DEEP: Home Composting - Turn Your Spoils into Soil

Turn Your Spoils into SoilÖCOMPOST !

What is Composting?  Composting is a biological process during which naturally occurring microorganisms, bacteria and insects break down organic materials such as leaves, grass clippings and certain kitchen scraps into a soil-like product called compost. It is a form of recycling, a natural way of returning needed nutrients to the soil.

Why Compost? By composting kitchen scraps and yard trimmings at home, you can conserve valuable landfill space normally used to dispose of this material and help reduce air emissions from the incinerator plants that burn garbage. In fact, if you compost on a continual basis, the volume of garbage you generate can be reduced by as much as 25%! Composting is practical, convenient and can be easier and less expensive than bagging these wastes and taking them to the landfill or transfer station.

Benefits of Using Compost. By using compost you return organic matter and nutrients to the soil in a form readily useable to plants. Organic matter improves plant growth by helping to break heavy clay soils into a better texture, by adding water and nutrient-holding capacity to sandy soils, and by adding essential nutrients to any soil. Improving your soil is the first step toward improving the health of your plants. Healthy plants help clean our air and conserve our soil. If you have a garden, a lawn, shrubs, or even planter boxes, you have a use for compost.

How to Compost. Composting is easy. You can compost in your yard by saving yard trimmings (leaves, grass clippings, and garden debris) and certain kitchen and meal scraps by preparing them properly and placing them in a compost pile. Just follow these easy, basic guidelines:

Step 1. Choose the right materials. Anything that was once alive will compost, but not everything belongs in a compost pile. In general, do not compost foods containing animal fats (such as meat, bones, cheese, grease and oils); plants infected with disease, invasive weeds, weeds that have gone to seed, or dog and cat feces. Yard trimmings, like leaves, grass clippings, prunings, garden debris, and most kitchen scraps make excellent compost.

Do Compost   {vegetables} Do Not Compost   {two glass milk bottles}   {steak}
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Egg, peanut and nut shells
  • Stalks, stems and vines
  • Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags
  • Bark
  • Wood ashes (in limited amounts)
  • Manure (horse, cow, chicken & rabbit)
  • Garden clippings
  • Leaves
  • Grass clippings
  • Apple cores and citrus rinds
  • Meat and fat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Bones
  • Dairy products 
  • Plastic or synthetic fibers
  • Diseased plants
  • vegetable oils
  • Dog and cat feces
  • Weeds which have gone to seed
  • Invasive weeds

Step 2. Select and prepare a site. First, choose a place in your yard or garden to start a compost pile. It doesnít really matter if it is in the sun or shade, but a place that receives a little of both during the day would be ideal. Whatís more important is that it is somewhere convenient to use. Then, decide how you wish to compost. There are many different ways to prepare a compost pile, and itís really personal preference which one you choose. You can choose to: {open compost pile of leaves}

Use no enclosure at all. Simply pile the materials up, keeping them in a fairly dense heap.

{round composting bin} Build your own compost bin. Enclosed bins will typically have a neat appearance, help keep out pests, and hold in heat and moisture. You can assemble wooden stakes and chicken wire or hardware cloth into a simple round enclosure; construct a wooden bin out of salvaged lumber or old pallets; fashion a three-sided enclosure by placing cinder blocks on top of each other, leaving the front open; or even drill holes in the bottom and sides of a garbage can.

Purchase a compost bin. Order a pre-built compost bin from a garden center, mail order garden catalogue or home improvement/hardware store. Also, check with your local recycling coordinator or Public Works Department to see if they sponsor a bin distribution program.

Step 3. Prepare the compost materials and build a pile.

Prepare the materials. Begin by cutting or shredding the ingredients into small pieces. This will help them decompose faster. Although shredding leaves is not necessary, it will shorten the time it takes for them to compost. The same is true for kitchen scraps and garden waste.

