Nutrition Articles

A Beginner's Guide to Composting

4 Steps to Reduce Waste and Fertilize Your Garden

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  • Binless "heap" or "pile" method: This is like a "freestyle" method of composting. You simply choose an area in your yard or garden and start layering your organic materials in a pile. This requires no financial investment on your part, but many cities and suburbs prohibit the use of open compost heaps because they can be unsightly and might attract animals (from birds to squirrels and raccoons) seeking the edible food scraps. In reality, a compost heap should be full of worms and other creepy crawlies—not pests! This can be greatly minimized or eliminated altogether by burying your scraps under other organic materials (like grass).
  • Binless "trenching" method: An alternative to a binless compost heap is trenching, in which you bury the organic matter and scraps at least 8 inches in the ground—directly in your garden beds. Let nature do its thing beneath the soil, then plant a garden over it. This should be done at least two months before you wish to use the particular area as a fruit, vegetable or flower garden.
  • DIY garbage can: One of the easiest and most affordable bins is an inexpensive garbage can that you make into a compost bin. This is great for small gardens. Purchase a large plastic or rubber trashcan with a secure-fitting lid. Use a drill to bore 5-6 holes each in the lid, the sides, and bottom of the can to provide airflow that will be essential to breaking down the organic materials placed inside it. You can use a small, medium or large size can, depending on your needs and space available.
  • DIY wire compost bin: A wire compost bin provides structure to an otherwise open compost pile while maximizing oxygen circulation. If you're handy, you can make your own wire compost bin, which is ideal for small gardens and households that produce a small amount of food scraps and yard waste. To construct the bin, find an open spot for your compost. Place 3-4 stakes into the ground in a circular or rectangular shape. Purchase about 10 feet of 36-inch wide wire or plastic mesh. Stretch the mesh fence around the stakes and tie it in place (to each stake) with zip ties or staples.
  • DIY compost pallets: Pick an accessible, level site in your yard before constructing this type of structure. In essence, you are building a three-sided box secured with heavy-duty wire to a pallet on the bottom. The open top and front allows for easy aerating and turning of the pile and can provide ample compost for a medium to large garden. You could easily build additional adjacent bins that can house multiple piles of compost in various stages of completion (more info below). Alternative materials for this method include bales of hay, cinder blocks or untreated wood.
  • Commercial bins: If you're not a do-it-yourselfer, or you are looking for other features in a compost bin, many commercially made bins are available at nurseries, home improvement stores and online retailers. Compared to the DIY method above, store-bought bins can be very expensive, costing up to several hundred dollars. Some commercially made bins are tumblers, which can dramatically speed up the decomposition of your organic waste. Be on the lookout for bins made of recycled plastic, which are more eco-friendly.
  • Worm bin: This method, known as vermicomposting, is ideal for urban gardeners or people who don't have the outdoor space for the compost bins mentioned above. However, it is not for the faint of heart! You can create a worm bin from a 10-gallon plastic tub (a long, rectangular shape works best, but any size or shape that fits your space, such as under a kitchen sink will do). You'll need a steady supply of shredded newspaper, food scraps, and 10-15 dozen worms to eat your food garbage. Be sure to use only red worms (Lumbricus rubellus) or manure worms (Eisenia foetida), as night crawlers or earthworms need large amounts of soil and will not survive in a worm-composting bin. Worm castings (feces) contain more nutrients than traditional compost and thus are the perfect fertilizer for any soil. When a worm digests food scraps, it breaks down minerals and other substances into a more soluble form for plants. Your reward will be the finest, most perfect fertilizer available, but this method requires more attention (the worm’s habitat must not be exposed to extreme heat or cold) and involves harvesting the castings of course, which might not be everybody’s cup of tea. The book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof provides more detailed instructions and troubleshooting tips for worm bins.
As you can see, bins can be simple or complex, homemade or store-bought. There is a composting method for every budget, space and garden.
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Member Comments

  • We are slow, but this is an unacheived goal. Have read this before. We have at least progressed to the idea of doing the pallet method - my husband works in an area where he should be able to get them. - 2/10/2016 6:02:09 PM
  • I have always wanted to start composting, I recently even purchased a metal can with holes all around. What's giving me pause is the disgusting notion that it might attract roaches! Ours fly here in S.E. Louisiana! Any firsthand knowledge out there about this notion of mine? - 6/30/2015 10:18:05 PM
    I made a small compost bin out of 4 plastic "bread trays" the kind that a baker or bread delivery truck would use. Just place them on the ground and use cable ties at the top and bottom corners. Its less than 3 feet square, but works fine due to the aeration on the sides. I keep an extra tray to put over the top to help keep critters from eating my worms. (Yes, worms were attracted to my pile almost immediately - love'em!)
    I also use a big plastic barrel with holes drilled as a tumbler. Its got one of those metal "buckles" that secures the lid. It was originally used for shipping lobster bait. No stand, I just kick it around the yard to mix up the contents. There's a YouTube vid about this somewhere. I get usable compost in about 5 weeks in this tumbler.

