When you’re getting started with gardening, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about compost at some point. Consisting of the material left after scraps and other items have decayed, compost is a nutrient-rich material that can bring a wide range of benefits to your garden. But that doesn’t mean that you’re stuck having to buy compost at the store or that you have to worry about it making your home or yard uncomfortable! Here’s an in-depth overview of how composting works, the benefits of composting, how to set up a home composting system and a couple of specific types of composting that may work well for your situation
What is Composting?
Composting is the process of setting together a range of materials, whether kitchen scraps, yard trimmings or livestock waste, and allowing it to decompose into a rich, fertile materials. This can be managed in a range of ways, but generally speaking, you’ll want to promote an aerobic, as compared to anaerobic, environment. An aerobic compost system has very little scent, as compared to an anaerobic environment, which can cause a strong, unpleasant smell.
Composting can be managed in a large tub with holes drilled in the sides to encourage airflow, in plastic drums that can be rotated on an axle to “turn” the compost (more on that later), in wooden bins where multiple batches can be processed at the same time to ensure a continuous supply of compost and a number of other possible layouts. It can take up as much or as little room as needed, with some forms of vermicomposting delivering great benefits in just a couple feet of floor space.
How Does Composting Benefit my Garden?
When waste materials are composted, they release the natural nutrients they contain, providing a great source of nutrition for your garden plants. In all forms except compost tea, which we’ll discuss later, you’ll gain the following benefits:
- Additional organic matter for microbial life to thrive.
- Better capacity to hold moisture for your plants.
- Improved ability to both hold and slowly release nutrients.
- Reduced compaction and better overall soil structure.
- Suppression of soil-borne pests and diseases.
- Attracts beneficial lifeforms, such as earthworms.
- Reduced risk of erosion issues.
As a common component of garden soil, compost has the benefit of having been used for centuries and has a proven track record. If you need to get nutrients into the soil more quickly, you can use compost tea to speed up the process, though you’ll lose some of the other benefits of top-dressed compost such as organic matter and moisture-holding capability.
How do I Get Started with Composting?
Composting can take up just a small space or a good-size plot. For most homeowners, a single bin will work well, allowing you to add household scraps and lawn clippings to the bin. For more adventurous gardeners, having two or even three bins will allow you to have a continuous supply of compost whenever you need it, with one ready to go, one working and one being filled. When you’re working a large market garden or small farm, composting can entail a large concrete bin that is turned by a front-end loader.
The best way to start a compost bin is on clean bare earth, where it can pick up microorganisms that are already living in the soil. However, this type of system means that you’ll have to turn the compost manually. If you prefer the clean look and ease of turning offered by a plastic bin on an axle, adding compost tea, biodiverse compost or even a few shovelfuls of earth will help start the process off right.
When you’re composting, you’ll want to make sure you get a good mix of carbon, typically grass cuttings and leafy vegetables, and nitrogen, which can be found in coffee beans, other legumes, food scraps and livestock manure. Nitrogen tends to provide food for your microorganisms, allowing them to break down the food faster, completing the process in as little as two months. If your pile seems to be decomposing slowly, try breaking up the food scraps and other components into smaller pieces, which provide more surface area for the microbes to attack. If you notice soggy areas in your pile or a rotten-egg smell, you’re developing anaerobic areas in the pile, which can kill off your friendly microbes. Add dry carbon material, such as dry leaves, straw or shredded non-glossy newsprint to provide more air into the stack.
What about turning the compost? We mentioned this above, and it’s really not very hard. In the case of a rotating bin, this is literal – you’ll want to rotate the bin around the axle two to three times a week, which allows the material inside to get stirred around, distributing moisture and materials for a more even mixture. If you’ve created a bin on the ground, you’ll want to take a shovel and manually turn the pile, moving some of the material at the bottom to the top, ensuring that air is circulating throughout the entire stack and mixing the moist parts with the drier parts to prevent pockets of anaerobic bacteria from forming. Your compost should stay about the moisture level of a wrung-out sponge – damp, but not sopping wet. If you haven’t had enough moisture and it’s dried out a bit, wet it well with a hose to keep the microbes in the compost happily doing their job, then turn it to make sure that the moisture is evenly distributed throughout the bin.
