By Ryan Dorn,

Gardening is a labor of love, a symphony of life unfolding from the earth, but it's not without its challenges. Keeping plants healthy and thriving requires a good understanding of soil nutrients and how best to provide them. Synthetic fertilizers can do the job, but they're often costly and not eco-friendly. That's where composting comes into play.

Composting is a natural process that transforms everyday waste into a nutrient-rich soil enhancer, giving your plants a vital boost and reducing the amount of waste that goes into landfills. But, how does it work? Is it complicated to set up at home? And what are the real benefits for your plants?

In this blog post, we will delve deep into the world of composting. We'll guide you through its many benefits, show you how to start your own compost heap, and explain why this simple process can transform your waste into 'black gold' for your garden. Whether you're a novice gardener or have years of experience under your belt, understanding and utilizing composting can elevate your gardening journey, making it more sustainable and rewarding.

Stay with us as we explore this vital gardening practice that turns waste into garden gold, improving soil fertility, plant health, and the sustainability of your garden. Let's dig in!

Organic Food Waste from Vegetable Ready for Composting

What Is Compost?

When we talk about compost, we're referring to organic material that has been decomposed and recycled as a rich, fertile soil amendment. In nature, decomposition happens all the time. Fallen leaves, dead plants, and other organic matter gradually break down into nutrient-rich humus. In composting, we're simply speeding up this natural process.

Compost is often referred to as "black gold" because of its incredible fertility and value to the soil. It is rich in nutrients essential for plant growth, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. But, compost offers so much more than just nutrients. It also improves the structure of your soil, helps retain moisture, and encourages beneficial microorganisms' activity, all crucial aspects for plant health and vitality.

Creating compost involves curating and managing a controlled decomposition process of organic materials. The resulting compost has a pleasant earthy smell, a crumbly texture, and is teeming with life at the microscopic level, which is what makes it so beneficial for your garden. By composting, you're not just making your own nutrient-rich soil amendment, you're actively participating in a natural cycle of life, death, decay, and rebirth. This process is a gardener's secret weapon for creating a thriving, sustainable garden.

compost - natural fertilizer in the hand

Why Composting Is Good for Plants

Now that we've delved into what compost is, let's explore why it's like a superfood for your plants. When you enrich your garden with compost, you're not just adding nutrients; you're improving the entire ecosystem that your plants live in.

Firstly, compost improves soil structure. It helps sandy soils retain more water and nutrients, and it breaks up clay soils, improving their drainage and aeration. Good soil structure is essential for healthy root growth, and healthy roots mean healthier plants overall.

Secondly, compost adds vital nutrients to your soil that plants need to grow strong and healthy. While synthetic fertilizers can provide a quick nutrient boost, compost releases these nutrients slowly over time, leading to long-term plant health. Plus, it contains a wide spectrum of micronutrients that are often missing in synthetic fertilizers.

Soil with digital mineral nutrients icon. Hands planting seedling. Role of nutrients in plant life.

Furthermore, compost introduces and feeds beneficial soil organisms. These tiny creatures – including bacteria, fungi, worms, and many others – are the unsung heroes of a productive garden. They break down organic matter into plant-available forms, improve soil structure, protect plants from diseases, and perform countless other tasks that help your plants thrive.

Finally, using compost in your garden also promotes sustainability. It reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and it helps the soil sequester carbon, which can help mitigate climate change. Moreover, by composting your kitchen scraps and yard waste, you're reducing the amount of waste that goes to the landfill, where it would release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

How to Choose a Compost Bin

Choosing the right compost bin depends on your lifestyle, space availability, and composting goals. There are several types available in the market, from tumblers which we absolutely love and stationary bins to worm composting systems.

A woman using a compost tumbler

However, if you're on a budget or prefer a DIY approach, turning a simple plastic bin into a compost bin can be an easy and cost-effective option. Here's a simple guide on how to do it:

  1. Choose Your Bin: Start with a plastic bin; a 10-18 gallon one should suffice for most small to medium-sized households. Make sure it has a tight-fitting lid to keep pests out and maintain the right conditions inside the bin.

  2. Drill Holes: Using a drill, make several 1/4 inch holes in the lid, sides, and bottom of your bin. These holes will provide aeration, which is critical for the composting process, and allow excess moisture to drain out.

  3. Choose a Location: Place your compost bin in a convenient location, ideally near your kitchen, so it's easy to add kitchen scraps. If possible, select a shaded area to prevent the compost from drying out.

  4. Layer Your Compost: Begin by adding a layer of brown material (e.g., dried leaves, shredded newspaper) at the bottom of your bin. Next, add a layer of green material (e.g., vegetable peels, coffee grounds). Continue alternating these layers, aiming for a 3:1 ratio of browns to greens.

  5. Maintain Your Bin: Regularly turn your compost with a shovel or a stick to keep it aerated and speed up the composting process. If it becomes too dry, add some water, but be careful not to make it too soggy.

  6. Harvest Your Compost: After 2-3 months, you should have nutrient-rich compost ready for your garden. The compost is ready when it's dark, crumbly, and smells like earth.

What Are the Four Ingredients for Compost?

