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Beginners guide to composting

Composting is a simple yet powerful way to reduce waste, enrich soil, and contribute to a healthier environment. Whether you're a gardening enthusiast looking to boost your soil's fertility or someone who wants to minimize their ecological footprint, starting a compost bin is a fantastic step in the right direction. In this comprehensive guide, we'll walk you through everything you need to know to start composting successfully, including what materials to put in your compost pile and what to avoid.

Why Compost?

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of composting, it's essential to understand the benefits it offers:

Reduce Waste: Composting diverts organic materials from landfills, where they would otherwise release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Improve Soil Health: Compost enriches soil with essential nutrients, improves soil structure, and promotes beneficial microbial activity.

Save Money: By producing your compost, you reduce the need for store-bought fertilizers and soil conditioners.

Support Biodiversity: Healthy soil promotes the growth of plants, which, in turn, supports diverse ecosystems and wildlife.

Getting Started

Starting a compost pile is easier than you might think. Here's what you'll need:

Location: Choose a level, well-drained spot in your yard for your compost pile or bin. Consider placing it near your garden for easy access to finished compost.

Container: While you can create a compost pile directly on the ground, using a container or bin helps contain the materials and maintain a tidy appearance. Options range from simple wire mesh bins to more elaborate tumblers and enclosed bins.

Balance of Materials: Successful composting relies on a balance of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials.

Aeration: Compost needs oxygen to break down effectively, so ensure proper aeration by turning the pile regularly or using a bin with adequate ventilation.

Moisture: Keep your compost pile moist, like a wrung-out sponge. Too dry, and decomposition slows; too wet, and it may become anaerobic and smelly.

What to Put In Your Compost

Composting is a natural process that breaks down organic materials into nutrient-rich humus. Here's a list of what you can include in your compost pile:

Green Materials (Nitrogen-Rich)

Fruit and Vegetable Scraps: Including peels, cores, and rinds.

Coffee Grounds and Filters: Rich in nitrogen and beneficial for composting.

Grass Clippings: If untreated with herbicides.

Plant Trimmings: Such as leaves, stems, and weeds (avoid seeding weeds).

Manure: From herbivores only (e.g., cows, horses, rabbits), as carnivore and omnivore manure may contain pathogens.

Brown Materials (Carbon-Rich)

Fallen Leaves: Shred them for faster decomposition.

Straw and Hay: Adds carbon and helps aerate the pile.

Wood Chips and Sawdust: In moderation, as they decompose slowly.

Newspaper and Cardboard: Shred or tear into small pieces to aid decomposition.

Dryer Lint: From natural fibers like cotton or wool.

Other Compostable Items

Eggshells: Crushed eggshells add calcium to the compost.

Tea Bags: Make sure they're made of compostable material and remove any staples.

Hair and Pet Fur: Adds nitrogen and can be composted if not treated with chemicals.

Wood Ash: In small quantities, as it can raise the pH of the compost.


Compost Starter: While not necessary, adding a compost starter with beneficial microbes can speed up the decomposition process, especially when starting a new pile.

Water: Add water occasionally to maintain the proper moisture level.

What to Avoid

While many organic materials are suitable for composting, some items should be kept out of your compost pile to avoid problems such as pests, odors, and contamination. Here's what not to put in your compost:

Meat, Fish, and Dairy Products: These items can attract pests and produce foul odors as they decompose.

Grease and Oils: They can disrupt the composting process and create an unpleasant environment.

Diseased Plants: Plants infected with diseases or pests may spread pathogens in the compost.

Pet Waste: Waste from dogs, cats, and other carnivores may contain harmful pathogens and should be avoided.

Weeds with Seeds: Weeds that have gone to seed may germinate in your compost pile and spread throughout your garden when you use the finished compost.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Even with proper care, you may encounter challenges while composting. Here's how to address some common issues:

Foul Odors: If your compost pile smells bad, it may be too wet or lack sufficient aeration. Turn the pile to introduce oxygen and adjust the moisture level as needed.

Pests: To deter pests like rodents and flies, avoid adding meat, dairy, and oily foods to your compost pile. Covering food scraps with a layer of browns can also help.

Slow Decomposition: If your compost is taking longer to decompose, it may need more nitrogen-rich materials or regular turning to aerate the pile.

Excessive Moisture: If your compost is too wet, add dry browns like leaves or shredded newspaper to absorb excess moisture.

Harvesting and Using Your Compost

Once your compost has turned into dark, crumbly humus—usually within a few months to a year, depending on environmental factors—it's ready to use. Here's how to harvest and apply your compost:

Harvesting: Use a shovel or pitchfork to remove finished compost from the bottom or center of the pile, leaving unfinished material to continue decomposing.

Application: Incorporate compost into garden beds, potting soil, or container gardens to improve soil fertility and structure. Spread a layer of compost around existing plants or use it as a topdressing for lawns.

Composting is a rewarding and environmentally friendly way to manage organic waste while improving soil health and fertility. By following the tips outlined in this guide, you can start composting with confidence, knowing what materials to include and what to avoid. With a little time and effort, you'll soon be reaping the benefits of nutrient-rich compost in your garden and contributing to a healthier planet. Happy composting!