Learn how to make compost at home and save money. This guide covers each step of the process from start to finish so you can create your own compost from the excess materials you have in your yard and kitchen.
How to Compost (Step by Step)
Now that you have everything ready, it’s time to start composting.
Choose a Location a Location
Before you get started, make sure you think things through first, especially where you’ll be putting your compost.
- Consider where you live (including your neighbors & the community). If you live on a large farm or have a backyard that’s close to an acre or more then there’s no problem. But, if you have neighbors, you’ll need to gauge how they feel about having compost lying around. Some communities encourage it. Other neighbors hate it. And, that’s not an understatement. Also, there are local government and community rules, laws and guidelines you need to follow. So, do check before jumping in. These will help you decide whether you can just put up a stockpile, need to cover it or use a container/tumbler.
- The climate in your area. Ideally, you want to position your compost under a shade. This protects them from too much sun, rain and snow. All of which can affect how much maintenance you need to do.
- Hose. Next up is your hose. Ideally, you want your compost to be situated near a water source. For most of us, that’s a faucet or spigot where you can attach a hose. Since hoses don’t go too far, and the pressure weakens as distance increases, the nearer the better.
- Space. At the minimum, you want to use at least 1 cubic meter of space. That’s 1 meter’s length on each side including height. That’ gives you enough compost to work with. You can likewise graduate to a bigger bin or pile later on. Plus, don’t forget the extra room for you to move around the compost. This lets you aerate and water it.
- Distance from your home/where your materials are. The closer you are from where the source of the organic matter is, the better. So, if most of the items for your compost comes from inside your house, the closer the pile is to your door, the less you’ll need to carry. Do consider a wheelbarrow or garden cart for larger piles and longer distances.
- Distance to your garden (where you’ll put the humus). Similarly, you’ll need to transport the finished product to where you’re going to use it. Don’t underestimate the weight of the finished compost, it’s heavy. Thus, the same rule applies to the previous. The closer your pile is to your yard or garden, the less lifting or pushing you need to do.
- Aesthetics. Let’s face it, your compost pile (unless it’s in a closed bin or container) isn’t going to win any design awards. If you have containers, you’ll also want to consider whether they match what’s near it. For example, your guests may not appreciate or enjoy their BBQ in your patio as much if the compost is right beside or very near where they’re sitting. The less you plan to water, turn the pile and check up on your compost, the farther you can put it away from sight.
Buy or Create Your Compost Bin
While you can technically do anything within your home, you’re still bound by the rules of your town, city, community and so on.
So, it’s important to take into consideration your surroundings, the laws and people living near you when choosing what kind of compost bin you’ll use.
Here are some questions to consider.
- What do your neighbors and local government rules say? Some may or may not allow open stockpiles. As such, they may make the decision for you.
- Are there a lot of animals and pests lurking? If so, containers with lids can keep them from messing with the organic matter
- Does it rain a lot? If so, an enclosed bin of some type helps keep your pile from getting soaked.
- Does it get very hot or cold in your area? Covered bins help retain moisture better. Likewise, there are bins that come with extra insulation to help keep the heat in.
After that, it’s time to figure out the actual compost bin itself. Here, you’ll need to decide the qualities of your bin. These include:
- Size. This depends on how much compost you’ll have. Ideally, you don’t want something smaller than one cubic meter (3 feet by 3 feet or so). This gives you enough space to get started. And, it leaves some area for air and water as well. Just as importantly, consider how much matter you get. Often, this is a combination of kitchen waste and garden trimmings.
- Price. Price is often correlated with size and material. The bigger the container and the heavier the material, the most expensive it will cost. You also don’t need to start with something expensive. In fact, you can use plastic food drums in the beginning. These are cheap and easy to use. Plus, you’re familiar with them. It will allow you to understand how things work before actually getting a compost bin.
- Weight. The bigger the pile, the heavier it will get. With weight, comes the question of whether you’ll want to move the container or not. In some cases, you won’t be able to move it. However, you can opt for a rolling one as well.
- Space you have. This will depend on where you can position your compost. Again, do consider the points in the item above regarding location and community regulations. That said, space is very important. You want somewhere that allows you extra room to move about. This lets you aerate, monitor and add to your compost as needed.
- How much assembly is needed. Is there is a lot of assembly involved? And, how easy or difficult is it? From experience, metal connectors and joints are much better options to plastic ones. These have a longer lifespan as well. Of course, if you’re building your own bin, then you’ll have a better idea based on your masonry or carpentry skills.
- Lids. Most compost bins will let you put the organic matter from above. As such, the closed ones will have some kind of lid. Here, you want to check how it’s set up. How will you open it? How will you dump the content in? Do you prefer a flip-open lid or something else? How big is the opening? These are just some questions to consider.