Now that we have a better understanding of compost's nature and its monumental benefits for plants and our planet, let's talk about the four key ingredients you'll need to make compost. The key to successful composting lies in the right mix of these four elements:

Wet compost material including strawberry

  1. Greens (Nitrogen): These materials provide the essential nitrogen that composting organisms require. They are often moist and quick to decompose. Examples of green materials include kitchen scraps like vegetable peels, coffee grounds, and fruit waste. In the yard, fresh grass clippings, young weeds, and spent flowers also count as green materials.

  2. Browns (Carbon): This category includes carbon-rich materials, which provide the energy that microbes need to do their work. Browns are typically dry and slow to break down. Examples of brown materials are dried leaves, straw, paper products (like shredded newspaper or cardboard), sawdust, and small branches or twigs.

  3. Water: Like all living things, the microorganisms breaking down your compost pile need water to survive. However, the moisture level in your compost pile should be like a well-wrung-out sponge – damp, but not sopping wet.

  4. Air: A well-aerated compost pile helps promote the growth of aerobic bacteria and speeds up the composting process. Turning your compost pile regularly is a good way to ensure that it gets plenty of air.

Maintaining the right balance between green and brown materials in your compost pile is crucial. Too many greens can lead to a smelly, soggy mess, while too many browns can result in a pile that breaks down very slowly. A good rule of thumb is to aim for a mix of about 3 parts browns to 1 part greens by volume. However, don't get too hung up on the exact ratio – composting is more art than science, and you'll quickly get a feel for what works best in your own backyard.

List of Things You Should and Should Not Compost

Understanding what you can and cannot compost is crucial to creating a healthy, effective compost pile. Let's break down some of the most common compostable items and a few that should be avoided:

Things You Should Compost:

  1. Fruit and vegetable scraps
  2. Coffee grounds and filters
  3. Tea bags (make sure they are not made of synthetic materials)
  4. Eggshells (crushed)
  5. Grass clippings and yard trimmings
  6. Leaves
  7. Finely chopped wood and bark chips
  8. Shredded newspaper
  9. Straw and hay
  10. Sawdust from untreated wood
  11. Cardboard rolls
  12. Dry goods (rice, pasta, bread, grains, etc.)
  13. Hair and fur
  14. Houseplants
  15. Nut shells (avoid walnut shells as they can be toxic to some plants)

Compost with shovel.

Things You Should Not Compost:

  1. Meat or fish scraps and bones (they can attract pests)
  2. Dairy products (they can cause unpleasant odors and attract pests)
  3. Fats, grease, lard, or oils (they create a greasy layer that can disrupt the composting process)
  4. Diseased or insect-ridden plants (they can spread diseases or pests in the compost)
  5. Pet wastes (they can contain parasites, bacteria, viruses, etc. that are harmful to humans)
  6. Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides (they might kill beneficial composting organisms)
  7. Weeds that go to seed or invasive weeds (they might spread when the compost is applied)
  8. Coal or charcoal ash (they might contain substances harmful to plants)
  9. Plastic, synthetic fibers, glass, metal, or other non-biodegradable wastes
  10. Highly acidic or alkaline materials

Remember, balance is key when it comes to composting. A diverse mix of compostable materials will result in a rich, nutrient-dense compost that your plants will love. As you become more familiar with composting, you'll develop a better sense of what works best for your specific needs and circumstances.

When is Your Compost Ready to Use?

Patience is key in the composting process. You're essentially encouraging a natural process that takes time. But how long should you wait? Generally, compost is ready to use when it's dark, crumbly, and looks like rich, fertile soil. This usually occurs after 2-3 months depending on the composting conditions and the materials used.

Composting organic material

But let's get into a bit more detail. During the initial phase, your compost pile will heat up as the materials start to decompose due to the work of billions of microorganisms. This phase may last a few weeks and is followed by a cooling and maturation phase that can take several months.

In the final compost, you shouldn't be able to recognize any of the original materials you added, with perhaps the exception of some twigs or bits of eggshell. The compost will have a pleasant, earthy smell.

One important tip: If you're planning to use the compost for planting, it's vital to ensure that the composting process is complete before you add it to your garden. Unfinished compost can compete with plants for nitrogen, temporarily depriving them of this essential nutrient. It may also contain harmful microbes or pathogens if it hasn't fully decomposed.

Remember, composting is an art as much as it is a science. As you gain experience, you'll start to get a feel for when your compost is just right. Until then, err on the side of caution and let your compost mature fully to get the most benefit for your garden.

Gardner Planting Tomato Seedling to Compost in Greenhouse Bed

Compost Away!

So, there you have it, a deep dive into the transformative magic of composting— a simple yet powerful process that turns everyday waste into garden gold. Starting your composting journey may seem daunting at first, but remember, every journey starts with a single step, and the rewards are well worth it.

Embracing composting not only equips you with a sustainable way to nourish your garden but also empowers you to contribute positively to our planet. It’s a small yet significant step towards a healthier environment and a more sustainable lifestyle. So why wait? Start your composting journey today, and witness the alchemy of nature as waste turns into a rich, life-sustaining resource for your garden.

No matter your gardening experience, composting is a skill you'll find invaluable. It's time to roll up those sleeves, reduce your waste, and let nature take care of the rest. After all, it's not just about the plants you grow, it's about the way you nourish them. Now, let's get composting!

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