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Beginner Basics,  Compost

Composting 101: What, Why & How to Compost at Home

Hot compost, worm compost, compost tea… oh my! Welcome to your crash-course introduction on all things compost. If you are new to composting and feel intimidated, I get it. There is a lot of information out there, and so many different ways to compost! However, the core concepts and science behind all types of compost are dang near the same, so let’s break it down to the basics. 

After reading this article, you’ll have a better understanding of what compost is, how it works, and why it is important. We’ll go over what types of materials can be composted, those that should be avoided, and the six most common and easy ways to compost at home. Then you can get busy sustainably recycling food waste and creating your own amazing free fertilizer – right in your backyard!


Ready to dig in? Good. Me too.


What is Compost 

In the most simple terms, compost is decomposed organic matter. Composting is the process of adding a balanced combination of biodegradable materials together, such as leaves, straw, dry grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and garden waste. With the help of decomposers (microorganisms, worms, insects, fungi, etc) and the right conditions, the raw materials break down into one homogenous nutrient-rich, soil-like material – finished compost. 

Finished compost is often referred to as “black gold”, and rightly so. It is truly phenomenal stuff! Compost is a rich, balanced, natural organic fertilizer, and an invaluable resource for gardeners and organic farmers. Finished compost is often mixed into soil as an amendment. Or, it can be applied to the soil surface as mulch.


Compost provides the following benefits to soil:

  • Compost increases the content of organic matter in soil, which in turn improves its texture, drainage, and fertility. These things all lead to happier, healthier, bigger, and more productive plants!

  • Compost invigorates the soil food web by providing nutrients, moisture, and habitat for a large range of beneficial life forms. Have you heard of “organic living soil”? Essentially, it is the idea that soil is and should be treated as a living, breathing, dynamic ecosystem of its own. Healthy soil is full of beneficial bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, and more. That is what we try to foster here! 

  • By nourishing both the soil and plants, compost actually enhances plants’ immune systems! It also acts as a buffer to “cleanse” soil by naturally remediating any toxic substances within it. Therefore, plants grown with compost have a higher resistance to disease or stress, such as drought, pests, or weather extremes. 

  • When done correctly, compost provides all of these benefits with no risk of “burning” or shocking plants, which is a common concern with using synthetic fertilizers. Finally, as gardeners and farmers utilize organic compost more, they in turn reduce their dependence on less environmentally-friendly fertilizers. 


Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links to products for your convenience, such as to items on Amazon. Homestead and Chill gains a small commission from purchases made through those links, at no additional cost to you.

Three raised wooden garden beds are shown overflowing with vegetables and flowers of many types. Green plants and orange, red, purple, pink, and yellow flowers. There are trees, shrubs, and vines surrounding the area and the setting sun is still barely shining over the slotted horizontal fence before it dips below the horizon.
We can thank compost for the vitality of our garden!


Why Composting is Important


Clearly, there are undeniable benefits to creating and using compost to support plant health in a home garden or farm setting. Yet even if you are not an avid gardener or don’t have the “need” for organic compost at home, I still urge you to practice composting at some level! There are so many benefits of composting – beyond the garden. 


How is composting good for the environment?

According to the USDA, it is estimated that 30 to 40% of the food supply in America goes to waste each year. Let that sink in. That is INSANITY! We’re talking about 133 billion pounds of food. The United States has a reputation for being particularly wasteful, but food waste is occurring in astonishing numbers in every country across the globe.

While a portion of food waste can be attributed to food production errors, disease, or pest damage, experts report a 31% food loss in the consumer and retail sectors alone. Waste can occur when stores over-order or receive damaged food products. At home, it happens when people buy more food than they can (or make an effort to) consume.

Clearly this a huge issue; larger than we could ever compost our way out of. Everyone needs to work together to reduce the waste that occurs in the first place. But what happens once food does spoil or is otherwise disposed of….? We usually “throw it away”, right?


But where is “away” really? 


An image of a landfill with a tractor sitting on the top of the giant mountain of trash.
The truth is, far too much food ends up in landfills. Image courtesy of Open Access Government.


Food waste leads to climate change 

Food that is thrown in the trash ends up in landfills. Rotting materials in landfills pollute water resources via leachate. They also become anaerobic and create methane gas. Methane gas (the same stuff in cow farts, for the record) is a potent greenhouse gas, and happens to be 25 times more detrimental than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere. Needless to say, methane is a significant contributor to climate change. Landfills aside, the production and transportation involved with the food industry (including its waste) also generates a massive amount of carbon dioxide emissions. 

