What is composting? Why is it so popular in the gardening world? Is composting as complicated as it seems? Here is everything you need to know about composting for beginners. We presented all of these questions and more to Amanda Lander
Amanda is an enthusiastic gardener with experience gardening in two very different climates. She has a passion for all things green and growing, especially native plants and their many uses. She tries and tests all she learns and loves to share that practical, proven knowledge with others
- Amanda, what is compost exactly?
- What is organic material?
- Why do plants need compost or organic material?
- How are people using compost?
- How can I know if my garden needs compost?
- Do regular soil mixes have compost inside?
- What is the process of composting at home?
- What can you put in a compost bin?
- Can you compost indoors? In a small apartment?
- What types of composts are there?
- What gear will you need to compost?
- How do you start a compost bin?
- How does composting work?
- Can you buy compost at the store?
- What store-bought compost would you recommend for house plants?
- Where to buy compost?
- What have we learned about composting for beginners?
Amanda, what is compost exactly?
Compost is fertilizer made at home from decomposing organic material. It usually consists of kitchen scraps and yard waste.
What is organic material?
Simply put, organic material is anything once alive and is now breaking down into organic matter. Organic matter refers to the carbon-based compounds found in all living things. In composting, organic material generally refers to yard or garden waste, such as corn stalks and fallen leaves, and kitchen waste, such as strawberry tops and banana peels.
Plants need compost because it supplies necessary nutrients and encourages microbes which facilitate nutrient transfer to their roots. Introducing organic material can also help regulate soil pH and moisture.
Compost also balances soil structure to create the ideal texture for plant growth. Compost can cause loose soils to clump up or loosen up tight soil. Good soil structure allows roots to grow easily and prevents the plant from tipping over by providing sufficient support.
The nutrients in compost vary according to what material is in an individual sample. A well-balanced and well-rotted compost will include micronutrients and trace minerals in addition to the main 3 nutrients needed by plant life: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Commercial fertilizers often lack micronutrients regularly found in compost including sulfur, carbon, magnesium, calcium, boron, copper, iron, iodine, zinc, and manganese.
People use compost to fertilize lawns, gardens, farms, flower beds, and potted plants inexpensively and organically. Most beginners use composting for vegetable gardens.
You will know if your garden needs compost by observing your plants. Apply it when you notice deficiencies in your plants and at the beginning of the growing season like any slow-release fertilizer.
Treat compost like a slow-release fertilizer. Mix it into the topsoil in your garden before planting or sowing seeds. It is also beneficial to side-dress your plants with compost during flowering and fruiting because those processes take a lot of energy.
Regular soil mixes like potting mix or bagged garden soil contain a large portion of compost because of the nutrients and texture. Many soil mixes are labeled “soilless” and contain up to 75% compost mixed with sphagnum moss and vermiculite.
The basic process of composting is simple for beginners to learn.
- Choose the type of compost that will work for you.
- Gather green and brown materials.
- Water and stir your pile regularly.
- After enough time has passed for complete decomposition, use the compost to feed your soil.
You can put kitchen, yard, and garden waste in a compost bin. A balanced mix of 1 part green materials to 3 parts brown materials is required. However, you should avoid some materials which will be harmful to your compost bin.
Green materials are nitrogen-rich items such as grass clippings, weeds that haven’t set seed, coffee grounds, and food waste. Green materials are also described as wet materials because they are fresh. Kitchen scraps you could use include strawberry tops, onion skins, eggshells, pepper stems, moldy bread, citrus or banana peels and more.
Brown materials are carbon-rich dry items. Examples include sawdust, dried leaves, dead plant clippings, newspaper, and wood branches. Brown materials aerate the pile and feed the microbes that decompose the green materials.
It is generally advised not to put dairy, meat, and bones into the compost bin. These items decompose more slowly, smell bad, and attract pests. These items can be composted if you use the Bokashi system to ferment them or leave your protected compost pile to mature much longer.
You can compost indoors. Indoor composting is useful during harsh winters and in small spaces. Indoor composting will yield smaller amounts of finished compost which can be used for houseplants or added to community compost projects.
There are many types of composting and many methods of categorizing them. Since this article is about composting for beginners we’ll divide it into 2 main categories: indoor and outdoor.
To compost indoors, you will need a contained system. A popular, simple composting solution for beginners is to use a countertop compost bin.
A slightly larger and more involved but productive method is vermicomposting. Also called worm composting, this type of composting uses worms to break down organic materials quickly.
Bokashi is a type of indoor composting that gets its name from the Japanese word for fermented organic matter. It involves sealing your kitchen waste- including meat- under a layer of brown material inoculated with beneficial bacteria and yeast. Once fully fermented, the entire mix is left alone to finish composting within a few weeks.
The following types of compost are best suited to outdoor use.
Trench composting is a simple method that involves burying your waste materials in the garden and leaving it alone to decompose naturally. Plant over the trench in the next growing season.
