How to Start a Compost

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Jumping On the Compost Heap Craze!

Saving the Planet, One Bag of Garbage at a Time

Ah, garbage. It seems as though as soon as we take it out, another bag is right behind it. Even with recycling and the garbage disposal, there is never a shortage of trash. What's a homeowner to do? Start a compost.

Composting may not be the most glamorous of home improvement projects, but name another scenario where you can improve your garden, do something for our planet, and have less trash to hand over to the city every week. Starting your own compost is simple and has an enormous return. This is one of those projects that'll have you wondering why you waited so long to do it. (Join a forum on getting started with composting.)

Compost is essentially layers of natural materials that eventually break down to produce a nutrient rich soil. This natural fertilizer is great for your garden as it replenishes nutrients missing from damaged soil. As any gardener will tell you: the success of your garden depends largely on the quality of your dirt.

Another big plus: you don't need worms to have a compost. The breakdown of materials can occur on a much smaller biological level. (Though you can start a worm compost (a.k.a vermicomposting) if you are so inclined.)

What to Keep it in
With more people catching onto composting, the options of where and how to keep your pile have increased dramatically. Nowadays, you can buy a prebuilt composting bin for about $150 or less. (But, we've seen them as high as $300). These devices are typically plastic and are designed to keep odors away and thus, critters at bay! Some even come equipped with shredders that accelerate the decomposition process.

The models vary widely from what they look like and what they can do. Some bins are stationary while others, called tumblers, can be turned by a handle. (Turning the compost is essential to a final product, but we'll get to that later.) Certain designs boast faster decomposition, and while some bins look like they could pass for an inconspicuous garden fixture, others don't look like anything other than a composting drum. What you decide on depends on how much you want to spend, how much you want to do and whether or not you care what it looks like. There are hundreds of different styles, so shop around.

Make your Own
It's not necessary to buy a composting bin, since you can make your own with odds and ends. They can be constructed out of wood pallets, wire mesh, old fencing, even a bureau! Just know this: an open compost pile is likely to smell and attract bugs and animals. If you go this route, make sure it's in the wide open, and not next to your bedroom window.

One homemade composting idea we really like is making one from a giant plastic container normally used for storage. Simply drill holes in the bottom and in the lid and you have a very simple and inexpensive composting bin. But, you ask, what do I put in? And how? Read on!

A successful compost requires the right combination of carbon and nitrogen. The carbon comes from "brown" ingredients: straw, dried leaves, newspaper, cardboard, etc. Nitrogen comes from "green" ingredients: food scraps, grass clippings, etc. (The gunk that comes from cleaning your gutters is perfect for the compost heap.) The right mix breaks down easily and produces a fantastic fertilizer. However, it's tricky to get the proper mixture on your first or even second try. Be patient and keep trying: this will pay off.

Where to start? Layer number one should consist of brown ingredients. The key is to have good circulation at the bottom of your bin or pile, so don't pile the clippings on too thick, about 1 to 2 inches should suffice.

The next layers should alternate between brown and green materials. Each layer should be about 2 inches thick, and a thin layer of manure can be placed between green and brown layers. A trick of the trade: break down any material that is in large pieces before adding it to your compost pile; it will decompose faster.

If you are using a tumbler, layers aren't necessary. Just toss everything in!

What you can put in your compost:

  • Hair (spread it around)
  • Dryer lint
  • Coffee grounds
  • Seaweed
  • Crushed eggshells
  • Sawdust (use sparingly)

What Not to Put in It
What to avoid putting in your compost is almost more important than what goes in. Certain substances can be toxic and therefore harmful. Dog, cat, and bird feces are a prime example. Also, avoid any green materials treated with pesticides. Other composting no-nos:

  • Limes
  • Meat or fish
  • Bones, grease, fat
  • Cat litter
  • Plastic and laminated paper
  • Diseased or rotting plants
  • Big stalks or roots (cut or shred them first)
  • Treated woods

What Else You Need to Know

Composts need constant attention. Your pile should be wet, warm and mixed regularly. (This is why some bins come with a handle) Like we said, the perfect recipe is hard to get right off the bat, but once you master it, you'll never look back.

Make sure you keep the pile moist at all times. If you find that your scraps are just sitting there after time, it may be that the pile isn't wet enough. If the pile smells rancid or like ammonia, it is too wet or contains an overabundance of green materials. Add some brown materials and give the pile a good mixing.

Place the bin in an area that gets a fair amount of sun, as you need the container to heat up to start working. Your compost should start to heat up in a day or so to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit. If it doesn't, there aren't enough green materials. Some of the composting bins come with thermometers, but you can buy one if it doesn't. Just stick it in the center of the pile to see if your mixture is correct.

Turn the pile every few days and keep an eye on your compost. Does it look like stuff is breaking down? Is it warm? If the answers are yes, in a few weeks you will have an abundance of rich soil on your hands.

Once complete, sift through the soil. This can be done by hand or with a store-bought sifter. Remove any pieces that haven't broken down and put them back into the bin. Leave a little bit of the finished product at the bottom of the bin to get the new batch going.

Going, Going, Gone!

Starting a compost means that you can truly call yourself a recycler. You'll have less garbage and a great garden to show for it. The most important thing to remember is not to get frustrated if you don't immediately produce rich soil. A little practice is all it takes for you to get the composting mixture going.

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