“Globally, if food waste could be represented as its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the U.S.”

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Yikes.


Composting helps curb climate change & pollution

The act of composting diverts food waste otherwise destined for the landfill. Less food rotting in the landfill means less greenhouse gas emissions, along with a reduced risk of contaminating water resources. Composting is an awesome example of one of the best types of recycling: “upcycling”. Upcycling means transforming an unwanted waste product into something even better – like turning rotting food into “black gold”! Therefore, composting is highly encouraged on the home scale as well as a municipal or commercial level.

There are an increasing number of industrial or commercial compost facilities in operation, designed to take in huge volumes of waste and keep it out of the landfill. They turn it into compost, and usually sell it back to growers or the public. While this is awesome overall, there is less quality-control with the materials fed into commercial operations. They receive a lot of bulk green waste, including from parks, homes, or big farms. Some loads may be contaminated with herbicides, pesticides, treated wood, or other undesirable materials. If you have a garden, creating your own compost is the best way to go!


A diagram showing how a landfill site can create a large amount of carbon dioxide and methane gas which gets released into the atmosphere. It also shows how the decaying trash material can release a number of things that can be absorbed into the earth and groundwater such as benzene, ammonia, dioxins, heavy metals, and other chemicals to only name a few.
The environmental dangers of landfills, via Gazasia


HOW TO COMPOST AT HOME


There are several ways to compost at home, including methods well-suited for nearly every living situation. Enclosed compost tumblers or worm bins are perfect for small gardens or urban conditions. Big compost bins or piles may be more fitting for larger properties to small farms. Some methods are more active and involved, while others are quite hands-off. And contrary to popular belief, compost piles do not stink! Or at least they shouldn’t, as long as they’re properly maintained.

Let’s briefly go over six different ways to compost at home. Keep in mind that I plan to write more in-depth articles on each method in the near future as well!  


A three sided wooden compost stall is shown with a plastic compost tumbler staged next to it. The compost stall has some broken down material in it as well as some dried straw. These are  just two of the many options one can use to make compost.


Composting Starts in the Kitchen: Gathering the Goods

No matter what compost method you choose to implement at home, nearly every one of them starts in the kitchen. As you are cooking, preparing meals for the week, or cleaning out the fridge, food scraps tend to pile up. However, it is inconvenient to tote your kitchen scraps outside to the compost pile every time they appear!

The best solution is to collect compostable food waste in a small kitchen compost bin, and then take it out to the main pile once or twice per week. That frequency is usually sufficient to prevent excessive mold or odors in your kitchen compost bin. 

We currently use this awesome little stainless steel kitchen crock. Between the tight-fitting lid and the built-in carbon filter, it effectively keeps odors in – and fruit flies out! We store ours under the kitchen sink, though it is attractive enough to keep on the countertop as well. We’ve also used this even more stylish ceramic compost crock in the past. It too has a carbon filter in the lid, and we happily used it for years! Until I dropped the lid on the concrete patio, that is… Bummer.



1) Passive Compost Pile

A passive compost pile is when materials are piled up and then allowed to slowly decompose over time. It could be a literal free-standing pile in the corner of the garden, but is most often contained within a compost bin of some sort. 

Some compost bins are as simple as a single wood or wire-framed stall, typically enclosed on three sides and open on the front for access. Other compost bins have two or three “bays”, designed to enable easy turning and rotating of the piles. We currently have a single-compartment passive pile, but want to build a two or three bay system soon! Once we figure out where we have space for one, that is…

This style of composting is referred to as “passive” because we are simply letting nature take its course. Passive piles are perfect for beginners, or folks who don’t have time to tend to other types of compost systems. There is minimal intervention, aside from perhaps turning the pile from time to time. It is usually a fairly slow process, and the pile stays cool. This is in contrast to a hot compost pile, described below. 



A three sided wooden single compartment compost bin is shown with a small amount of green and brown material in various stages of decomposition inside it. There is a three tiered pot nearby full of succulents.
Our single-compartment compost bin.
A diagram of a three bin composting system. You start with green and brown material in one bin and slowly move it through the cycle of bins depending on the stage of decomposition. Once it gets to bin three it should be finished compost.
A 3-Bay Compost Bin. Image from Harrod Horticulture


2) Compost Tumblers

A compost tumbler is another form of passive composting, but usually on a slightly smaller scale. While you may not be able to cram as much material into a tumbler as you would a large open passive pile, compost tumbler bins have some serious perks! 

