Make compost at home – An easy and complete guide

Composting is the term used to describe the conversion of organic (kitchen and garden) waste, through natural decomposition, into a natural humic material called compost.

Benefits of composting

Before deciding to produce your own compost, it is important to know the numerous benefits that compost has.

  • Compost is rich in valuable nutrients

Therefore it is widely used in gardening, landscaping and agriculture. A very important advantage is that compost releases slowly the nutrients to the corps, allowing better absorption of valuable elements. What is more, organic matter returns to earth, maintaining soil in a healthy and balanced condition.

  • It allows soil to hold moisture better

Apart from nutritional value, compost allows soil to hold moisture better, improving the same time its structure and texture. In addition, it increases soil’s fertility and enhances healthy root development.

  • Compost can substitute fertilizers

Compost can provide the necessary nutrients for optimum growth of plants such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. It includes as well many micro-nutrients that are necessary in small quantities, such as boron, copper, iron, zinc, manganese, etc.

  • It is environmental friendlier

Composting reduces your footprint, since all the organic waste you turn into compost would end up to a landfill. In that way, you can also save money by avoiding landfill fees.

  • Home composting might make you feel better

More specifically, not only it is free, but it allows you to produce something useful from your trash.

What materials to compost

Even though most organic materials are suitable for composting, there is one rule that your compost pile must obey to produce compost of good quality. That “rule” has to do with the carbon to nitrogen ratio.

In general, carbon rich materials are called “browns” and provide the necessary energy for the microbes. Such materials include dried leaves, straw, etc. On the other side, “greens” or nitrogen rich materials provide the necessary protein. Such materials include grass clippings, kitchen waste, etc.

In order composting process to develop appropriately, a carbon to nitrogen ratio ranging from 25:1 to 35:1 is recommended. In case the ratio is higher (more carbon) the process slows down. On the contrary, lower ratio (more nitrogen) affects decomposition conditions and causes materials to rot.

To achieve a good ratio either takes time, through experience, or requires weighing of the materials used.

“Brown” materials

Typical “browns” include:

Leaves and shrub pruning

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 60:1.
  • Advice: Xyloid pruning breaks down slowly; both break down faster when shredded.

Straw or hay

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 75:1.
  • Advice: Try to avoid hay since it might contain seeds

Pine needles

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 80:1.
  • Advice: Use them in moderate amounts since they are acidic

Wood ash

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 25:1.
  • Advice: Sprinkle small amounts; only ash from clean materials should be used

Corn cobs, stalks

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 75:1.
  • Advice: Since they are woody, they decompose slowly; better chop them up

Sawdust

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 325:1.
  • Advice: Very high carbon source; apply it in layers and sparingly

Wood chips

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 400:1.
  • Advice: Very high carbon source; apply it in layers and sparingly

Additionally to the above, paper and cardboard are very good sources of carbon. More specifically, shredded newspaper and shredded cardboard have C:N ratios of 175:1 and 350:1 respectively.

However, serious limitations exist with regard to their use in composting. More particularly, paper should be shredded to decompose fast enough. Otherwise, paper will convert to a sticky material that hinders composting.

It is highlighted that in case you will use paper avoid using glossy paper and paper with colored ink. Such types of paper contain substances that either are toxic or stop composting procedure.

“Green” materials

Typical “greens” include:

Food waste

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 20:1.
  • Advice: Combine with browns

Fruit and vegetable scraps

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 25:1.
  • Advice: Combine with browns

Coffee grounds

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 20:1.
  • Advice: Filters may be included; only paper with no bleaching

Tea leaves

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 20:1.
  • Advice: Remove clips – either in bags or loose

Grass clippings

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 20:1.
  • Advice: Apply in layers to ensure better mix and to avoid creation of agglomerates

Flowers and plants

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 30:1.
  • Advice: Chop down any long and xyloid stems; use only healthy plants

Weeds

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 30:1.
  • Advice: Avoid weeds that have gone to seed

Seaweed and kelp

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 20:1.
  • Advice: Good source of trace minerals; apply them in layers

Manure

  • Estimated C:N ratio: 15:1.
  • Advice: Very good compost activator

Even though the list above provides a safe list of “greens”, further clarifications need to be made for food waste and manure. More specifically, meat, animal and dairy products must not be used when composting at home.

What is more, only manure from herbivorous animals is appropriate. On the contrary manure from carnivorous animals, i.e. dogs and cats, may carry diseases which pass to the compost.

Apart from the “browns” and “greens” there are also neutral materials that can be used, such as egg shells. Egg shells decompose faster when added crushed.

As an overall tip to achieve more or less a good “mixture” of browns and greens is to use two parts of greens and one part of browns. Last, aspiring composters are suggested to chop up the materials used if they want to accelerate the process.

Time to make compost at home

Having collected your organic waste, it is time to compost it.

If you live in an apartment, you have one sole option. That of a compost bin. There is a great variety of bins in shapes, volumes, stationary or rotating, using worms or not, etc. It’s up to you to choose whatever fits you better.

All you need to do is to mix your materials, aerate them via stirring once in a while and the microorganism will do the rest. After some time, usually months, you will have to remove the produced compost and start over the procedure.

As for those having a backyard, all you will need is a small area to create your heap. Of course this doesn’t mean that you can’t buy a bin or even make one with simple materials. As in previous case, it’s up to you to choose whatever fits you better.

For the case you will select to create a heap you need first to collect enough organics to create a pile of 3 feet deep. Mixing of materials can take place either during storing of materials or during the construction of the heap.

To achieve the necessary proportions, you can either use buckets to measure the materials you add or to create alternating layers of 4 inches of “browns” and 8 inches “greens”.

Having formed the pile, you need to provide the necessary moisture. The best way is to sprinkle water at regular intervals, especially in the absence of rain. However, addition of water must be limited to avoid waterlog of the heap and the formation of anaerobic conditions. This would cause the pile to rot instead of composting.

A good way to monitor the progress of the process is by checking its temperature. You can do this either using special thermometers or by reaching the middle of the pile using your hand.

Apart from moisture, oxygen is the other necessary element for composting. The only thing you need to do to provide the necessary oxygen to your pile is to turn it once a week. If you are using a thermometer, the best time is when it will indicate a temperature between 130 and 150 Fahrenheit degrees. Stirring must be thorough not only to allow oxygen to enter all parts of the heap but to mix also layers of browns and green that form it.

In some cases, especially in cold or rainy areas, you might need to cover your compost heap so as to retain heat and moisture, as well as to prevent excess rainwater infiltration. You can use plastic sheeting, wooden or whatever else material you might have available.

Your compost will be ready when it has become dry, brown, easily crumbled and has stopped giving off heat. This usually takes from one to three months, depending on the materials used and the conditions of composting.

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