Learn how to make your own compost. Making compost is a wonderfully sustainable way to make healthy soil for your garden from your own kitchen scraps and livestock/yard waste. This article looks at different compost structures and also what types of things you can add to a compost pile.
How to Make Your Own Compost
As you might know by now, I am passionate about natural and sustainable living (read more about my permaculture goals here). And, obviously, I’m pretty obsessed with gardening (understatement of the year!)…and yet, I’m also very frugal (proof: this DIY garden trellis design with sticks or this garden trellis design with a cheap cattle panel).
One of the most expensive things about gardening is EASILY keeping enough good-quality soil and compost on hand. Those raised garden beds need refilling every spring and fall. And I *might* be constantly adding more raised beds all over the place that need lots of compost at once. Tee hee.
Fortunately, I can be really sustainable (less of my stuff is going to garbage heaps) AND frugal (um, it’s FREE compost!) AND produce a healthy garden by making homemade compost. Score!
However, there are a few important things to keep in mind about making your own compost. Let’s take a closer look at the compost structure options as well as what you can (and can not) add to a compost pile AND how to keep your compost pile healthy and happy.
There are many different ways for compost structures to keep your compost, including the following:
A) Wire, Wood, or Cinder block structures:
Using either wire, wood, or cinder blocks, you can form a square or circular shape. Just leave an opening (ex: 3 sided square with 4th side open for easy access) or a removable side in order to add more compost ingredients as well as for making it easier to mix up the compost from time to time.
With this compost structure option, you turn the compost ingredients with a garden fork or shovel to help the decomposition process go quicker (learn more about that process farther down in this post). You should try to turn your compost at least once a week. Confession: I only turn my compost once a month. That means it takes a bit longer for it to decompose, BUT that’s what works for my current schedule/life. Do what works best for you!
I have cinder block compost piles, and I like it a lot. If I ever feel that it’s necessary, I can adjust the size of the compost structures by moving around the cinder blocks. That type of adaptability is really helpful if you are new to composting and you might want to move your compost somewhere else in the yard or shrink/expand the size of the compost structure.
B) Pit or Pile composting:
If you don’t want to get fancy with a type of structure, another common composting practice is to either dig a hole (or pit) in the yard and fill it with composting items OR just pile the composting items on top of the earth.
For a compost pit, dig a hole 2-3 feet deep and unlined. Add the compost ingredients until the pit is filled. Then, cover the compost with soil and allow it to decompose naturally over time. Peek at it occasionally, and, when it is ready, simply start digging and scooping it out and use it in the garden.
For a compost pile, aka just throwing your compost ingredients in a pile somewhere, obviously, it’s the laziest option you can do (no problem with that!). However, a compost pile can be tricky. You MUST be diligent about turning your compost pile and keeping it moist. This is also not a very attractive option for your yard, but if you’ve got a hidden corner somewhere in your yard, you can give it a try.
C) Buy a ready-made compost bin from a garden supply shop
A warning with compost bins from a garden store (or from online): they can be pretty poorly designed. They can also seem impractical to your compost goals. For example, if you’re trying to make your own compost to save money, compost bins can be pretty expensive. Another example, if you’re trying to help save the planet (be sustainable, natural living quest, etc.), some compost bins are not organic, are made with bad plastics, etc.
Compost bins are also pretty small, which doesn’t help you keep up with your garden’s demands. With these things in mind, compost bins are easily my least favorite option, however, if you still want to get a compost bin, here are a few good ones:
- Composting Tumbler: this has pretty good reviews and says it’s made with recycled food-grade materials.
- This compost tumbler says it’s BPA-free.
- Compost Bin: also says it is BPA-free.
- Envirocycle Composter: highly rated, BPA-free/etc., but it is a bit pricy
Creating the Compost
Time for another confession! For a few years now, I didn’t think much about the health of my compost pile. I just simply dumped my kitchen scraps in the compost and called it good. And then complain about how my compost wasn’t decomposing very well.
I have no problem confessing about this because, even though I consider myself a gardening pro, all gardeners are still learning things every day. After much deeper research, I realized that it’s a bit more complex than just throwing out my kitchen scraps. Let’s take a closer look at the components of compost.
Green and Brown Materials:
Proper composting requires a correct ratio of “greens” and “browns” in order to be a healthy garden soil and also to help it decompose properly. Greens are ingredients that are rich in nitrogen and/or protein. Greens also help the mircoorganisms in your compost pile grow and expand (this is a good thing). Browns are ingredients that are rich in carbon and/or carbohydrates. Browns act as food for the organisms in your compost pile. They also help the organisms break down the compost more quickly.
Brown Materials for Your Compost Include:
- Fall Leaves
- Pine Needles
- Small twigs and branches (break them up first)
- Tree bark
- Saw Dust
- Paper (don’t add glossy stuff)
- Cardboard (don’t add glossy or waxy stuff or stuff with paper coatings. Toilet paper rolls are great!)