The first huge benefit of tumblers is how easy they make it to “turn your pile”. Occasionally turning a compost pile introduces air, which promotes decomposition, balances moisture, and also reduces odors. As the name suggests, compost tumbler bins are made to… errhm, tumble! They’re designed to enable easy turning and churning of the material inside, without breaking your back. On the other hand, turning a large hot or passive pile can be quite the chore.

Another big perk of using a compost tumbler is the fact that they’re enclosed. While a well-maintained compost pile should not stink, it can happen. Keeping the compost contained also keeps unpleasant odors contained. Furthermore, an enclosed compost tumbler is far less attractive and accessible to rodents or other wildlife. 

Tumbling compost bins come in many shapes, sizes, and styles. We love and use this two-compartment compost tumbler (pictured below). Having two compartments means you can actively “feed” or add material to one side of the bin, while allowing the second side to rest and thoroughly decompose. I also love the height of this tumbler. When it comes time to harvest finished compost, we simply stick a bucket or tub below it, turn the tumbler over it, slide open the door, and out it pours! 


A black plastic compost tumbler sits amongst a wooded area. The tumbler contains two compartments so you can feed on side while letting the other side break down further.
The compost tumbler we love and use.


3) Worm Compost Bin

Ah, vermicomposting… That is the word for “composting with worms”, which happens to be one of my favorite ways to compost! Vermicomposting occurs when specialized compost worms are added to a compost pile. While you can add worms to a big passive pile, it is usually recommended to keep them in a confined container, aka the “worm bin”. 

Like compost tumblers, worm bins are compact and tidy, perfect for smaller spaces or even to keep indoors. However, I don’t suggest worm bins for small gardens only! I think every home, garden, farm, or even schools and workplaces should have a worm bin. Worm bins do require weekly maintenance, but it is well worth the small effort. 

Also similar to tumblers, worm bins or “worm farms” come in many sizes and styles. Some worm farms are fancy, with stackable tiers of trays and drainage systems. Others are made of a simple plastic tote or storage tub. Ever since my college days, we have always used a very basic homemade tote-style worm bin. They’re cheap and work great! We’ve even used one while living in an apartment.

For more details about how to make and maintain a simple worm bin like ours, see this article to learn all about it.


Two hands are cradling an overflowing handful of red wriggler composting worms. In the background sits a blue plastic tub which will soon be a worm compost bin or farm.
All of the supplies needed to make worm compost. A tub of hydrated coco coir, a bag of compost worms, a plastic bin with air holes, shredded paper, and fruit or vegetable material as additional food for the worms.
Vermicomposting is my favorite!


The Magic of Worm Castings

Compost worms can eat their body weight in food per day, which rapidly accelerates the breakdown of organic matter in a worm compost bin. Meaning, you get finished compost faster. Furthermore, the type of compost that worms produce is extra-special: worm castings. Worm castings or “vermicast” are simply more tasteful terms for worm poop

Worm castings contain concentrated, highly-bioavailable nutrients from the materials they were originally fed. Even though the nutrients are more concentrated, worm castings are very mellow and cannot “burn” your plants like other animal manures easily can. This is because as materials pass through worms, they’re coated with a mucous membrane that turns the castings into the perfect little slow-release fertilizer granules

When added to your garden soil, worm castings increase soil aeration, drainage, and water retention. Worm castings also increase nutrient uptake by plants, and aid in seed germination. Beneficial microbes are also introduced as raw material passes through a worms body, which helps support the precious soil food web.


Two hands are holding some finished worm compost or vermicompost. It is rich and dark in color and has the moisture of a wrung out sponge. The castings are light and airy as well.
Worm poop is the ultimate black gold.


4) Hot Compost Pile

When a compost pile has the right volume, composition, and moisture, it has the ability to heat up! We’re talking up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, producing tangible heat and steam. A properly made and happily maintained hot compost pile creates the perfect environment for a bloom of beneficial microbial activity.

The microorganisms’ activity and bulk of the pile increases the temperature of the compost material and rapidly accelerates decomposition. Meaning, raw materials can break down into usable finished compost in just a matter of weeks (3 to 8 weeks, depending on conditions) rather than several months to a year like passive piles.


