Composting is an old art form, appreciated and used for centuries in agriculture industries. In recent years, the utilisation of human and animal waste is becoming more and more essential because of the constantly decreasing soil fertility. Composting is also great for reducing trash in landfills, which meet ever-increasing difficulties in disposing of big piles of waste daily. 

There are so many reasons to start composting at home. And now you must be wondering “How does composting work?” and “What can I compost?“. Well, don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it seems.

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So if you are:

  • New to composting;
  • Want to improve your existing compost pile;
  • Want to learn more about do’s and don’ts in composting.

Then read on! We’ve prepared this article to help you get on top of your compost.

What is composting and how does it work?

Composting means breaking down organic material. Bacterias, fungi and many microscopic organisms play a major role in the process. They help transform the otherwise useless waste, into a rich fertilizer for lawns, gardens or potting mixes. Actually, composting food waste can reduce between 30%-40% of your household garbage. 

Making compost is often considered as a hard-to-do, unpleasant job, but all you need to do is get the right ingredients, put a little effort, and let nature do its magic. You will see that you can rarely find a more powerful and still organic ingredient that will do a better job than the compost. When applied to the soil, the finished compost, also called humus, boosts fertility, enhances the earth’s structure and combats toxins. Compost has the power to buffer soil pH and prevent diseases by adding both micro and macronutrients to it.

What are the types of composting?

There are three different types of compost and each has its pros and cons.

Vermicomposting – This is probably the most preferred way to compost, as it uses worms to break down the organic material, and those little creatures actually do most of the constant lifting and aerating. Red worms are perfect for that job because they feed on food scraps and any organic matter from your kitchen and garden. Worm bins are easy to construct and can be stored in the kitchen since they produce very little odour, and there is no need for frequent mixing. It typically takes no more than four months to create a usable product from these compost types.

Note that worms require some effort to keep them alive. They need decent conditions and sufficient food, so make sure to keep them away from extreme temperatures and direct light. This is done easier indoors because you can actually control all of those conditions and not rely on the mercy of the gods. 

Aerobic composting – In this method, oxygen-requiring microorganisms are introduced to help break down the materials quickly. The heat produced during aerobic composting is enough to kill all the harmful bacteria and pathogens, which also speed up the process. During the process all the moisture evaporates, so to keep the compost odourless, you need to add water from time to time. Also, remember to turn it every few days and leave lots of space in the composter, so there is enough air circulation. 

Anaerobic composting – The only good thing about this process is that it takes almost no effort at all. Just put scraps of green waste into a composter and forget about it for a year or more. Note that anaerobic composting is characterised by a solid odour. Without the presence of oxygen, some pretty nasty microorganisms take over and since a small amount of heat is generated the composition takes more time. 

Also, when sufficient temperatures are not reached, there is no chance for killing plant pathogens safely. The worst thing about that method of composting is that it releases methane, which is bad for the environment and we don’t recommend it for home composting.

How to compost at home?

  • If you are wondering how to make a compost heap, the best way to start is on bare soil, so worms and other beneficial organisms can aerate the compost.
  • Lay some straw and branches to ensure proper drainage and help with aeration.
  • Add the compost materials while keeping in mind that there should be an equal amount of moist/green waste and dry/brown waste. Moist ingredients include food scraps like tea bags, fruits, and vegetables. Dry materials are wood chippings, dry leaves, papers, straw, etc. Note that maintaining the right balance is really important, because brown materials are rich in carbon, and the green ones supply nitrogen.
  • Adding horse manure, or every vegetarian animal’s manure, is ok (e.g cows, rabbits, hamsters etc.). This activates the compost pile and speeds up the process.
  • Your compost also needs moisture, so water occasionally, unless your scraps are wet enough. The balanced combination between moisture and air ensures that the microorganisms which help the compost to break down have everything they need to reproduce. Anyway, if your compost gets too moist, it will stop air from circulating, which not only slows down the process but it could lead to nasty odours.
tip

If an unpleasant smell comes from your compost pile, add lime or calcium to neutralize it.

  • Cover the pile with something you have at hand, could be wood, carpet or plastic sheets. That will prevent the compost from being flooded by rain and retain the heat, which is also essential.
  • Turn regularly once the compost pile is established. This adds oxygen to the pile and it’s the last step of completion. Make sure to mix the compost every few weeks with a shovel or a garden fork.

Different compost bins and how they work

If you are living in an urban area or your garden is too small for an open compost pile, you can always opt for compost bins, and the most common types are: 

Digesters – These compost bins are closed on the top but open on the bottom, so they sit directly on the ground. Some models can even be completely buried in the ground with a cone fitted on the top. These bins are great for small residential areas, as they are compact and enclosed enough to stave off pests. The downside of this model is that turning the compost is difficult and it can take longer to produce the final product. 