    A couple of tips: 1) If possible, capture and use rainwater on the pile, its better for the microbes. Tap/hose water has chemicals to kill bacteria.

    2) Try to mix/balance your greens (nitrogen) and browns (carbons) to keep the pile going. Too much of one or the other slows it down.

    3) if possible, break everything down as small as possible before ading to the pile. (I have a food processor I use make a "compost goulash" every week. It takes minutes, and speeds things up A LOT. (Add some water, and this can even be poured directly into the garden if you like.

    4) Coffee grounds are actually considered GREENS , not browns. Their nitrogen to carbon content is around 11:1

    5) Mother nature takes care of the whole process, but with an occasional nudge, you can REALLY speed things up.
    - 6/30/2015 2:34:50 PM
  • Don't use grass clippings if your lawn is chemically treated. Some of the new herbicides do not vanish during the composting process and can kill vegetable plants even in small quantities. - 4/19/2015 2:16:46 AM
    "DIY compost pallets"

    Make very sure your using old pallets that are "heat treated" and not chemically treated. It generally says it's heat treated on the pallet somewhere. - 4/25/2014 8:43:46 AM
  • We used the binless "freestyle" method for years, but when that part of our yard needed to be used for vehicle parking, we had a wooden "bin" built, using lumber from our old fence. With two small areas side by side, it provides for air circulation and lots of worm activity. Throughout the winter, we have also buried newspaper packets with our garbage under the snow. Now we have two months before we need to use the garden again, but the snow is still preventing turning the soil over just yet. Thanks for your suggestions!! - 4/6/2014 6:14:38 AM
  • We've been composting for years. Our biggest problem is the COLD! Not much breaks down when it's frozen solid during a long North Dakota Winter (and no, we don't have room indoors for a bin). - 3/30/2014 6:22:54 PM
  • There are many kitchen composters now available for those who want to compost, but the necessary space. These come in both stainless steel and ceramic and will sit nicely on a kitchen countertop. I never knew that dryer lint could be composted! That's a new one. :)
    - 3/29/2014 7:40:26 PM
    I can't compost because of local restrictions and lack of space but I do wash and dry eggshells, break them up into tiny pieces and add them to my soil. I also add used coffee grounds to the soil around acid loving plants. Both work well. - 3/29/2014 12:49:07 PM
    I have been composting on and off for several years. I learned something new... dryer lint! That's great. - 3/29/2014 10:10:35 AM
    I have been composting for over 15 years using 2 small commercial bins from Costco at $40 each. I keep a large plastic container with lid under my sink and everything goes in there to be added at my convenience. Seasonally I dig out the bottom black gold and add to potting mix and any flower beds. Great stuff! Since we also recycle that leaves us with only about 2-3 bags of trash per week. Saves on buyng commercial potting soil too since I can mix it with plain old dirt and the plants love it. - 3/29/2014 7:33:56 AM
  • What a great article! This is a wonderful introduction to setting up a compost pile. Thank you so much! - 8/29/2013 8:34:56 AM
    i was taught that cooked food stuff should not go into the compost, it attracts rodents. only raw plant based material, or egg shells and teabags and coffee sediments can go into it as non-raw material, plus paper, carton, etc... which is not food however. composting enzymes help a lot, too. recently i noticed that insects thrive in it, but i do not bother. what bothers me is the weed seeds when it was cut too late and one cannot prevent having some of it in the compost. they will germinate next year as i indorporate the compost into the soil later on. - 8/28/2013 9:52:40 AM
  • I compost dryer lint and do just was suggested in a previous post: I keep a large ziplock Witt the dryer and empty it's contents in the Baggie. Also, I add the dryer sheets that I occasionally use. Only dryer sheets that say they can be composted should be added. One brand is seventh Generation. Usually the ones found in health food stores are ok, but you need to read to find out.
    Also, I compost bread, as long as its not cheese bread or bread with a lot of other ingredients such as pepperoni rolls. Buns, sliced bread and bagels have been put into mine but the secret is to shred items small. I don't just dump bagels in my bin. You can but it takes a lot longer to break down.
    I don't know about the ink comment. I add newspapers to mine and we all know that newsprint is full of formaldehyde. I don't know what colored ink has in it that would be any worse. I'd ask around.
    My question is about red worms. I ve asked fishermen galore about red worms and they only use night crawlers. I'm not getting any help at all on my red worm answer. Does anyone know where to get red worms? I have 5 different kinds of compost bins and the one that works the best after all of this time is my first one that my son made for me as a high school science experiment. It is a 4x4 pit in the ground outlined in 4x4s with holes drilled for rebar to keep it all in place. By far, it's the best bin. I can use night crawlers in this bin! Love it! I just can't get him to make me another one!
    Thanks everyone! Good luck! - 4/29/2013 7:08:53 PM
  • Wow, I have thought about composting in the past. This article is very informative - seems like it is a bit of work but certainly it seems worth it! - 4/29/2013 12:29:18 PM

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