How to Create a Hot Compost Pile


In order for a compost pile to become hot:

  • It must be at least 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Hot piles can be mounded up in the same types of bins or stalls as passive piles, or held together in a cylinder of wire fencing. 
  • The pile needs the right balance of carbon to nitrogen: about two-thirds “browns” (carbon) to one-third “greens” (nitrogen) by volume. Layering greens between browns is ideal. Read more about carbon and nitrogen sources in the “compostable materials” section below.
  • Natural compost accelerants can be added to inoculate the pile with beneficial microbes.
  • Finally, the pile should be moist but not soggy. 


A close up image of a compost probe thermometer inside a hot compost pile, the temperature reads over 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That's how you make compost!
Our hot pile in action.


If you’re building a hot compost pile, monitor its temperature with a long probe compost thermometer. Once a hot pile hits the target temperature range of 130 to 160°F for several days, the activity and temperature will decrease. That’s a signal that it’s then time to turn the pile, to wake up the microbes and get cooking again. Ideally, folks have a second bin to completely turn the pile over in to. In our single-compartment bin, we simply toss it with a pitchfork to turn in place. See the video below!

If a hot compost pile temperature rises over 160°F, spread it out immediately to cool down! There is a small risk of a hot compost pile catching fire. However, that usually only happens in commercial settings with massive windrow piles. 

Hot compost piles require more material, effort, and maintenance than other composting methods. However, this is a really awesome and efficient way to compost if you have a large volume of compostable material to work with. We don’t often have a ton of browns available in our garden, so building a hot pile is a special and fun project when we do! A more detailed article on this topic is coming soon.


5) Composting in Place

Some biodegradable materials can simply be left to decompose in place! This is one of the most hands-off ways to compost. For example, fallen leaves left to compost in place provide a layer of mulch that eventually breaks down into a rich humus, mimicking a natural forest floor. Aaron often collects our more woody garden waste (such as tree or shrub trimmings, a bit tough or large for the compost pile) and simply tosses them in a corner of the yard behind a large pineapple guava bush. There they lie to die!

We also practice “chop and drop” mulching by spreading out green or brown plant material over open areas of soil. This is an especially beneficial practice when using plants in the “dynamic accumulator” family, such as yarrow, borage, fava beans, comfrey, dandelion, miner’s lettuce, chickweed, or stinging nettle. Those “dynamic accumulators” readily take up nutrients and minerals from the soil, and then store them in highly bioavailable forms and concentrations in their leaves. This makes dynamic accumulators an excellent nutrient-rich addition to the soil surface, or to a compost pile. 

Obviously, this passive way to compost is best applied to green waste and vegetation as opposed to kitchen scraps. Leaving food scraps out in the open will attract flies, rats, and other unwanted visitors to your garden. However, burying food waste may help with that!


A three way image collage, the first image shows two feet standing amongst three 25 gallon fabric grow bags. Each one is heavily mulched with dynamic accumulator plants. The second image shows a close up of some of the mulch, yarrow flowers, horsetail, and lavender flowers  are visible. The third image shows another close up image of the mulch, yarrow, fava beans, borage, and horsetail are visible amongst the decaying mulch material which will turn into rich organic matter in time.
Composting in place, or green mulching. We chop up pruned or otherwise excess horsetail, yarrow, borage, comfrey, lavender, and fava beans to mulch the top of our cannabis grow bag soil – in addition to other areas around the yard, such as around fruit trees.


6) Burying Food Waste 

Another simple way to compost and divert your food waste from the landfill is to bury it in your yard or garden. It sounds a bit silly, but I have seen people do it! Can’t you just picture someone running around their yard digging little holes and filling them with food scraps after every dinner prep? One slightly less neurotic way to bury food waste is to create a long trench between rows of vegetable crops. Then, fill the trench with a thin layer of food scraps and simply backfill it. 

Theoretically, the food will decompose in place – feeding worms, other insects, soil, and the soil food web in the process. This method can only handle a limited quantity of food waste, and could potentially tempt wildlife to dig in the chosen burial site. 


Municipal or Commercial Compost

One final way to compost is to rely on your city to do it for you! If you’re unable or uninterested in maintaining a compost system at home, check to see what local services are available to you instead. Can you recycle your garden and food waste through your curbside trash pickup, or is there at least a local drop-off facility around?

In our town, we have three big bins provided by the local sanitation district. One is for trash, one for recycling, and the third is our “green waste” bin. In the past, only materials like grass clippings, leaves, small tree branches, or other common yard waste was permitted in that bin. Then a few years ago, they began to accept kitchen scraps in the green waste bin too – destined for the local commercial compost facility. If your city does not offer this, contact them to voice your interest! Only certain types of food waste are allowed in the bin, those on the “yes” list – much like the one below.




