Outdoor Composting For Beginners

If you’ve never attempted composting, and have a sizeable backyard near a water supply — run, don’t walk to get started! Compost is a mixture of organic matter (as in leaves, twigs and kitchen scraps) used to improve the soil’s structure while providing nutrients. Composting can also be done indoors, but we find outdoor composting to be more versatile and easier to manage for beginners.  Once you’ve created a designated area to compost, they key is knowing what works well in your compost, and what does not.

Why Compost?  For one, it reduces the amount of organic waste that ultimately ends up in landfills.  In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency claims that 14% of food ends up in land mills each year.  14% may not seem like much, but remember that rotting materials eventually transforms into methane, which has 21 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide.  If you already recycle your paper, cans and glass, why not do the same with food scraps? Every little bit helps!

Secondly, it’s more sanitary. Placing food scraps to rot in your neighborhood garbage can ultimately leads to rodents, raccoons and insects.  It can also be quite malodorous — which tends to linger until Tuesday’s trash pick-up day. When done correctly, composting in your home reduces the potential of these nuisances, while also posing less imposition to public health and safety.

Most importantly, composting can create a rockin’ fertilizer for your home garden. Not only is it money saving, but also is rich in nutrients and acts as a soil fertilizer, soil conditioner, and even as a natural pesticide.  It’s commonly used in home gardens –- but many also use this key ingredient in landscaping, agriculture and horticulture.

Before You Get Started: All composting should contain 3 primary ingredients: kitchen scraps and other organic matter (vegetable and fruit peels, eggshells, gritty flours like cornmeal, coffee and tea grounds and dryer lint), dry bedding (leaves, twigs, soil, newspaper, cardboard and sawdust from untreated wood), and water. Be sure to leave out all animal products like meat, bones and dairy, as well as oils, diseased plants and dog/cat feces, as these can lead to unwanted pests.  See a full list of safe materials to compost here.

To ensure the process is smooth, the following tools will prove useful as you compost: 1-2 composting containers (if using), a wheelbarrow, water hose, pitchfork or compost aerator, and a shovel. Although there are comparable tools one could use, a good composting system will require at least most of these.

To avoid pests, insects and animals, add in more dry materials periodically — this will help aerate the pile, and will alleviate any bad odors. Some also practice adding red wrangler worms to the pile, as they can decompose the compost more quickly, preventing critters from investigating. To ensure a larger animal will not disturb your compost, use a container with a sealed lid for all decomposing matter.  Secure it even further by placing a large rock on top, or wrap it with a bungee cord.

 A Step-By-Step Guide To Outdoor Composting:

1. Choose a shady area in your yard that is close to a hose or water supply.

2. Decide whether you prefer to dig a pit, or use a sealed container for your compost pile.  Although both are effective, containers do help prevent against pests, raccoons and insects. See this guide for building your own composting container.

3. Chop and shred all dry materials and kitchen scraps before adding them to the compost. Begin by adding a 6-inch layer of dry bedding (see list above).

4. Add a 3-inch layer of kitchen scraps (things to never compost here).  Next, top the kitchen scraps with another 3-inch layer of dry bedding.  Spray some water on the dry bedding to create a moist but not wet compost pile.

5.  Continue this process of layering kitchen scraps and dry bedding to the compost.  Aerate the pile once a week with a compost aerator, pitchfork, or something comparable.  This helps to prevent an odor, and allows the compost to ferment evenly.

Harvesting Your Compost: Depending on how large the compost pile is, when to harvest the compost pile will be different for everyone.  A general rule of thumb is to allow 4-8 months of processing before harvesting.  When ready, shovel the dark, soil-like compost to the top while pushing the under-processed compost to the bottom for more time to decompose. If the compost is too damp, add soil to it and mix well.

The compost to soil ratio should be 1 to 5 as you harvest it.  Or, use it on plants that are already established by adding 1 inch around the plant, or 2 inches dug into the soil.  You’ll find the compost will enhance your garden with its nutrients, leaving your garden more vibrant and sustainable.

Do you practice composting in your own yard? What are some tips you’d give to beginners?

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