How to Start a Compost, Part 1

April 12, 2010

homesteading, how to, spring

If you have a garden, a compost is important. If you are a tightwad like me, and don’t like buying expensive fertilizers, bagged compost, and peat moss every year, a compost pile is REALLY important.

Compost is just a fancy word for decomposed waste. Or, as en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compost says, “a combination of decomposed plant and animal materials and other organic materials that are being decomposed largely through aerobic decomposition into a rich black soil.” Right. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Veg Garden1

My garden at planting time, last year.

welcome

My garden thrives after amending with compost.

I have “maintained” a compost pile for a few years now. I say “maintained” in quotes because it’s been largely trial and error for me. Everybody makes it look SOOO easy– and indeed it is, kinda– but you have to do it right, or it won’t work. Me– I don’t like babysitting the compost pile; I have so much to do that turning the blasted 200-pound pile over every week never gets done. So I’ll tell you about my woes and wins, and throw a few tips in, as well. Here goes:

  • You do not need to buy ANYTHING. Nothing. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise! You do NOT need that fancy $500 hand-cranking bin, nor the $50 compost starter mix, nor the nice $100 pitchfork. You may buy things if you want. A compost can be a hole in the ground, if you want. Most people like things a little neater (including me) but don’t think that you need to spend a fortune even for that. Keep reading…
  • The compost will not smell bad if you are doing it right. Compost is decaying organic matter, and it needs a few things to decay properly. I call it the Big Three: oxygen, moisture, and friendly compost-making bacteria. If you have too much moisture, or not enough oxygen, it will smell. Believe me, it will smell.
  • The compost bin should be in a sunny area of the yard, in a convenient area near the garden.
  • You can keep your compost going all year ’round, or only in the warm months. I do it only in the warm months, because my son dislikes hauling the compost bucket from the kitchen to the backyard in 3 feet of snow every night. Sheesh. lol.
  • You need a healthy assortment of waste: “green” waste like grass clippings; “brown” waste like leaves and topsoil; “food” waste from the house.
  • Compost ONLY vegetable matter. Do not compost bones, meat, fat, grease, etc. These will disrupt that friendly bacteria that you will soon covet– they are vegetarians, ok?
  • You will learn to love earthworms, and get to know their favorite foods.

OK! Let’s get started! First, you need a compost bin, or a place to dump your loot. I have used the “dump” method as well as a variety of bins. In the next post, I’ll show you how to build a quick and easy bin. Here’s a rundown of the various compost bin styles:

  • The Hole:
    Very ugly. Tends to get quite soggy. Not recommended, but in a compost emergency, it’ll do.
  • The Pile:
    Like The Hole, it’s ugly and messy. But effective. I have The Pile in the back– it’s full of weeds, discarded garden waste, small twigs, etc. It takes a long, long time to decompose. I’m still waiting, actually. The bigger the waste, the longer the wait. There’s a family of rabbits living in there right now. You can create a Pile if you don’t want to use a bin. The Pile works well if you include the Big Three. The main problem (besides ugliness) with The Pile is that the food waste may attract unfriendlys, like rats, raccoons, and other unsavory critters. I only throw large garden waste in The Pile, no food waste.
  • The Wooden Bin:
    I have a wooden bin. I threw it together. It once had a lid, but that decayed after a few winters, and I never replaced it. The bin can be constructed of pallets or plain old 2 x 4s. The Wooden Bin is nice because it keeps critters away (if the slats are narrow enough) and allows for enough oxygen to pass through the mix. It’s very tough to turn over, though. Ugh. Note: do not use pressure-treated lumber for your compost bin. More on that later.
  • The Plastic Bin:
    I use this mostly, right now. It’s not the greatest. I have one large plastic garbage can and two 35-gallon Rubbermaid totes. I drilled holes in the sides and top, but even then, there really isn’t enough oxygen. I sprayed water in them, and the water wouldn’t seep out, so they got waterlogged. The bins are very convenient– compost is easy to turn, and the bins have lids, but the lack of oxygen and the water retention problem makes it a bummer. You can buy one of those expensive plastic bins designed specifically for composts, if you want. I have not tried them. I assume, like Little Tykes toys, that they would fade over time and look awful. But they may work.
  • The Wire Bin:
    In my opinion, this is THE BEST choice. All I did was plug a few metal garden posts into the ground and wrap chicken wire around them. There’s plenty of oxygen, and there’s as much moisture as the surrounding area– and when there’s too much, the extra seeps out through the wire– and it’s relatively easy to turn over.
CompostLevs

The Wire Bin works best for me.

I have heard lots of opinions on when your compost should be garden-ready. There’s some “instant compost” flukes out there that I have heard about. I don’t know about them. It generally takes a year for me. I start this year’s compost for use next year. I always spread the compost before spring tilling time. I have a huge yard, with loads of leaves, grass clippings, and kids who eat a lot of veggies. So your mileage may vary. All I know is that a compost is usually ready in 12-14 months. So you’d better get going!

Compost soil, also known as humus, is rich, black, and loamy. It should smell earthy, not like sewage or mildew.

SprdgLeavs

The rich humus of compost contrasting with the brown topsoil.

So this ends the Part 1 of How to Start a Compost. In the next articles, I’ll show you how to construct a Wire Bin, give some tips, and show you what to do with your composted humus when you have it.

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