COMPOSTABLE MATERIALS


Let’s talk about what materials can be composted, and what things you should avoid putting in your compost bin. Beyond a simple “good” and “bad” list, it is also important to know what group the materials belong to – in order to maintain a healthy and effective compost pile. 


Compost Browns vs Greens

What do mushy banana peels, spent coffee grounds, limp lettuce, and nibbled-on apple cores have in common? Aside from being great additions to a compost pile, they’re all considered sources of nitrogen – or members of the “greens” group. More often than not, they have a high moisture content. On the other hand, dry materials such as straw, dried leaves, fine wood chips, or even paper are all sources of carbon in a compost pile – the “browns”. 

It can get a tad confusing since not every nitrogen source will actually be green in color. Take coffee grounds for example. Or poop. Furthermore, some greens can eventually turn into browns, such as fresh grass clippings that are allowed to dry out before being composted. But in general, all compostable materials can be broken down into those two main categories. 


An image of what constitutes a green source in compost. Banana peels, berries, pumpkin guts, broccoli stems among others are just a few items that are considered sources of nitrogen for a compost pile.
“Greens” – sources of nitrogen for a compost pile


What Can You Put In A Compost Bin? The YES List 


In a nutshell, far more materials can be composted at home than cannot. Meaning, if it is not on the “no no” list, it is likely fair game! 

With time and experience you’ll learn what materials best suit your personal compost system. For instance, woody branches may be too large or take too long to decompose in a tumbler system – even though they’re on the “yes” list. In general, smaller materials decompose faster. Therefore, you may want to break or cut up large items like pumpkins to speed things up.

Please note that there are different rules for worm bins. Reference our Worm Bin 101 article for a complete list of what to feed your worm bin.

The nuances between the different ways to compost is part of why we use three or four different styles at home! That way, we can always find a suitable place for our waste. 


Good Greens: Example Nitrogen Sources for Compost Piles
Good Browns: Example Carbon Sources for Compost Piles
Fruit and vegetable scraps (citrus & onions in limited quantities)Dry grass clippings (weed-free)
Yard trimmings and wet grass clippingsDry leaves
EggshellsHay and straw
Nuts & nutshellsPeat moss
Leftover pasta, bread, or tortillas (limited) Fine wood chips
Halloween pumpkinsSawdust
Coffee groundsCorn stalks
Loose-leaf teaDry Pine Needles
Leaves and houseplantsPaper towels and napkins (unbleached preferred)
FeathersDryer and vacuum lint
Hair & furWood ash (in moderation)
Natural fertilizers, such as alfalfa meal, kelp meal or neem mealShredded newspaper, paper, and unwaxed cardboard


Compost These Items With Caution (or in Limited Quantities)


  • Citrus or other acidic items. Compost citrus in very small quantities. Rinds are better than whole fruit or juices. The high level of acidity in citrus can inhibit or kill beneficial bacteria in a compost pile. Avoid citrus in worm bins completely. Want to know how we upcycle citrus rinds? Check out this tutorial on how to make DIY citrus vinegar cleaning spray, or how to create dry lemon peel powder – a delicious and versatile seasoning! (Any type of citrus peel works for both options) 

  • Weeds or other plants that readily self-seed, such as borage. That is, unless they haven’t flowered and gone to seed yet, or if you remove the flowers/seeds first.

  • Paper products or other items marketed as “biodegradable” or “compostable” such as paper plates, cups and straws. They may eventually decompose, but a lot of them take a very, very long time and may not be suitable for home compost systems.

  • Coffee filters and tea bags. Unfortunately, many coffee filters and tea bags contain nylon or other synthetic fibers. This means they will not easily break down in your compost pile, nor do you want them there! Unless you’re certain they’re made from 100% natural fibers like cotton or hemp, avoid them. But definitely compost coffee grounds, and open up tea bags to compost the spent tea inside!

  • Animal waste. If you are new to composting, do additional research before composting “acceptable” animal waste such as chicken, rabbit, goat, sheep, horse, or cow manure. Certain animal manures are more tricky to work with, including chicken manure. Chicken manure is extremely “hot” (high in nitrogen), and far too strong to apply to garden soil without properly composting it for several months first. It can harm or burn your plants. When we compost our chickens manure, we let it sit in the tumbler for several months and then add it to a hot compost pile with other materials to finish. The heat also helps to kill some pathogens and bacteria. 