- Access points. Similarly, do consider how you’re going to scoop things out. In some cases, the opening is also where you’ll get it out. But, in many others, they’ll have some kind of access panels at the bottom or sides where you can take out the final product. Do consider the same questions with the lids like how big is the opening and how are you going to move the humus from there.
- Aeration. This is only a factor for closed bins. Open bins can get all the air they need. But, with enclosed ones, you want to make sure that there are openings that allow for air to enter.
- Water drainage. In addition to vents for the air to get in, you also want to look for holes that allow water to exit. This lets excess moisture drain to prevent your compost from stinking.
- How will it keep pests and animals out. Are there any pet deterrent mechanisms included? How well d the openings close and can these critters get in? What about areas where there are openings, are there screens?
- How to Use Compost
- Types of Compost Bins
- What is Composting and How Does It Work?
- Composting 101: How Does Compost Decompose / Break Down?
- Equipment for Composting – What Do You Need to Start Composting
- What is Mulch & How to Mulch a Garden
Add Ingredients/Create Your Compost Pile
When it comes to adding organic matter to your pile, the most important thing is to remember what you can and can’t add to your pile.
You can go back through the lists above to see the different materials.
Next is the balance of the browns and the greens. While this does speed up the entire process, you don’t need to try to be overly accurate with the math. One way or another, as long as you add the right ingredients, it will get done.
You can likewise chop, cut, slice and break larger items into smaller ones. The smaller they are the faster they decompose.
Also, make sure that there’s enough space between the items for air and water to get through. As such, don’t pack things too much that it becomes very compact.
Regularly Check on Your Compost
Composting isn’t a “set it and forget it” process. As such, you’ll need to monitor how it’s doing. And, when needed make any necessary adjustments as they come.
To do so, it’s essential that you stay on top of what’s happening to your pile. Here’s how.
- The most accurate way of testing your compost’s temperature is with a compost thermometer. This gives you a good idea of how much heat there is. So, you’ll be able to decide if you want to accelerate the process or not. You can likewise use your hand to gauge, much like how experienced chefs are able to tell the doneness of meats with their fingers. If the temperature isn’t much higher than the air, it’s a sign you should do something.
- The easiest way to add water is to do it while you turn the pile. This allows it to penetrate into the heap instead of just moisten the outer areas. Be careful not to overwater. As such, less is more. And, testing as you add is key. Keep getting handfuls of chunks and squeeze them to test as you go. Also, do take note of the weather, especially when there’s a forecast for rain.
- C:N Ratio. Getting the ideal ratio (25 to 30:1) between carbon and nitrogen helps speed up the composting process. Too much carbon slows down the process. Too much nitrogen, can make your pile smelly. The good news is, you can add more of either as needed. That said, when you’re starting out, I’ve found it’s easier to just go with a 1:1 ratio or a 3:1 ratio. This lets you jump into the process and learn as opposed to overthinking the math and measurements.
- Make sure that air can circulate within the pile. Turning it every so often is the easiest way to ensure this. But, you don’t have to worry if you don’t want to do it or forget. With less air, the process will take longer, that’s it. If you don’t like turning a lot, I’ve found 2 effective ways to reduce the amount of work. (a) insert a PVC pipe with holes into the middle of the pile. This allows air to flow into the core. (b) Elevate the pile using a platform with holes. For example, you can use a pallet or create your ow wooden platform with air vents underneath.
Below is a chart that shows that items you should not compost. Adding these will mess up your compost pile.
How Long Does It Take For Compost To Decompose?
Unfortunately, there is no exact time. With experience, your compost should be done within 3-6 months as long as you turn it often (once every 2-4 weeks) and the size isn’t too big.
That said, a compost pile can easily last as long as 2 years before finishing.
It depends on many factors, including:
- Ratio of carbon to nitrogen ingredients
- What you add into the pile
- Sizes of the materials
- Amount of oxygen it received
- How much moisture it got
- How often you turned it
- Time of year
- Climate and weather in your area
- And other factors
Needless to say, it depends.
The key is not to get tempted to start taking from it until it’s completely finished. You’ll know when it’s done because:
- It will look and feel like chocolate cake, ie. dark brown color, crumbly, uniform small sizes.
- It smells pleasant, not stinky
- Moist, not wet nor squishy
- It’s not hot
By the end, you’ll only get about 30% to 50% of the initial size of your pile left.
In all likelihood, not everything will be “finished”. That is, there will be chunks of a few of the other materials that aren’t “done” yet. With those, just dump them back in to use with the next pile.