created our own compost pile elsewhere in that monster of a yard, I’m not certain. But I have a hunch it was because the yard was so big, with so much lawn and so many shrubs, and my husband was determined to do it all himself, that there was just “too much” yard waste and not enough time to do much more than keep up with the mowing and weed whacking. And as our kids got more involved in activities, there was even less time for yard and garden.
Now that I know more about compost, am an empty nester and live in a house with a much smaller yard, I’ve started making it all by myself–and it’s fun, and so EASY, and I wish I hadn’t waited so long to start. It would have been a great teaching activity for our kids, and for the Girl Scout troop I once helped lead. Compost is basically a natural fertilizer, just about the best soil enricher you can have, that is made from not just decomposing leaves, grass, and food scraps, but all kinds of other “stuff” can be included– like dryer lint, pet hair, torn up newspapers, even those annoying “tassels” that fall down from oak trees– and after awhile (and some turning), all that stuff breaks down and transforms into a rich, dark earthy, soil-like substance. Like magic. You can make a small amount or a large amount, depending on what you make it in; it can take more than a year to make or a few months, depending on how you make it. You can use it to enrich your own landscape or simply collect food scraps and give it to companies that make compost for the community and for local farmers, as I’ve written about in a previous post. Though there are a lot of articles out there that talk about the proper “layering” of a compost pile, and using manure to make it just right, and other things that make many people NOT want to try it, we learned from a gardening friend with our first pile that it doesn’t have to be that complicated. You keep throwing together what you can and keep turning it, and it will all work out. For this latest go-round, I started last fall with some cut up Halloween pumpkin rinds, some leaves, coffee grounds and some old shredded newspapers, and I keep learning as I go what else I can add. And it’s doing just fine.
So in the interest of helping others try it, too, and maybe encourage some to “play along with me”, here’s how to start, in three easy steps:
- Make or buy a compost bin or tumbler; or create a pile in your yard. I first tried to find a good tumbler online through secondhand sites, and while there were several available, they weren’t what I was looking for. Because of the small size of our backyard/patio, I wanted something small, that could hide on the end of a row of small shrubs and not stick out like a sore thumb, as well as not be too far from the back door. And “the perfect compost bin” for me was a tumbler I found on Amazon (see just how good it fits next to those shrubs by following untrash.blog on Instagram). It’s just the right size (18.5 gallon capacity, 29.5 inches high and only 17 inches wide and about 23 inches in depth), and it was easy to put together. (There are lots of ideas online for creating bins and piles out of something you may already have at home; click here for how to make a bin out of a storage tub; and here for creating a pile in the yard. Keep toxins in mind if you choose a plastic container– look for BPA-free, food grade and UV-protected plastics if possible).
- Start adding “stuff.” Remember to think “browns” and “greens”. Browns are carbon-rich items (such as fallen, dead leaves; dried grass, shredded cardboard and newspaper; coffee filters; paper towels; sawdust; papery garlic and onion skins) and “greens” are nitrogen-rich items (such as fresh grass, plant trimmings, flowers, hair, and food scraps such as broccoli stalks, lettuce, fruit peels, egg shells and coffee grounds)– no meats or fats. So that the materials break down well (and to keep a good “earthy” smell going), a good ratio in your compost bin or pile is two parts brown for every one part green. (Hint: Collect food scraps in a countertop container or under-the-cabinet pail so you don’t have to walk outside after every meal; see my post about coffee grounds to learn about what I use.) If your decaying material outside seems too soggy, smelly or is attracting gnats, these are good signs that more browns need to be added.
- Turn it at least every 7-14 days, or more often, to get air into the mix. (My compost tumbler rotates on a stand like a mini Ferris wheel, making it easy to turn the contents– no shovel needed!) The more often you can turn it, the better. Oxygen encourages the contents to decay faster. Be sure to add some water to the mix if you’ve had a dry spell in the weather (a good compost bin or tumbler has tiny holes to let in air and rain).
And that’s it. With the “cold” composting or “as you go” method (which is what I’m doing), you keep adding to it over time and compost is slowly made, sometimes taking a year or more. “Hot composting” or the batch method is when you want/need it to finish faster– but that involves a few more steps. You stop adding ingredients to it, let it keep heating up (and it will, with all that decaying going on) to hopefully the ideal temperature between 90-155 degrees Farenheit (yes, there are compost thermometers available to “take its temperature”), and keep turning it regularly. When the mixture is “done” it will naturally start to cool down. Once it does, you let it “cure” for a couple weeks, with the whole “hot” process finished in 4-8 months.
Something tells me I’m going to reach the limit of my container at some point and will switch to the “hot” method when I can’t add any more, but as things break down there seems to be more and more room inside…stay tuned!