Americans produce about five times as much trash per capita as does the rest of the world: a truly shameful statistic. Even while the news shows images of food bank lines stretching for miles, we still manage to waste far more food (about 40% of everything we buy) than the average human. Most of this food waste ends up in landfills, which are rapidly reaching capacity; by some estimates, over half the waste in municipal landfills could be composted and used to build soil fertility. It’s also frustrating to see thousands of plastic trash bags filled with grass clippings and raked leaves headed to the landfill where they won’t decompose effectively when rebuilding the soil is one of the very best weapons we have against climate change.
Our original compost pile.
If you’re looking to reduce your own waste stream, starting a compost pile is one of the best and easiest solutions. And if you’re cooking at home more these days, as most of us are, you might find yourself producing a lot of food scraps that could be put to much better use than the landfill. Composting has long been presented as too challenging / too time-consuming / too complicated / too messy / too smelly / impossible on a small scale. If managed correctly it is none of these, and is one of the very best ways to make your own plants better, even if you’re simply growing fresh herbs on a sunny windowsill.
Our current compost set-up, in a photo obviously from 2019’s wet spring. (We haven’t seen rain clouds like that even once this year.)
Nature does not create waste; dead and decaying things are constantly regenerated into the ecosystem. Think of a damp, cool forest floor: all of those leaves and branches and fungi and invertebrates and thousands of other creatures working together to create a hospitable growing environment. Composting is at heart a very simple procedure: trillions of microorganisms breaking down organic matter into a more usable format that can be endlessly recycled into your garden. The two most important components of good compost are oxygen and moisture, which is why your compost pile will need a bit of management: you’ll need to turn it, and possibly water it, on a reasonably regular basis.
The first thing to know about composting is that there is a solution for every single household, from tiny bins to industrial barrels. The size of your individual operation depends on your household, your yard space and how you plan to use your compost. There are certain things we can do here on our acreage that might not be practical for your situation; we generate a lot of organic matter (leaves, plant trimmings, chicken waste, etc.) and so have a fairly large compost pile. Please customize as necessary.
This year’s volunteer squash in the compost pile.
Choose your location for your compost pile, making sure that it’s easily accessible to both turn the compost and to eventually spread it on your garden. If you have the space, repurposed shipping pallets are a terrifically inexpensive way to build a two- or three-part compost system; we put current compostables on one side while the other side is breaking down, then switch as needed. We also keep a small plastic tub with a tight-fitting lid in the kitchen and empty it into our compost pile daily. Garden centers sell large and small composting solutions; many homes use large plastic compost tumblers, which keep everything contained. These are certainly neat in appearance, but any compost stored off the ground will never attract worms and other beneficial bugs, and material in these tumblers doesn’t decompose quickly in the mostly-anaerobic environment. These also tend to be rather costly; gardening isn’t a competition to see who can spend the most money.
Eggshells, fruit and vegetable scraps, paper tea bags and coffee grounds should go in your compost.
What you put in your compost pile matters, because you’ll eventually be eating it if you use your compost on edible plants. Any fruit or vegetable scraps, peels or cores can go in, as well as paper tea bags, coffee filters, eggshells, wood ash, napkins and paper towels. Avoid the microplastic tea bags (avoid these anyway; steeping these in boiling water allows your body to absorb the tiny endocrine-disrupting particles), staples, stickers and plastics of any sort. Never put dog, cat, human or any carnivore waste in your compost. Most backyard composting guides recommend not composting meat and dairy, mainly because it can attract unwanted predators; we can tell you from experience that an entire hen – feathers, bones and all – will disappear within a week in a well-managed home compost pile. (Fun fact: a 1,500 pound dairy cow can be entirely decomposed in an industrial compost operation in three weeks. Probably don’t try this at home.)
Plastic, staples, stickers and microplastic tea bags should not go in your compost.
You want to aim for a balanced mix, usually about a one-to-four ratio, of “green” to “brown” in your compost pile. Green refers to anything fresh, including kitchen scraps, manure and grass clippings. Brown means anything with lower moisture content, including straw, dry leaves, sawdust, newspaper, corn stalks and so on. Greens are rich in nitrogen and do most of the actual decomposition work; browns are rich in carbon and provide food for the microorganisms. Keep in mind that everything you compost – including standard lawn chemicals – ends up in your plants, so think twice about how you treat your weeds unless you enjoy gargling with Round-Up. (It really does cause cancer, even though it doesn’t have to carry a warning label.)
Once your compost pile gets going it should have hundreds of happy worms.
The compost pile should be turned over regularly, to aerate the pile and allow the matter on top to be incorporated; it should always be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Depending on where you live you may need to water your compost; in our dry climate we have to water frequently in order to keep the decomposition moving. If your compost pile is kept properly damp, turned and aerated, it should never smell and it should never attract swarms of flies, but it should be full of worms. If the compost stinks, it’s typically an indication of poor aeration and/or overly high nitrogen; turn the pile more frequently and add more brown materials.
This compost is ready to use.
You’ll know your compost is ready when it looks mostly uniform and the individual scraps and bits can no longer be identified; if it looks like crumbled chocolate cake and smells rich, damp and earthy, you’re in great shape. The amount of time it takes to produce finished compost varies widely according to your climate, the size of the pile, the moisture level and the amount of material added, but we try to build ours on annual cycles. Once you’ve achieved this stage, stop feeding this compost pile; you can move the finished compost to a receptacle if necessary so you can start over. Your compost can be used to top-dress your plants, and you can also combine compost and water to make a nutrient-rich compost tea for your garden.
Why make compost? So you can have soil that doesn’t break pickaxes and pitchforks.
Setting up our compost bins was one of our very first tasks here on Quiet Farm, because good compost takes time and we knew we’d use as much as we could make. Plus, we have abysmal soil here and adding in compost regularly helps aerate and lighten our heavy, rocky clay. Even now we burn through our compost far faster than we produce it; unfortunately, the only source for purchased compost in our area comes from the dairy and chicken feedlots, and that’s not a waste stream we want to be part of. So we use what we have where it will offer the greatest impact.
If you’re not able to start composting where you live, do check with your local municipality. They may have an existing composting program you can participate in, or you might be able to start one. Many cities and towns also have large-scale industrial composting facilities, and often the compost produced is given to residents for free or at a nominal charge. We’re at a point where we all have to make a concerted effort to improve what we can in our gloomy, fractured world, and we can literally start at the ground up, by producing less waste and regenerating our depleted soil. Go forth and compost, friends. It’s easier than you think.