Composting is a cornerstone of sustainable living, but also a fantastic way to improve your edible gardening results. Plus, all that free compost will save you serious money because you will spend less on soil amendments.
There are many composter options. These options run from DIY set-ups to really expensive and elaborate composting devices. The composting method and device you chose are up to you and the needs of your home, budget & edible garden.
The most simple way to compost is with a heap or pile of compostable stuff. We have seen some people use old pallets or other types of barriers to keep the compost pile contained. There is little if any financial investment here, but the obvious downside is you will have a pile of composting material somewhere on your property. The closer to the garden the better as it eases the workload and encourages you to compost garden scraps. If having such a pile in your yard sounds unappealing then you may wish to explore some commercially available composting bins.
We opted for a commercial bin for a few reasons.
- The Mrs. did not like the idea of a compost pile sitting out in the open.
- Most commercially available composting bins help speed up the composting process. For example, some bins are cylindrical in shape and rotate to churn the compost inside (see photo above). This works a lot like a cement mixer. Other types have a simple box design, but offer venting to improve air circulation. Air is a critical component to speed up the composting process.
- Containment of the pile. A bin helps to ensure your compost pile will not get too big or unsightly. The bins only hold so much and they keep it all nice and neat. A compost pile can grow and grow.
Our experiences with composting have been mostly positive. We love having a place to throw many of our kitchen scraps and yard clippings/debris. Our compost bin has even swallowed up a couple of years worth of jack-o-lanterns!
Much like gardening, we have found composting is a learn as you go process. As suspected, our composting results have gotten better as time has gone on. Here are some of our top learnings:
- Do not compost just anything. We did some research prior to starting our compost pile because we were new to the process. We suggest you do the same as there are many good composting “lists” out there. We learned not to compost meats, cheeses, oils, or invasive weeds. Spent coffee grounds are one of our favorite things to compost.
- Be sure you are only composting materials that are not treated with unsafe chemicals. For example, do not compost grass clippings if chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc. were used on them.
- Keep the compost pile/bin moist. Just do not water log it.
- Chop things up a bit. We do not go too crazy here, but composting happens faster when you chop things up. We learned this the first year we put our jack-o-lanterns in the composter. In spring they were still there and practically whole still. This year we broke then up to ensure faster composting.
- Turn over the pile and keep air flowing. Our bin has vented sides, but we used a shovel and sometimes a pitchfork to turn over the pile and mix things up a bit. This sped up the composting process.
- Add some manure. We used cow manure because it was available in bags and not too expensive. We also know it is not usually a good idea to add cow manure directly to soil where plants are growing. The manure can burn those plants. So adding the manure to our compost bin was an easy decision. You can also use chicken or rabbit poop, but do not use dog, cat, or human poop. As always, if you are unsure then you should look up what you are planning to do. Best to learn from others and avoid problems.
- Make compost tea. No, not the kind you drink. This is tea for your edible plants. We added a few scoops of compost to a bucket of water, stirred it all up, and then used a small cup to water the base of our plants. It is probably a real teat for them. Soon they will be ordering a venti compost tea with 2 pumps of fish emulsion!
- Use the compost! It sounds simple, but at first we found ourselves reaching for store-bought compost before pulling from our composter. Call it compost frugality or something. Anyway, we made using our compost part of our routine garden upkeep. The results we saw helped to make a habit out of the practice because our edible plants did noticeably better after we gave them a compost treat.
We have read all sorts of other tips for a better composting experience, but we strive to keep things as simple as possible here on the DIY Backyard Farm. Our composting experience has been good so far and we will continue to fine tune our approach as needed.
Finally, composting is a family affair. Our kids enjoy throwing in our vegetative waste and seeing what comes out of the bottom of the compost bin later on. They really get a great demonstration of the cycle of life.