Backyard Composting: How To Get Started & What To Expect
Composting is almost a lost art as of late.
Luckily, it’s a simple matter to learn the basics of creating rich garden soil without buying fertilizers.
It’s not only rewarding – it’s also a great benefit to the environment and a good way to lead by example.
And the more people interested in nutrient and green waste recycling, the better off we all are.
So, why is composting so important?
Why should you compost?
Humans now weigh substantially more than all wild mammals on Earth combined.
Glossing over the horrifying implications of this, it’s obvious that a lot of poop is now missing from the food chain. Human waste (having replaced wild animal waste) gets treated and removed from the system.
We grow food, remove it from the earth, and then consume it without returning much of those nutrients to the ground as waste.
But this wasn’t always the way. Night soil, another term for human poo, was once collected to spread on fields.
But as the link between human dung and cholera became harder to ignore, sanitation overtook this practice as a high priority.
With a sudden leap in hygiene came a sudden drop in nutrient recycling, and soils have become less fertile while overpopulation demands the same soils provide a continuous supply of food.
Mineral fertilizers are now vital for our food system, and nutrients are sourced from opposite ends of the planet before being injected back into the Earth; the principles of sustainable farming are routinely ignored in favor of cost-cutting measures.
As this concept becomes better understood, we’re returning to the old ways – and fertilizers made from human urine and feces seem to be safe to use in food production.
In fact, replacing common fertilizers with human waste in vegetable planting may well increase the production and quality of vegetables while improving the soil environment.
How can composting benefit you?
While it’s not a good idea to squat over your garden cabbages after your morning cup of coffee, the principles of nutrient recycling apply in your home too.
Staggering amounts of food waste get thrown out with the trash every day; waste that could easily be returned to the earth and create a healthy environment for your vegetables or houseplants.
Composting at home has several immediate benefits:
- You’re personally involved with your food and where it comes from
- You can recycle vegetable waste without needing to leave it for collection
- It reduces the need for fertilizers in your garden or houseplants
- It can be done at a large or small scale, depending on your space
- Compost can be used to neutralize the soil for a wide range of plants
- Composting produces less methane than filling landfills with food waste
So, how do we get started?
There are so many ways to compost it’s impossible to cover them all, so before we even start let’s cover the basics of composting:
In general, composting involves the breakdown of large organic waste into what is essentially the smaller, organic components of soil.
Biological agents like bacteria, fungi, and even worms could be considered the miracle workers of the composting world.
There are five main components to a composting process:
Efficient composting needs to involve the right balance of nutrients for your composting agents, and different organisms require different nutrients.
Typically, your nutrients will come from either “green” or “brown” waste.
Surprisingly, manure fits under green waste along with grass clippings and kitchen scraps, which are high in Nitrogen.
Brown waste can come in the form of dry leaves, wood chips, and even cardboard which have a higher ratio of carbon compared to nitrogen.
Particle size matters
This can be a matter of experimentation, as some guides recommend blending your food waste before composting; but this can also compact material too much and reduce air pockets, so it’s not a good idea for aerobic composting.
aerobic composting: using oxygen to speed up decomposition
Shredding your compostable material to the right size gives a balance between surface area and resources like water and air for your composting organisms.
Water is essential in the right amounts, and compost piles need to be moist enough to dissolve the nutrients for your bacteria to feed on, but not wet enough to suffocate them.
This is another reason to choose the location wisely, as you want to adjust the moisture levels yourself instead of responding to things like rain.
For aerobic composting, air is a key component.
Physically turning the compost pile, as well as blending in the right ratio of ingredients ensures the composting process occurs smoothly without the risk of the pile drying out or suffocating.
Anaerobes are bacteria that thrive in low-oxygen conditions, and they’re also the ones that sit in your cavities and give you bad breath.
So, if a compost pile is smelly they’ll be the ones responsible.
These bacteria will also make your compost acidic, so you want to avoid them as much as possible (unless you’re anaerobically composting, a method we won’t be covering).
Finally, the temperature of your composting pile will make a difference in how well it performs. Aerobic decomposition generates heat, which can further protect against decay.
In general, if the above conditions are met well, there won’t be much need to adjust the temperature of the pile.
There’s no set measurement for how to do it – experimentation and trial and error will help guide your intuition.
Composting isn’t rocket science and there’s a lot of room for error, so don’t let this put you off.
The main things to remember are what can and can’t be used:
What can and can’t be composted?
With all this said, let’s take a brief look at some of the things that you should and shouldn’t be composting. If you want more in depth guides, make sure to check out our lists of what is compostable and what not to compost!