What Not to Compost: The NO List


The items on the “no” list are not suitable to compost for one or many reasons. They either cause noxious odors and unfavorable byproducts as they rot, attract pests, introduce risk of disease or toxins, are not biodegradable, or otherwise cause problems in a home compost pile. 


Materials to avoid adding to the compost pile:

  • Meat, fish, egg or poultry scraps 
  • Dairy products 
  • Metal or plastic (including sticky labels on store-bought fruits & veggies)
  • Treated or painted wood (or treated wood sawdust)
  • Fats, grease, lard or oils
  • Processed foods
  • Barbecue coal ash (usually contains chemical additives)
  • Plants with obvious disease or pests, such as powdery mildew or aphids 
  • Human poop
  • Dead animals or pet waste (never cat or dog poop, see animal waste exceptions in the “caution” area above)


A composting basics diagram is shown. On one half of the diagram is compostable material such as leaves, apples, bread, coffee, egg shells etc. On the other side of the diagram is the non-compostable material such as bones, meat, dairy, stickers, coal, cat or dog waste etc.
Yes and No compost materials, diagram courtesy of Planet Forward


Compost Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio: It’s All About Balance


Now that you know what items can be composted at home (or not), let’s talk about best practices of how to actually add those things to a compost pile.

One of the biggest mistakes compost newbies make is adding materials in the wrong quantities. In general, a compost pile will be most healthy and happy with significantly more carbon than nitrogen. Meaning, you cannot simply throw heaps of wet food waste into a compost pile week after week without adding a good amount of browns to help compensate and maintain balance. 

The ideal compost pile should have a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (otherwise known as C:N) of about 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. This gets confusing since it doesn’t equate to 30 times more browns than greens. See, every material has its own C:N makeup that plays into that overall ratio. However, it does mean much more dried browns than greens!

To keep it simple, aim for a goal of about two-thirds browns to one-third greens by volume. 


This doesn’t need to be an exact science, but trust me… you’ll want to maintain a fairly well-balanced pile. Why? When a compost pile has too much wet green material, it will start to stink like rotting trash! It is gross, and will also attract more pests. Too much nitrogen and moisture (combined with insufficient carbon) quickly lead to anaerobic conditions, or “without air”. The beneficial bacteria and critters that aid in good decomposition like aerobic conditions instead. A good fluffing and addition of browns can help turn a nasty pile into a nice pile.


A well-balanced, modestly damp, and routinely turned compost pile will only mildly smell – like natural earthy material!


A screen shot of carbon to nitrogen ratios in chart form as seen in the Rodale Book of Composting. It shows different compostable materials and its specific carbon to nitrogen ratio which is important when you choose to make compost.
No need to memorize the details, but keep in mind that ALL organic matter contains carbon. Some materials have far higher levels of carbon than nitrogen, such as the list on the left. Others have more nitrogen than carbon (thus being dubbed a “green”) but still at varying levels. Charts from the Rodale Book of Composting.


Layer & Bury Your Food Waste


Another common composting mistake is not burying the food waste or nitrogen material. Covering greens is important for so many reasons: it prevents odors, flies, wildlife or pests, and also helps everything efficiently decompose. 

So, when you go to dump your kitchen crock, dig a hole in the compost pile, add the food waste, and then cover it back up. Or, give the tumbler a spin to mix everything up. Depending on the current composition of your compost, you might not need to add browns every single time you add green material. But plan to do so routinely, and definitely when you add a lot of green material at once. Tip: If you don’t have many browns around your property, go rake up some leaves at the local park! Been there, done that.

Speaking of a lot of material at once… let’s talk about building up a big compost pile! If you happen to have a surplus of green and brown material at one time, it is best to add them to a compost pile in “lasagna layers”. For example, when we clear out the garden beds at the end of the season. First we lay down a thick layer of leaves or straw, then a thinner layer of green plant material on top, another layer of browns, more greens, and so on. 


A two part image collage as a before and after photo. In the first image, a single compartment compost bin has a layer of green (nitrogen) plant material on the top layer. The second image shows the bin after a layer of brown (carbon) plant material has been layered on top of the previous green layer. One would continue to build the pile in this fashion to make compost.
A literal layer of greens, then covered up by a layer of browns. Repeat.