Once you’ve allowed your compost to work for long enough to break down into a relatively even texture, typically a couple of months with the right mix of nitrogen and carbon, it’s time to top-dress it into your garden or use it for compost tea, which we’ll discuss later. You’ll want to avoid adding new material to the compost bin for several days before, especially larger items such as unchopped apple cores or branches. For kitchen scraps that build up in the meantime, you can keep these in a large bag in your freezer until you’ve unloaded the bin, which will help provide more material when you fill it again. Leave a few shovelfuls of material in the bin to help start the new batch, spread the compost you’ve removed evenly over the top of your garden area and enjoy the improved growth from the benefits of the compost.
What About Composting with Worms/Vermiculture?
Though you expect to see a few worms in your garden, did you know how much good they do for your plant growth? Providing a wide range of benefits, worm casings or castings are produced when you use worms to compost your waste. These castings provide rich nutrition for your garden. But how does it work? Taking up a minimal amount of space, vermicomposting or vermiculture introduces red composting worms to your system, which speeds up the process in a smaller space.
Why worms? They share almost all of the foods humans consume and can also process lawn clippings. When they’re done, they produce worm castings, a great source of nutrition for plants. The rapid reproduction cycle maximizes the results of your composting, while their travel through the pile turns it for you, reducing your work. Because of the air tunnels they introduce to your compost, there’s virtually no scent, which makes it a great choice for patio or balcony gardens.
To get started, you’ll just use a plastic or wooden container with small holes about three inches apart on all sides. You can add a tray to the bottom to collect any liquids. To the inside of the bin, add non-glossy newsprint that has been shredded, leaves and food waste three-quarters full. Add water until the material is about the dampness of a wrung-out sponge, add well-chopped non-meat scraps, add another inch of material, then add the worms on top. If you have to have your vermiculture container indoors, avoid nightcrawler worms, otherwise you can use any type. Add more food at least weekly, because the worms will eat their body weight of food daily.
Every few weeks, remove some compost and provide fresh material for the worms to convert, placing the compost as a topdressing on your garden. You can also use it as a basis for your compost tea, delivering vital macronutrients.
How Does Compost Tea Work?
If you want to get the nutrients from your compost into the soil quickly and don’t want to wait around for nutrients from a top dressing to work their way into the soil, compost tea may be a great option to consider. It essentially extracts the materials from the compost into the water, which is then used on the garden itself. There are a couple of different ways to go about making compost tea, depending on the specific type of setup you have available and the amount of time and money you want to invest into making compost tea.
The simplest form is compost leachate, which simply involves a bucket of water that you soak a bag of compost in. The bag should provide plenty of water flow, such as a fine-mesh laundry bag, which you can then manipulate to ensure the maximum amount of nutrients and microbes transfer from the compost. You can use worm casings, compost from your bin or commercially-produced compost, but try to get some variety in the compost you’re using, whether for leachate or actively aerated compost tea (AACT), which we’ll discuss next.
AACT introduces air and food for the microbes into the process, making it easier for the microbes to reproduce, providing stronger microbial activity for your garden. This does add a little more expense, but it’s well worth the investment for the high quality of compost tea you’ll be able to produce.
You’ll need a good-quality air pump and bubble stones or other option for introducing air. If you want to go big, consider branching out to several smaller air stones rather than a single large stone for better results. It’s important to match your airflow to the size of the container you’re brewing compost tea in, otherwise larger containers will have insufficient air flow from a smaller pump. Generally speaking, you’ll want a pump that will handle 100 times the capacity of the container per hour, so a 1,000 gallon per hour pump will handle a ten-gallon container.
You’ll also need to add food for the microbes you’re introducing. Molasses provides a sugar source, fish hydrolysate delivers nitrogen and seaweed also works well, including liquid kelp. These provide a balanced nutrition for the microbes you’re growing and are a standard part of any compost tea recipe.
Now that you’ve got what you need to get started, you’ll want to use air lines to attach your air stones to your pump, then place the entire assembly in your container’s bottom. Fill the container with chlorine-free water and your bag of compost, then start your pump, running it for at least 24 hours, though two full days is better. Once you’ve finished brewing your tea, you can simply remove the compost and the air stones, then apply the compost tea to the garden, with a weekly or monthly application providing a significant improvement to your garden, house plants and lawn.
Making your own compost at home is a great way to divert up to 30% of household waste from the landfill while ensuring that the ingredients going into your garden’s compost is of high quality, with nothing that you don’t want. Setting up a basic composting system is simple, requiring very little time to start and maintain, while the significant benefits it brings to your garden can deliver strong results at harvest time. If you need any help determining what would work best for composting in your situation, the experienced professionals at Redbud Soil Company are ready to help. Please feel free to reach out today to get started.