Everything You Need to Know About Composting

martha prepping soil pitchfork
Courtesy of John Dolan

Composting is a secret weapon for gardeners and anyone who likes to toss out old, all-natural materials while still being environmentally conscious. Plus, creating it is actually quite simple. While this buzzword is used quite often, you might not know exactly what composting is. In simple terms, it's making homemade manure out of everyday ingredients (like food scraps) you have in your home. The process breaks down the biodegradable materials to make a soil treatment packed with moisture and nutrients—perfect for adding to plants to boost the health of your landscape. The finished product comes after organic materials, like plant parts and food, decompose with the help of water, oxygen, and organisms like worms and fungi.

This system is a free and easy way to turn organic waste into something useful, thus decreasing trash pickups and landfill usage. And getting started doesn't necessarily require any special equipment: Piling up materials and letting nature take its course will eventually make compost. By following a few simple guidelines and building or buying a compost bin, you can boost the process, making it happen more quickly and conveniently. One of its perks is that you can make this DIY fertilizer right in the comfort of your own backyard. But according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when creating the homemade fertilizer: You will need to have a balance of "green" and "brown" natural materials. The "green" materials will be all of your old food scraps and the "brown" will be the everyday findings from your yard, like dry leaves and branches.

Here, we walk you through the steps you need to know to combine these organic substances for the outdoor project.

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Benefits of Composting

Raymond Hom

This three-bin setup constitutes the classic backyard composting system, and it's a system you can DIY. It's the best choice for big families, rural properties, and passionate gardeners because it has one pile to add to, one pile that is decomposing, and one finished pile to use in the garden.

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Food Scraps

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Successful composting depends on the right combination of "green" and "brown" material. The greens (food scraps, lawn cuttings) provide nitrogen, while the browns (dry leaves, newspaper, hay) provide carbon. For the best compost, you'll need twice as much brown material as green.

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Paper, Lint, and Hay "Brown"

compost brown matter
Courtesy of John Dolan

Newspaper and hay make good brown matter when you're low on dry leaves. Shred newspaper so it doesn't form a mat—be sure to avoid glossy or colored paper.

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Neutral Soil

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A handful (or shovelful, depending on the size of your bin) of garden soil in the middle of the pile helps to protect the compost while supplying the organisms needed for the breakdown process.

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Garden Waste "Green"

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Flowers, leaves, grass clippings, and weeds are perfect for the compost pile. Just make sure not to compost weeds bearing seeds, or diseased or pest-ridden plants.

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Dry Leaves "Brown"

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Courtesy of Raymond Hom

Autumn leaves are the cheapest, most plentiful form of carbon for composting. Since they're abundant for a short time, many people stock up once they fall and use them throughout the winter.

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Making Compost

pitchfork in soil
Courtesy of John Dolan

Starting from scratch means you can get it right from the beginning. First, find a spot for your compost bin. Full sun necessitates frequent watering; full shade slows decomposition. With that being said, find a happy medium and place your bin close to a water source. Begin your pile with an airy carbon layer—ideally a loose pile of fallen leaves. Aim for half as much green as brown—too much green can make the mixture smelly and slimy—and add a scoop of soil to the pile. Continue layering browns and greens in a two-to-one ratio, ending with a layer of brown. Small pieces decompose faster, so consider cutting down any large ones.

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Completing the Compost Steps

food scraps on top of compost pile
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Your pile should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge: moist but not dripping. Be sure to check the pile often and water as needed. For an open pile, use a tarp to hold in moisture or keep out rain. After a week, you'll notice the pile start to heat up. Now is a good time to turn it with a pitchfork, mixing the layers. Turning provides oxygen for the microorganisms and makes for a rapid, even decomposition. Turn the pile weekly when it's warm out. In winter, the pile may freeze so the process will be slower. Depending on ingredients and conditions, your compost will be done two months to a year after you start the pile—frequent turning speeds up the process.

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How to Know When Compost Is Ready

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When compost is ready for use, it will be dark brown, free of recognizable ingredients, and safe to smell. You can use the finished product as mulch or top dressing, dug into any problematic soil, or raked directly onto the lawn to your liking.

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Choosing Your Compost Bins

compost bin nyc
Courtesy of NYC Department of Sanitation

Using a closed bin is best to maintain moisture levels for the compost—especially in extreme climates—but there are a few options to choose from. With a tumbler bin ($76.66, homedepot.com), it swings on an axis, so it's a breeze to open. If you're looking for easy access to the compost, a two-door bin ($137.52, homedepot.com) has a door at the base that lets you remove finished compost while continuing to add fresh materials to the top. Lastly, a roller bin ($100, target.com) is a space-saver that sits on a base with embedded rollers, making it easy to rotate without having to reach inside.

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Compost Tea

gardener using compost tea
Courtesy of Johnny Miller

A mix of finished compost and water, compost tea is an easy to make at home drink for your plants consisting of compost, molasses, and kelp and fish fertilizers. It's known to fight plant disease and serve as a helpful liquid fertilizer.

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