How to Make Compost at Home to Enrich Your Garden
Here's everything you need to know about how to make compost at home.
“When we harvest, trim, or clean up organic debris from the garden we are removing nutrients that have been pulled from the soil system,” explains Shannie McCabe, horticulturist and agriculture educator for Johnny Appleseed, an organic village that specializes in climate farming. “If we continually take from the soil and don’t give anything back in the form of nutrients we end up with deficient soils of a macronutrient and micronutrient level.”
That’s where composting comes in. Some people may erroneously think composting is smelly, difficult, or too much work but when done correctly, composting is simple and straightforward. In fact, when you know how to make compost the right way, one of the signs that your compost pile is working means there won’t be any strange odors. “Compost is a collection of organic materials in the process of being degraded into bioavailable nutrients for plants,” says Ashley Labrecque, Gardening with Science soil scientist and gardener. When the process is finished, you’ll have organic matter to add to the soil for a boost of nutrients. You can add your compost to your home vegetable garden, as well as any fruits that you grow indoors. Plus, check out all these tips for growing a vegetable garden.
What is composting?
Composting is a combination of layering kitchen scraps and yard and plant waste to create a natural amendment to add to the soil for your garden. When it’s complete, compost is rich in organic matter that is beneficial for the soil. “[Compost] may look humble, like a pile of brown and crumbly dirt, but compost is a mix of broken down organic materials as well as beneficial microorganisms, [and] it is very useful to the health of our plants,” says McCabe.
How long does it take to make compost?
The breaking down of plant and food materials takes time to produce compost. There are many different methods on how to make compost at home but the main ones are referred to as hot or cold. McCabe says, “Essentially hot composting requires an internal pile temperature of 120 to 170 Fahrenheit; using this method, you can have compost in as few as 10 to 12 weeks.” The hot method requires being more involved and turning your compost pile frequently. If you prefer to let nature do its thing and take a more laid-back approach, cold composting is another option. McCabe explains, “Cold composting is a slower method, you will have finished compost in about 6 to 12 months, however, it is a more hands-off method and the internal temperature need only be 90 Fahrenheit.”
Which foods can go into compost?
A variety of foods can go into your compost pile from rotting veggies to eggshells and coffee grounds. To create a successful compost pile you need to have a mix of ingredients that provide carbon and nitrogen as well as water and air to help with the breakdown. “Greens” are fresh plant materials like grass clippings and fresh kitchen scraps, such as banana and potato peels, onion skins, coffee grounds, eggshells, and tea bags, explains McCabe. Greens are considered nitrogen sources. “Browns” are typically dried or dead plant materials that serve as the source of carbon.
Other items that can go into a compost pile are:
Grass and plant trimmings
Wood clippings, such as branches
Shredded paper, including cereal boxes, cardboard, newspaper, etc.
Sawdust (but only if from untreated wood)
What foods can’t go into compost?
Some food items are better left out of the compost bin. “Most organic materials are indeed compostable […] but there are a few ingredients that you should not add to your compost pile, these are things that might attract animals or will actually negatively affect the breakdown of the pile, explains McCabe. These include:
Oils and grease
Other items to avoid placing in the compost pile:
Diseased plant materials
Weeds, such as Bermuda grass or any weeds that can “reseed”
Wood chips or sawdust from pressure-treated wood
Dog or cat feces
Tip: “If you have insect or disease-affected plants, do not compost them, instead opt to burn them,” recommends McCabe. Labrecque says limiting the number of weeds placed in the compost will prevent the spread of weeds in the following years.
Step by step for how to make compost at home: Hot Method
- Build your compost pile by layering browns and greens. You’ll be building your compost pile by making layers of “browns” and then “greens” and repeating the process until you’ve used all you have. You’ll do this by placing a layer of “browns” material, such as dried leaves, shredded paper, cardboard, newspaper, saw dust, or broken branches. Then, you’ll add a layer of “greens,” such as veggie and fruit scraps, grass, and coffee grounds, then continue to layer.
- Water your compost pile. Once you’ve built your layered pile, water it. Watering your pile is important for the breakdown of organic materials, so they can be converted into compost. “You can hose the pile down or even set up a timed irrigation, just be sure that the pile is getting watered,” says McCabe. But you also don’t want to overwater as this can disturb the microorganisms and bugs or kill them.
Turn your compost frequently. Turning your compost can be a weekly endeavor but depending on your pile and your interests, you may want or need to turn it more often. Whatever you choose, McCabe recommends, “Each time you turn your compost, be sure to really disturb the pile, bringing the material from the bottom to the top.” You can flip over the compost using different gardening tools, such as a digging fork, shovel, or spade. Some people may prefer to create their compost with a sturdy compost container or with an easy-to-turn bin. “Using a tumbler or a hayfork is hands down the best way,” says Labrecque.
Check the temperature. It’s important to check to see if the pile is reaching the necessary temperatures to break down. The best way to do this is by using a compost thermometer, says McCabe. Alternatively, you can check with your hands. “If you are brave enough to stick your bare hand in the center of the pile, it should feel quite hot,” explains McCabe.
Check to see if there are insects in the pile. “Healthy compost will be teeming with life, worms, and bugs galore,” says McCabe. Another sign is there shouldn’t be a putrid smell. “Lack of smell or an early smell is important because it shows decomposition is taking place and not rotting,” says Labrecque.
How to know when it’s ready: You’ll know your compost is ready when it is crumbly and brown and has an earthy smell, McCabe says. Then, you’re ready to use it in your garden.
- Ashley Labrecque, Gardening with Science soil scientist and gardener
- Shannie McCabe, horticulturist and agriculture educator for an organic village that specializes in climate farming, Johnny Appleseed