An Introduction to Home Composting
If you do not already have a home compost system set up, you should definitely get started – it’s super simple! Composting is crucial for any garden. This is something that you can do whether you have a large garden, a small outside space, or even if you do not have a garden at all.
Composting gives you a valuable material for seed starting, filling pots and containers, and balancing the soil in a garden. It can also help you move closer to a zero waste lifestyle and reduce your impact on our planet.
To help you get started, we’ll introduce you to the concept of home composting. And give you the information you need to successfully make your own home compost.
1. What is Composting?
First of all, it is important to understand that composting is a natural process – something that already takes place without your intervention in the natural world. It is simply the name given to the process through which natural, organic, biodegradable materials break down over time.
When leaves fall from deciduous trees and other plants onto the ground, they compost naturally where they fall, breaking down and returning the nutrients they contain to the soil. When the life in the soil and in our natural environment dies, it all breaks down and returns to the system. When we compost at home, we are just taking steps to shortcut that natural process and harness it to meet our own needs.
2. Composting: The Basics
Composting in a home environment usually means aerobic composting. This is the process by which materials break down in an environment with oxygen. Oxygen is one of the four most important things we have to consider when we are composting at home.
The four most important things that we need for successful aerobic composting are:
- The right temperatures
- Micro-organisms which allow decomposition to take place.
Composting successfully is not rocket science. As long as you think about these four things, you can’t go wrong.
Oxygen is used by aerobic microbes in order to process waste efficiently and effectively. Maintaining the right moisture levels and temperatures also keep micro-organisms happy and productive. So at its core, composting at home is all about making sure you maintain a living composting system, and help keep the life in your compost alive to do its job.
3. Methods of Composting
There are a number of different methods to choose from when composting at home and these can be divided into the following categories:
- Composting in place
- Typical cold composting in a heap or bin
If you have a garden, composting in place is one of the very easiest ways to get started. Rather than creating a dedicated area or container for making compost, composting in place involves making new growing areas where the materials can decompose in place. This is a great way not only to compost waste, but also to make new beds or borders for your garden. Rather than digging new beds, or filling raised beds with a bought compost, you can take a ‘no dig’ approach, which protects and improves the soil over time and allows you to grow food and other plants in your garden.
One way to compost in place involves layering materials in much the same way as you build up the layers in a lasagna. The beds that you make in this way are commonly referred to as ‘lasagna gardens’.
Cold composting in a heap or bin is also very easy. You layer materials in the same way – but in a separate spot rather than directly in your garden.
Vermicomposting involves cold composting in a bin or other container – but with the help of special worms that eat their way through the composting materials, depositing their ‘castings’ and helping to keep the mix aerated. It can speed up the process a little and provide you with a great quality home compost.
Finally, hot composting also involves speeding up the decomposition process – this time by increasing the temperatures in a heap or bin. The care and techniques required to maintain these higher temperatures makes hot composting a little more complex than the above methods. But it is still something that is relatively easy to achieve at home.
4. What Can I Compost?
The key thing to remember, whichever of the above methods you choose, is that you need to include two different types of material to make good quality compost. You need to include carbon rich (commonly called ‘brown’) materials, and nitrogen rich (commonly called ‘green’) materials.
Brown materials that you can add to a composting system include:
- Untreated cardboard and paper
- Dried, dead leaves
- Straw or dried grasses
- Wood chips, shavings, saw dust and other fine woody materials
- Small twigs or small pieces of woody bamboo
- Natural, untreated fibers or fabrics (chopped into small pieces – only those that are untreated and contain only natural dyes)
Green materials that you can compost include:
- Most fruit and vegetable scraps and leftover herbs
- Deadheaded flowers and spent blooms
- Egg shells
- Tea leaves (and tea bags as long as they do not contain plastic)
- Coffee grounds (in moderation)
- Many garden weeds (which have not gone to seed and which will not regrow from root sections)
- Grass clippings
- Other green leafy material
- Short hairs, pet fur or wool (chopped into small pieces)
- Ash from wood or paper fires (not coal fires, and only in moderation)
The ratios of brown and green materials that are ideal differ depending on which of the composting methods you have chosen. For most composting systems, however, you should aim to include roughly equal amounts of both types of materials. These should be well mixed and adding them in layers around 5cm deep can help make sure they break down evenly.
Creating a balance between nitrogen and carbon in a composting system and ensuring a good mix of both types of material, is one of the most important things in home composting.
5. What to Not Compost
Most plastics and other non-biodegradable materials shouldn’t be added. (Though there is now compostable plastic packaging that can be added to a composting system.)
This includes things like:
- Lint from washing machines
The contents of vacuum cleaners which usually contain micro-plastics from synthetic materials
You should also take care not to introduce anything that could pass pathogens into your food production areas, which will take too long to break down, or which will pollute the environment.
Dog waste, cat waste and human waste should not be composted (except by experts in specialist hot composting systems).
Bear the above in mind and you should find it relatively easy to get started with home composting, and successfully reduce waste and make your own compost at home.