Build the pile. Put a layer of course material, like wood chips, or small twigs on the bottom to facilitate drainage and aeration. Then add materials in layers 2-6 inches thick alternating between "greens" (food scraps, grass clippings, manure) and "browns" (leaves, straw, woody materials) to help balance the proportion of carbon and nitrogen. Water and mix well after every two layers. If you donít have "greens" and "browns" available at the same time, build the entire pile out of "browns" and then add the "greens" as they become available. When adding food scraps, bury them completely in the center of the pile. Add a shovel full of garden soil periodically. Save a few bags of autumn leaves to use during the following spring and summer. Ideally, the pile should measure at least 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet long.

{watering can} Keep it moist. The pile should be kept moist, but not soggy, about the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. If itís not moist, it wonít decompose.

{pitchfork} Give it air. Oxygen is essential to the organisms breaking down the materials. Fluff the pile with a pitchfork or hoe every time you add material. If you can manage to do a more aggressive turning in the spring and fall (so that the pile is turned completely inside out and upside down), you can usually get finished compost in one year. Less frequent turning results in slower composting.

Observe your pile. As composting takes place, heat is generated. Donít be surprised if you see steam rising from the pile, especially when it is turned. This means the conditions for decomposition are at their best. If your compost pile is properly prepared, contains no animal fats and is turned periodically, it will not attract pests or create odors.

{two hands holding finished compost} Step 4. Test whether the compost is ready... Decomposition will be complete anywhere from two weeks to two years depending on the materials used, the size of the pile, and how often it is turned. Compost is ready when it has cooled, turned a rich brown color, and has decomposed into small soil-like particles.

Step 5. Use the compost. About one month before planting, apply 1-3 inches of the finished compost and work it into the top four inches of soil. Compost can also be used in the garden as a top dressing or mulch throughout the summer. Screened through a Ĺ" sieve, compost can be used to create a potting soil by combining equal parts of compost, sand and loam. Large particles can be put back in the compost pile. Lawns can benefit from a ľ" application of compost which helps stimulate biological activity in the turf. If you have more compost than you can use, give it to a friend or neighbor!

Troubleshooting. In addition to the information in the table below, please refer to the Building Blocks Page for a more detailed list of principles to follow that make a good home compost pile.

Symptom Probable Cause Suggested Remedy
The pile has a bad odor Not enough air or too wet Turn pile thoroughly
The center of the pile is dry Not enough water Moisten materials while turning pile
The pile is damp and warm in the middle, but nowhere else Pile is too small Collect more material and mix old material into a new pile
The pile is sweet smelling, but still will not heat up Lack of nitrogen Mix in a nitrogen source such as fresh grass clippings, fresh manure, bloodmeal, or a commercial fertilizer high in nitrogen

{evergreen and fence} Mulching. Before they decompose, chipped woody debris and leaves make excellent mulch or garden path material helping to keep the soil weed-free and moist. As they decompose, these same materials will enrich the soil. Simply place them up to 1" deep beneath the plants, but not touching the stems. Grass clippings should be dried before using as mulch, or simply leave clippings on the lawn where they will return nutrients to the soil. Do not mulch with grass clippings that have been treated with herbicides, or it may harm your plants. Composting them first, however, will break down most commonly used lawn herbicides.

{wiggling worm} Composting with worms. Donít have a yard? No problem, you can compost indoors using earthworms! For information on worm composting, (vermicomposting), please see our Composting and Organics Resource Page to consult one of the references devoted to this subject.

Video Download "Home Composting - Turning Your Spoils to Soil"

Full Color Brochure "Composting Has A-PEEL"

Resources. There is a myriad of published information on home composting, grass cycling, worm composting, and organics recycling. Please visit our Composting and Organics Resource Page for suggestions on books, videos and links to related websites. While youíre there, read about DEEPís video entitled "Home Composting Ė Turning Your Spoils to Soil", now also available for free download, or in VHS video from the DEEP Store.

Composting

Content Last Updated in June 12, 2008