Watering a Compost Pile

Just as with carbon and nitrogen, you want to achieve a nice balance of moisture in your compost. Not too dry, but not too soggy. Damp is good. An overly dry and airy pile will decompose very slowly. On the other hand, compost that is too wet can easily become stinky and anaerobic.

Because it doesn’t rain most of the year here, we sometimes need to water our large passive or hot piles to keep the microbes happy. Yet we rarely find the need to add additional water to the enclosed tumbler or worm bin. The moisture from the wet green matter usually keeps everything damp enough. 


Harvesting Finished Compost

Once the majority of the raw materials have broken down, it is time to harvest and use your finished compost! The exact process of harvesting compost varies depending on the kind of system used. Most often, gardeners sift their finished compost to remove any remaining large pieces, leaving them behind to break down further. We made a DIY compost screen by attaching mesh wire material to a wood frame. It can sit over a small tote when sifting worm castings, or over the wheel barrow to sift material from the big piles. (See this article to learn how to harvest worm castings from a worm bin)


A four part image collage, the first image shows two feet standing next to a small bucket, trowel, bin, and a wood frame box with hardware cloth attached to one side of it. The second image shows a blue bucket of vermicompost being dupled onto the wire cloth with a bin sitting below the wire to catch the screen worm compost. The third image shows a hand working the castings back and forth to sift the vermicompost from the vegetable waste that still remains. The fourth image shows the larger vegetable material sitting on top of the   hardware cloth as it wouldn't fit through the wire mesh while the worm castings have been sifted through the metal cloth and now reside in the plastic catchment bin below. That is how one harvests worm castings after the worms have made compost for you.
This fine screen works perfectly to sift worm castings. The screen we use for the main compost pile has slightly larger openings.
A wheel barrow sits in the foreground full to the brim with freshly made compost that is dark black in color. In the background there is a three sided wooden stall that is nearly empty now that the finished compost has been harvested from the bin. Using the hot pile method is efficient and effective when you want to make compost quickly.
We harvested three wheelbarrows full of finished compost after a big hot pile finished decomposing.


Ways to Use Compost in the Garden

There are many wonderful ways to use compost in the garden. Finished compost can be mixed in to enrich existing soil, or added to a raised garden bed or container when it is first filled with soil. Read all about how we fill our raised garden beds with the “perfect” organic living soil here. 

Compost can also be applied to the surface of soil as a natural fertilizer top-dressing, doubling up as mulch. Compost is our preferred mulch material in our raised beds. We also like to add a healthy dose of compost to the hole when planting new trees. Some of our most spoiled house plants also get compost and/or worm castings mixed into their pots. 

Last but not least, my absolute favorite way to use compost is to make actively aerated compost tea, also known as AACT. Actively aerated compost tea is made by steeping compost in water (like a giant tea bag) and also introducing air – usually through an air pump and bubbler of some sort. The result is a biologically active brew full of nutrients and beneficial microbes. Water your plants with it, and watch them flourish! It is like “black gold”, but on steroids. We use AACT more than any other fertilizer, and most often with worm castings. Learn more about how to make actively aerated compost tea here!


Three 5 gallon buckets sit in a row, it is the process of making an actively aerated compost tea (AACT), each bucket has a "tea bag" of worm castings sitting in it while it is throughly aerated by using an air pump and snake bubbler.
Actively aerated compost tea – a staple in our garden, and fabulous treat for plants and soil.


And that concludes your crash-course introduction to compost!


What do you think? Are you still here? I hope your brain didn’t decompose on me… Are you feeling excited and empowered to start composting at home now too? I sure hope so. As always, please feel free to ask questions, share your insights, and spread the compost love by sharing this article! Because after all, compost is the shit. If you’re on Instagram, tag #homesteadandchill or @deanncat3 in your home compost adventures.


Finally, if you’re growing food at home and need inspiration on how to use more of what you grow be sure to check out our “Preserve Your Harvest” articles. There are dozens of tutorials and recipes on how to dehydrate, ferment, pickle, or freeze your excess homegrown goodies – so they don’t go to waste!



DeannaCat signature, keep on growing

14 Comments

  • Scott Kaempfe

    Hi.

    Can you explain why you compost AND do worm compositing? Why not just one or the other? I just bought a tumbler BC I thought it might be able to store more yard and kitchen waste but I would miss out on worm castings. I’m thinking the tumbler for compost volume and worms for the casings. Does that sound right? Can I add worms to the tumbler and get the best of both worlds? Thanks!!