Tumblers – The most favoured type of compost bins, as they maintain a relatively high temperature and your compost will be ready faster. High-temperature is maintained by the easy rotation system because the frequent turning keeps the microorganisms aerated and active. They make the whole process a lot easier and effortless, especially if you have back problems. Some designs even have “aerator spikes” inside them to prevent the compost from clumping. Also, these are neatly enclosed and odour-free, which allows you to place them on the patio or even the balcony. 

Kitchen composters – If you haven’t started a kitchen compost yet because of a lack of outdoor space, we have great news for you. Today’s composters are very modernised and odourless, they can fit even in the smallest kitchen. Some electric composters are the size of a kitchen robot and the resulting food waste is small and dry, so there is no smell coming from your indoor compost. They can process any kind of food only for one night.

What can you put in a compost bin?

The larger variety of compostable materials you put in your bin, the richer the finished product will be. Here is our list of products that are organic and can be composted:

  • Leaves, grass clippings, bush trimmings, disease-free yard waste;
  • Herbivorous animals’ manure (e.g. rabbits, hamsters, horses, cows, etc.);
  • Kitchen waste: fruits, vegetables, peelings, coffee filters, tea bags etc.;
  • Wood chips, sawdust, toothpicks, cardboard, paper;
  • Pine cones, pine needles, nutshells, corn cobs.

What should you not put in compost?

If you want to make good compost, there are certain things you should never put in your bin.

  • Non-vegetarian manure – Dog and cat droppings contain pathogens that can spread disease. If the compost pile does not heat up enough to kill these harmful microbes, there might be trouble awaiting you in the future.
  • Animal products – Meat, bones, fish, fat and dairy can “overheat” your compost pile. Also, they can attract animals like rats, foxes and badgers.
  • Perennials, invasive and diseased plants – For invasive plants, it’s quite easy to come back and grow from the smallest plant material. So, better avoid using them in your compost, unless you want unwanted weeds in your yard. On the other side, if you have diseased plants, don’t be tempted to put them in your pile. The diseases can spread to other plants, so it’s better to throw them away or even burn them.
  • Colour newspaper – Some printed papers contain a layer coated with wax, which is harmless, but it keeps the paper from composting fully.
  • Inorganic materials – Plastics, metals, glass and any synthetic materials can’t be compost ingredients and have no place in your pile. This stuff won’t break down and could prove to be toxic.

How long does it take to compost?

In general, the more effort you put in your compost, the quicker it will be ready. You can have a finished product in six to eight weeks, or sometimes a year or more. Decomposition depends on many things like temperature, the type of bin you’ve chosen, how often you turn it and what organic matter you’ve put in it.

tip

Add activators to your compost to speed up the process. They include well-rotted chicken manure, grass clippings, comfrey leaves and young weeds. Ask in your local garden centre.

If you don’t see progress after a few weeks, add more “green” and wet materials. If it seems to be soggy and smelly, add more “brown” materials, like branches. Just make sure they are well-chopped, so air keeps flowing.

Compost is finished when it’s dark and crumbles easily. It should have a sweet and earthy, soil-like smell. If it’s too bumpy and sticky, it may need more time. Even if there are traces of eggshells or branches, that’s not a problem at all, it can be sieved before use.

How can you use your compost?

Once you have finished compost, you can add it to the soil whenever you want. As we mentioned above, the benefits of using compost are numerous, with the biggest one being that it can improve all types of soil. 

Compost boosts water retention in soil, which means the plants will need less irrigation. It introduces beneficial microorganisms to the soil, which helps aerate it. Composting helps the environment as it is a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers.

Related: 10 Tips for Organic Vegetable Gardening Enthusiasts

The uses of compost and how much compost you need depend on what kind of garden you have. For example, when mixed with sand or sawdust, it’s a perfect fertilizer for raised beds. 

Compost is a beneficial ingredient in potting mixes, as well. Make sure to add 30% compost to the total mix, which will reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.

Compost can also be applied to lawns to establish new turf. Simply apply the humus prior to seeding or seasonally to top-dress your lawn

For vegetable patches, the best way to apply compost is to mulch with it. It’s not only the easiest way, but it also prevents weeds from appearing. Sprinkle the vegetable compost in a thick layer on top of exposed soil, and worms and other creatures will help the compost penetrate the soil.

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Takeaways:

  • Compost increases the water-retaining capacity of soil.
  • Humus neutralizes various soil toxins and metals.
  • It acts as a pH buffer so plants are less dependent on a specific soil pH.
  • Compost is also called “black gold”.
  • Last update: May 18, 2020

Posted in Garden Advice

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