Compost Like a Pro

Composting is a fundamental tenet of sustainable living. It’s a great way to put green waste and food scraps to work, and feed your garden without synthetic chemicals. And if you happen to be interested in carbon farming (why wouldn’t you be?), it is pretty much the key to sequestering carbon in your soil and, well, saving the world.

Sure, you could just start throwing a bunch of organic matter into a pile in your backyard. But there are more ways than one to skin a carrot, and some of them yield better results.


Placement and Bins

If you’re getting serious about composting, or even if you’re already doing it, the first thing you’ll want to think about is location. Ideally, your compost will be easily accessible from both your home and garden, but decomposition is a putrid business, so you probably don’t want it going on right outside your bedroom window.

Partial shade keeps your compost from getting too hot, good airflow aids in the chemical process, but large trees can actually steal nutrients from your compost. These factors should all be considered when choosing a composting site. It’s also worth noting that if compost comes into contact with wood and other porous materials, it can cause (or speed up) rotting, so try not to pile it up next to a wooden fence.

By no means do you need to compost within the walls of a container or bin, but containers minimize composting chaos, discourage lurking creatures, and can help control the temperature and moisture levels of your pile.


What to Compost (And What NOT to Compost)

What can you throw in there? Anything? Everything? Sort of. There are a few black-listed items that seem fairly obvious (kitty litter), but others are less so: You shouldn’t add meats, nuts, fats or other oils, or the manure of any animals that eat meat. The reasons for that range from foodborne illness to slow decomposition — both good things to avoid.

That being said, there is a recipe of sorts for optimal results: You want a balance of “green” ingredients, which are rich in nitrogen and generate heat, and “brown” ingredients, which have higher levels of carbon and provide energy for the microorganisms that are working their magic in your compost pile.

Green ingredients include grass clippings, vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and chicken manure. Some examples of brown ingredients include dead (dried) plants, egg shells, straw, and sawdust.


Size Matters

The most effective home composting piles are between three and five cubic feet. That’s large enough to get the center of the pile good and hot, to break everything down, but small enough that it won’t take over your entire yard (or require an unreasonable amount of maintenance).

More Tricks of the Trade

    • Turn your compost often. Turning adds oxygen, re-heats the pile, keeps foul smells at bay, and can significantly expedite the process. You should aim to turn your compost once or twice a week with a shovel or pitchfork if you’ve got a pile, and every three days if you use a tumbler.
  • ...Which brings us to our next trick: Consider a tumbler. They tend to be pricey, but also make the turning process a lot less backbreaking and more convenient, which also makes it more likely to be done regularly.
  • Shred your ingredients. Shredding — particularly the brown ingredients — helps distribute air and moisture, leading to a faster breakdown and higher nutrient concentration.
  • Keep it wet. Adequate moisture is essential to the composting process, which can take a lot longer without it. Your compost pile should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge.
    • Add an activator like alfalfa meal. Especially if you have an “add-as-you-go” pile. Activators add nitrogen and protein (and sometimes even good bacteria) to your compost pile. As you now know, this heats up your pile and makes the composting process more effective.

    Depending on your exact technique and the time of year, compost can be ready to use in as few as 14 days, though typically, you can expect finished compost in about three months. At which point, you can spread it around, reap the rewards, and wonder why it took you so long to do this in the first place.