Remember, the greens will provide your pile with nitrogen, and the browns will add carbon.
For green waste, consider using:
- Fruit and vegetable peels
- Grass clippings
- Coffee grounds
For brown components, choose from things like:
- Dead leaves
- Wood chippings or sawdust
- Pine needles
Things to avoid
There are also a few things that should be avoided entirely, at least when starting out:
- Fat or oil
- Fish scraps
- Anything treated with pesticides
- Anything inorganic, including cardboard with a plastic film
These items can either take longer to decompose, promote smelly anaerobic decomposition, attract animals, or all of the above – so leave them out.
Now you know the basics of composting, but where are you going to do it?
Types of backyard composting
A compost pile can be as big or as small as you need it to be.
It can take up a large part at one end of a field or sit in a small tub or bucket under your sink. The size of your pile will be determined by the space you’ve got and the amount of waste you have to add to it.
For backyard composting, you should consider seasonal changes and rainfall and how they might affect the water content and temperature of your compost pile.
Too much sun could dry it out and too much rain can swamp it. Cold weather may slow it down, but most of these effects can be controlled by simply covering it with a plastic sheet.
A simple and well-managed pile can take as little as 18 days to provide you with fertile compost, but a large and neglected pile can take a year or more.
So, take some time to consider where you’ll place it so you can have an active and aged pile to work with at any time.
Hot and cold static piles
If you’re not going to be around to turn your compost pile, a simple static pile can also work.
This will generate compost within three to six months and works at almost any scale. Layers of waste are alternated with layers of bulking agents like wood chips and cardboard, and more complex systems can even use air pumps that pull oxygen through the pile.
A simple static pile may be hot or cold, depending on the activity of the microbes and the amount of maintenance that goes into it.
A hot pile may need to be covered and managed to maintain its temperature, but will break down plant pathogens – preventing them from being reintroduced to the soil with the compost.
A cold pile works more slowly and many diseases can survive it, but there’s nothing to maintain. It can take six months or more to produce compost.
Static piles are the most accessible option for most people who want to start backyard composting.
This is another low-maintenance version of a compost pile and it amounts to simply tipping your vegetable waste into a habitat full of red wiggler worms, which love to wriggle about in decaying organic material.
The worms themselves do most of the work and produce rich casts (worm poop), which can be used in the garden or on houseplants directly.
This process usually takes around three months or more.
If you’re looking for a compact composting option for a small garden or indoors, this is a good one. Keep it out of extreme temperatures and make sure it doesn’t dry out or become water-logged.
Backyard composting step-by-step
This step-by-step guide is based on the Berkeley hot composting method, a hot composting method developed by the University of California, Berkeley in the 1950’s.
It’s a hands-on, yet easy way to get involved in composting and can reward you with rich fertile compost in fewer than three weeks.
As it’s a form of hot composting, it involves monitoring and aerating the compost pile manually.
Once you’ve decided on a location for your compost pile, you can then draw up a simple calendar for the following steps:
Day 1: Build your pile
Refer to the greens and browns list from earlier, and gather together your organic material at a ratio of 1:2 for greens and browns.
You can continue to use this ratio as you scale the size of your pile up to any amount.
- Layer these in alternating layers, thinly spread out
- Wet the layers with a hose or watering can until the pile releases some water
- Leave the pile alone for four days
Day 5: First turning
Now it’s time to aerate your pile, which you can do with a garden fork or shovel.
Simply turn the pile inside out so that the stuff in the center now becomes the outer layer, and vice versa.
Here’s the easiest way:
- Turn the outer layer into a new pile
- Cover it with the now exposed inner layer
- Leave it for two more days
Day 7: Take its temperature
Using a kitchen or compost thermometer, take the temperature at the center of the pile.
It should be too hot to touch down there, around 55-65 °C (131-149 °F).
- If it’s too hot, consider shading it or uncovering the pile
- If it’s too cold, composting won’t work, so increase insulation
- Turn the pile again
- Leave for two more days
Day 9: Rinse and repeat
From here, you’re going to repeat the process of turning, followed by a day’s rest.
The pile should be damp enough to squeeze a drop of water out of it, but not so damp that it’s soaking wet or soggy.
Adjust the water content as necessary, and continue to monitor the temperature, which should start dropping again after the peak on the 8th day.
By the 18th day, you should be left with compost ready for the garden.
Composting is one of those things that’s hard to screw up, as it can be a very simple tub full of worms or a speedier, more hands-on method of making your own fertile soil for the garden.
It really can be as simple or as complex as you like, and be done at any scale your home can accommodate.
So what’s stopping you from composting at home?