How to Start Your Own Composting System

Compost is a dark, earthy-like material made up of decomposing organic matter. With the help of microorganisms and other small animals such as snails and earthworms, this organic material turns into a mulch that is loaded with nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Compost improves the physical nature of soil, which sometimes can be either too sandy or filled with clay. Adding compost to your flower and vegetable beds helps break up that poor soil and allows it to hold moisture. The nutrients also stimulate root growth. Compost is nature's more perfect soil additive and best of all, it can be made free of charge.

The first step is choosing a compost system that works best for you.

The 5 basic composting systems

Many people use a black soil saver compost bin which is about the size of a dishwasher. These bins are about 30 inches high with a self locking lid, and water holes directly in the lid to keep compost moist. These tuck nicely in the corner of the yard and are quite easy to use. Most units retail around $90.

Another popular composter type is the tumbler. The tumblers comes in a number of different styles, but the basic idea is that you can manually tumble the compost instead of turning it with a pitchfork. These can start at $100 and go as high as $300.

For the thrifty minded, a wire bin composter made of chicken wire will work. For this, all you need is enough chicken wire to shape a cylinder that measures about 3 feet across.

Gardeners who do a lot of composting use a three section cedar bin, which allows for the transfer of compost as it passes through the various stages of decomposition. The advantage of the bin system is that the compost is much easier to rotate with a pitchfork or shovel.

For the totally budget minded (and my preference), there's open pit composting. All that's required is a corner of the yard and a shallow hole to hold the compost.

I've tried all 5 of these systems. If you have a small yard and limited organic material, a standard bin or tumbler works best. Those with larger yards and lots of leaves, grass clippings, and prunings, will need either a 3 part bin system or compost pit. When I first started with composting, I used home made wire bins which were cheap to build but awkward to use. They do tend to tip over easily when stirring the material.

Once you've decided on a compost system, the next step is to find a place to set it. It should be placed in an area with good drainage, is out of the way, and has plenty of air space.

What do I place in my composter?

Properly done, composting happens quickly. The secret to rapid composting is to layer the organic material, keep it moist, and rotate the material once a week with a pitchfork.

The material you can add to your composter falls in one of two categories. They can be either "greens" which are rich in nitrogen or "browns" which contain carbon. "Greens" are such things as green leaves and plants, grass clippings, fruit & vegetable scraps from the kitchen, egg shells, coffee grounds, nut shells, and prunings. "Browns" might include such things as dried leaves, straw, sawdust, newspaper, wood chips, ash, or dried vines.

To begin, drop an inch of soil in the bottom of the composter, spreading it around with a shovel to bring it level. Next, layer the organic material by putting in a couple of inches of mixed "greens," followed with a few inches of mixed "browns." If there isn't enough brown material on hand to add to the compost, throw in some shredded newspaper instead, then top it with a sprinkling of soil. After the layering is complete, sprinkle the top and sides with some water, to help keep things moist during the composting process. You can even add a handful of worms to act as decomposers.

After about a week, turn the pile over with a pitchfork to aerate the composting materials. If you continue to turn the pile once a week, the compost should be ready in 1-2 months. Left untouched, composting could take up to a year.

With a standard composter, the finished compost drops to the bottom of the bin where it can be shoveled out through a small door located at the base. This finished compost is very dark and crumbly, and has a sweet, earthy smell.

Isn't there an easier way to compost?

Some of you might not want to deal with the hassle of rotating the compost on a weekly basis. There are other ways of composting that don't take a lot of work.

Remember those chicken wire bins I described earlier? Set several of the cages in the corner of your yard, and use these to "hold 'em and forget 'em." What works best is to layer the organic matter with a good mixture of "greens" and "browns", and an occasional layer of soil. Give the bin a good watering and then leave it alone until next spring. You'll discover that the material on the top and exposed edges might not have completely broken down, but the rest of the bin will have turned into compost.

One of the easiest ways to compost is by using black heavy duty garbage bags. I prefer heavy duty (3 ml) contractor bags. Fill the garbage bag with a mix of greens and browns, toss in a shovelful of soil, and give it a good soaking. Tie up the bag, punch in some air holes and set it in the corner of the yard. Periodically, turn the bags over to rotate the material. Within a few months, you'll have bags of compost. The garbage approach to composting works particularly well with autumn leaves. Just make sure that you add grass clippings or there won't be enough nitrogen to get the process going.

If you have a large yard, pit composting is a great alternative. I have a 25 x 15 compost pit in my yard, and the principles are much the same as composting in a bin. The secret is to layering the organic matter, sprinkling soil on the top, and keeping the pile moist. Twice a year, I'll take a pitchfork to the entire pile and rotate the material. When vegetable and fruit scraps can be tossed onto the pile, I prefer burying them within the pit to prevent possible smell and from attracting animals. To access the finished compost, merely rake aside the material that hasn't begun to decompose. Underneath, you'll find the compost which is easily removed with a shovel. In the hole that's left behind, rake in what's left of the pile, and the process can begin again.

Is there anything I can't add to a composter?

Not everything that's organic should be added to a composter or compost pile. Don't ever include dog or cat droppings, kitty litter, dairy products, meats, bones, mixed table scraps, or diseased plants. Farm animal manure is OK however.

Composting just isn't that difficult and you'll soon find a system that works best for you. You'll discover that your garden soil will be easier to turn in the spring, and that your plants and shrubs will look healthier. Best of all, you'll be diverting valuable organic material away from the landfill, while reducing your own carbon footprint on the planet. For more information on how to get started, contact your local county extension office or visit your public library.