- Dryer Lint
Green Materials for Your Compost Include:
- Grass clippings
- Coffee Grounds
- Vegetable and Fruit Scraps (not rotten stuff, but the peelings)
- Livestock Manure (not dog or cat)
Greens and Browns Compost Ratio
My mistake was that I was only throwing out my coffee grounds, eggshells, and fruit and veggie scraps. Yep. I was only adding green materials to my compost pit.
The best compost ratio for greens and browns is 4 parts brown materials to 1 part green materials. However, I do not want to discourage you from composting. If you’re reading this and thinking about how it’s another complicated thing to add to your life, don’t worry: this compost ratio doesn’t have to be exact.
Try to add more browns than greens, but don’t sit there with a measuring cup and try to make sure it’s perfect. You will know if your ratio is off-balanced because: your compost won’t decompose quickly; or your compost pile will smell; or it won’t be hot enough and the seeds from, for a “random” example, your winter butternut squash will start growing in there (another confession: I’ve had more compost-pile butternut squash success than growing it in my garden!).
Never Add These Items to Your Compost:
Do NOT add the following items to your compost:
- meat scraps
- excessive dairy products (a little bit is okay)
- trimmings from diseased plants
- fat or grease
- rotten food
These items are either bad for your compost, mess up the microorganisms in your compost, attract unwanted critters (skunks and raccoons) to your compost, and yeah, just bad stuff. There’s lots of science and farming/gardening articles about these things online if you’re interested in learning more. For lazy purposes (from me) though, just do not add these items to your compost.
How to Start Your First Compost Pile
In order to start your first compost pile, you should first figure out where to put it in your yard. I’ve been obsessed with the great gardener Monty Don’s gardening show Big Dreams Small Spaces (as well as his books) where he helps normal people start gardens in their small backyards. One thing that comes up over and over in his gardening show is that people want to place their compost in impractical places.
So think carefully about the best place to put your compost. I personally think that your compost pile should be somewhere convenient to both your house and your garden. You don’t want it too far away from the house, or you might get too lazy to actively compost. But it should be easy to get a wheelbarrow from your compost pile to the garden, too.
After you figure out the compost location in your yard, figure out what compost structure (mentioned above) you are going to use. If you do a wooden or concrete block compost structure, it is a good idea to make either two or three structures next to each other. Then, you can use one spot for year one’s compost. Then the next empty spot for year two’s compost. And so on. That way, you always have a compost pile that is ready to use, as well as at least one pile that is fresh and can be added onto as the year progresses.
The next thing to do is create your original compost mix:
- Place several small twigs in the bottom of your chosen structure. This provides air pockets at the bottom for proper decomposition.
- Add a layer of soil, about 8-10 inches deep.
- Cover the soil with 4-6 inches of manure. Use whatever type of livestock manure is available to you, but make sure it is from a good organic source. Do NOT use dog or cat manure. The more aged the manure, the faster it will compost.
- Add a thick layer of Brown materials (types of Browns mentioned above).
Activating Your Compost
If you’re in a pinch to get your compost ready by a certain deadline OR you just want to boost the health of your compost pile, you can activate the compost in a few different ways:
A) You can buy compost activator products from garden shops (like this compost activator).
B) Make your own compost activator:
Make a compost tea and add to your compost once every 3 months. Wear gloves while doing this. Also, this recipe makes enough for a 64 cubic foot compost pile.
*6 cups dried or 12 cups fresh nettles (find dried nettles here)
*6 cups dried or 12 cups fresh comfrey leaves (find dried comfrey here)
*2 cups flaked or powdered kelp (like this one)
*1 cup liquid fish emulsion (like this one)
Put all ingredients into a 5 gallon bucket and fill the bucket with water. Allow the mixture to sit in a warm place for 4-8 hours. Pour all contents of buck into the compost pile.
Working the Compost
Turn your compost once a month in warm and hot weather. In colder months, turning is less crucial. Turn with a shovel or a garden fork. The goal is to flip the pile. As you turn the pile, you may find a small amount of rich, dark brown soil at the bottom. This pile of compost is ready to use but may also be mixed into the pile for later use.
You must also remember to occasionally water your compost pile. This is an important part of the compost’s quality. The compost should stay evenly moist, NOT soaking wet or dried out. Simply water with a hose as evenly as possible.
Using Your Compost
Once the compost material is ready for use, apply 1-3 inches to the top of your garden soil. Work it into the soil until it is well mixed. It is ideal to add the compost in the spring, but you can really add it at any time. After mixing it into the soil, water the garden thoroughly.
Enjoy the healthy plants that this homemade compost will surely help you get! 🙂
More Gardening Tips You Will Love:
- How to Properly Test Your Soil
- How to Deal With Problems Growing Root Vegetables
- How to Plan Your Garden
- High Quality Seed Companies for the Organic Gardener