    • DeannaCat

      Hi Scott, We follow several methods because we have too much kitchen/garden scraps for one system to handle. The worm bin can’t handle all our larger debris or too much at a time. We balance our “waste” between the large compost pile, worm bin and tumbler so that one system isn’t overloaded (and thus gets stinky and gross) or put anything in the worm bin that they don’t like to eat, too tough, etc. And yes, you’re spot on with the various benefits. We could probably handle much of our waste with just the tumbler and the large pile but LOVE having worm castings, and while it is a smaller volume of finished compost, they break down food matter much faster. Once the worm bin is established, we could harvest small handfuls of finished castings weekly if we needed/wanted to, while that can’t be said about the other methods that need to sit longer. I’m not sure about adding worms to a tumbler. If you were able to maintain it the same way a worm bin is ideally kept (did you see our worm bin 101 article?, maybe it would work… I hope that helps!

  • Jenna

    Hey! I have a former worm bin that became a throw everything in bin, well after some neglect it got yucky, wet and molded up 😳 I’d like to repurpose it back into a worm bin, do you think it needs sanitized or anything?
    Thanks!

    • DeannaCat

      Hi Jenna! If it is pretty gross (moldy, stinky, etc) I would remove the material inside, spray the inside out with plain white vinegar, let that sit for 20 minutes or so, give it a rinse, and then starter over. That may be a tad extreme and not 100% necessary, but I figure if you’re starting over you might as well reduce the risk of mold coming right back! If you haven’t seen it already, we have post dedicated to worm bin care! Best of luck, and enjoy the new worms!

  • Michelle

    Hi, Thank you for all of your wonderful articles. I am learning so much!
    I have a couple questions about composting:
    1. I recently purchased the compost tumbler that you talked about in the article. What I am unsure of how to use is the side vents. It wasn’t explained in the manual. As the vents can be opened and closed, under what circumstances would you open or close them?
    2. I also have a kitchen countertop compost pail with the charcoal filter inserts. Are you aware if the filters can be composted after their use?

    Thanks!

    • DeannaCat

      Hi Michelle! I believe the vents should be used if things need to “air out” a bit, like if they become a bit wet or stinky (and then browns need to be added at that time too) but we usually keep ours closed to prevent flies and other small insects from getting in. I am not sure about the filter but I don’t think the material is compostable. That sure would be clever if it were though! We use ours for many many years, and rinse/wash it as needed if it gets a little stinky itself. Thanks for being here, and asking questions!

  • Jean

    Hello Deannacat!

    Thanks so much for the wonderful tutorials and articles you have on your site. For screening the compost, you say you use a slightly larger hardware cloth than the 1/2″ you use for sifting out worm castings. What is the actual size that you use? Am having trouble finding 3/4″. Is it ok to just use chicken wire to sift compost then??

    Thanks for your help always,
    Jean

    • DeannaCat

      Hi Jean! Thanks for the nice message. Yes, I think chicken wire would work just fine! I wasn’t specific because I honestly can’t remember the exact wire size we used the last time we screened compost! Lol. I do clearly remember using our finer worm casting screen and it was taking too long since the big pile is a bit more chunky. I’d say anything between a 1-2″ mesh fencing/screen would work well.

  • Jamie

    Such great information here! Looking forward to revamping my composting system soon! I love reading through your articles and have learned so much from you! Thank you!

  • Robert

    You are correct about the amount of vegetative matter that can be recycled via composting. I have been passively composting ever since the county garbage handler decided to extort for higher fees after winning a 20 year contract the year before. What a savings for a family of four! A friend of mine convinced me, back in the day, to not recycle wood ash from the fire place and wood stove into the garden. His claim was that those trees were growing during the time of above ground nuclear testing and hence held trace amounts of fallout. Fine. I’ll use them for cinders on the lower driveway during winter. Was he ahead of his time and talking out his butt.

    Anyhow, thanks for the new tips for a better compost pile. My use of browns needs improvement. I think my spent beer brewing grains gives me a nice composting advantage. Definitely have to try the tea.

  • Jessie

    Thank you for the comprehensive article! I especially appreciate your explanation of the passive vs. active/hot compost piles. I always sort of conflated the two.

  • Brittany

    Very helpful! Composting has always seemed a little daunting! I started my own worm bin after your article about Vermicomposting and I love that method! But I am going to build a little place for some passive composting! Is it necessary for the pile to touch bare ground?

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