The most common type of compost pile is an open bin. An open compost bin can have 3 or 4 sides and should have a minimum 3-foot square footprint. Add waste materials as they are collected and leave them to decompose for a year, mixing often. Because of the time involved, it is common to use 3 open bins side by side: 1 for the usable compost, 1 for the aging compost, and 1 for building up with kitchen and garden waste.
A tumbler bin is very easy for composting beginners to use and is more compact than an open bin. Load your waste materials and frequently spin the bin on its axle to accelerate the decomposition process. Compost from this system can be ready in as little as 3 weeks!
The gear you need to compost at home comes down to a container and a tool with which to mix your compost materials. Use a pitchfork or shovel to turn outdoor piles but a trowel, a spoon, or your hands for indoor containers. The type of container will depend on the composting method you decide to employ.
For a countertop compost bin, you will need a container with a lid and ventilation holes. You can purchase a bin specially designed to eliminate odors like this. If you prefer to test the process first, you can easily make your own from an inexpensive plastic pail with a lid.
To start vermicomposting you will need a well-ventilated bin, plenty of brown material, and red worms. You can buy a complete vermicomposting kit like this one from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm. It is easy to build a worm composting system from plastic bins or buckets if you prefer.
To try bokashi composting, you will need an airtight bin, shredded paper or bran, and a starter supply of effective microorganisms. It is possible to start a bokashi bin from scratch, but the simplest way for beginners to get started is to buy a bokashi composting kit.
To start your compost bin, first decide which type is best for you. The process as outlined above is similar for all types but we will discuss 2 methods in more detail. Follow these instructions to start an indoor countertop compost bin or a tumbler compost bin.
- Purchase a filtered countertop compost bin or make your own by drilling holes in the lid of an appropriately sized container and covering them with mesh to prevent bug infestations.
- Line your bin with a biodegradable plastic bag to easily empty it later.
- Put a layer of brown materials in the bottom of the bin.
- Start adding green materials as you produce them. Cutting or breaking them into small pieces will speed decomposition.
- Cover each layer of green materials with an equal amount of brown materials.
- When the bin is full, empty it into a larger compost bin to mature or allow the compost to process in your kitchen. It should be ready to use in about 6 months.
- Purchase a tumbler bin or build your own from a 55-gallon drum, some hinges, and some casters.
- Load your bin with brown materials. This type of composter requires more brown material than green to maintain the correct moisture level.
- Add green materials as you produce them, spinning the bin with every addition.
- Add brown materials as needed until the drum is roughly 80% full and as moist as a sponge that has been wrung out.
- After the bin is full, continue to spin the tumbler for 3 weeks. Then harvest your mature compost.
Composting works by controlling the process of decomposition. Microorganisms in the soil eat the organic matter, the food waste and dried leaves, that you add to the system. The resulting simple elements are usable by plants for powering photosynthesis.
Soil microorganisms require oxygen and water to function. Breaking up the organic matter makes more surface space available for the microorganisms to act. Turning or tumbling the mix ensures the even distribution of oxygen, water, organic materials, and microorganisms.
You can buy compost at the store if you don’t have the desire, space, time, or enough waste materials to compost at home. One benefit of buying compost is that the nutrient levels are measured and consistent. Plants with specific needs or deficiencies can receive exactly the nutrients they need.
Another benefit to buying ready compost is the immediate availability of nutrients to your garden or houseplants. Beginners can buy compost to jumpstart their soil health while waiting for homemade compost to process.
Manure is not compost itself but it can be composted. Manure is the droppings of herbivorous animals or poultry.
If it is applied to the soil without aging or composting, manure can burn plants because of the high nitrogen content. Manure sold in stores is usually composted.
The following 3 store-bought composts are recommended for houseplants. Compost is an excellent fertilizer for houseplants because it builds soil health organically over time. This boosts plant health consistently.
This Vermont Compost Container Booster Compost Mix only requires 4-8 tablespoons per quart of potting mix to revitalize the soil rather than replace it each year. This saves time and money.
Soil Blend Super Compost is mixed at a ratio of 1 part compost to 1 part potting soil and has an NPK ratio of 2-2-2. It is odorless which makes it ideal for indoor use.
O.N.E. Organic Compost is used both indoors and outdoors. It is odorless and will not burn plant roots if directly applied to new plantings.
You can buy compost at most hardware or department stores with a garden center. Home Depot and Walmart offer some choices. Amazon offers a variety of options. Garden centers such as Peaceful Valley carry more ready-compost options and tools in person and online.
Compost is a high-quality, inexpensive, organic fertilizer. It can be bought in bags like potting mix or processed at home from your own kitchen, yard, and garden waste.
There are many types of compost but the basic process is similar for all methods. Composting can be as easy or complicated as you want it to be according to your needs and circumstances.
We asked Amanda a few other questions you might find interesting: