Composting at Home

Composting at home is quite easy to do. In fact, you're probably composting right now, without even realizing it. Fallen leaves, grass clippings, dead flowers, and so on, compost naturally when they fall on the ground. But if you want to focus or accelerate the process, you can use a number of methods to make compost slowly or quickly.

What is composting?

Why compost?

How to compost

What to compost?

What not to compost?

Essentials of Composting

 

What is Composting?

Composting is just nature's way of recycling plant materials like leaves, grass, twigs, brush, and fruit and vegetable wastes. Through composting, these materials are converted into a form that can be used again to enrich the soil and nourish living plants. "Compost" is the finished soil product that is produced by proper composting.

 

Why Compost?

Composting produces a useful soil conditioner for your garden. Adding compost to your soil helps it retain water better, loosens up heavy soils, and improves plant health.

Composting reduces the amount of garden waste you discard in the trash, and this saves you the expense of extra trash cans. Green wastes-including grass clippings, leaves, weeds, and shrub prunings-can be a large portion of the waste discarded from a single-family home — especially during the spring, summer, and fall months.

Composting reduces the amount of waste sent to landfill. This preserves landfill space-a limited resource. This also helps your community in its effort to meet the waste reduction goals set by the legislature of the State of Oregon.

The simple ethic of "waste not, want not" requires that we make the best use of all our resources. Leaves, grass, and other green wastes can be turned into a useful product. These materials don't belong in a landfill. Throwing these materials in the trash is a true waste of resources.

 

How to Compost

There are a number of different ways to compost — some take less time and effort, and some take more. The main things to consider are how much time you have to spend managing the pile, how much green waste your yard generates, and how quickly you want to have finished, usable compost. Here are two common methods.

Holding Units

"No Fuss" Method — Also Known as "Add as You Go"

This method uses one pile or bin as a "holding unit" to contain garden wastes. This is also sometimes called the "static pile" method, because you don't turn the pile very much. Holding units, or static piles, are the least labor and least time-consuming way to compost.

How It Works

  1. Build, or purchase, a bin-approximately three feet square. Or just start a pile.
  2. Fill it up, as materials are available.
  3. Note: Take care not to add fresh grass clippings in large layers. Let clippings dry first, or mix with other materials.
  4. Water pile occasionally
  5. When bin is full, start a new pile
  6. To finish composting, it helps to remove bin and turn pile
  7. Or, just take material from the bottom of the pile

Advantages:

  • Low maintenance, little turning required
  • Doesn't take much time or effort
  • Good for lower volumes of material

Disadvantages:

  • Slower method
  • Not good if you have large volumes all year
  • Hard to compost brushy, woody materials
  • Seeds from weeds won't be sterilized

Turning Units

The "Active Pile" Method

Turning units are a series of three or more bins that allow garden wastes to be turned on a regular schedule. Turning units are appropriate for gardeners who have a larger volume of materials and/or want to produce compost faster.

How It Works

  1. Get two or three bins ready. Each bin should be about one cubic yard in size.
  2. Fill one bin, layering green materials with brown. Try for 50% green, 50% brown.
  3. Water the pile as you add layers. Should be like a damp sponge.
  4. Pile will probably heat up. When it cools down-after a few days or a week, turn the pile into an empty bin and water again.
  5. Continue turning until pile no longer heats up and materials decomposed.

Advantages:

  • Good for larger volumes of garden trimmings
  • Produces compost quickly
  • Sterilizes weed seeds and some plant diseases
  • Better for woody materials

Disadvantages:

  • Requires greater amount of time to manage-piles are turned and watered regularly
  • Must accumulate about one cubic yard of material before building pile-in order to get the pile to heat up.

 

What to Compost

Just about anything that once grew in your yard can be composted.

Green Materials:

  • Fresh weeds
  • Fresh plants and green prunings
  • Grass clippings
  • Manure or animal cage cleanings-horse, cow, rabbit, chicken (Note: Do not compost cat or dog droppings.)
  • Fruit and vegetable trimmings from the kitchen or garden

Brown Materials:

  • Fallen leaves
  • Dry weeds, grass
  • Chopped prunings, twigs
  • Wood chips
  • Hay or straw, saw dust
  • Wood ashes (cold)

These Materials Can Also Be Composted:

  • Egg shells
  • Old flower bouquets
  • Coffee grounds (and filters), tea bags
  • Excelsior from swamp cooler mats
  • Paper towels, paper napkins

Download this list of 163 things you can compost.

 

What not to Compost

To avoid problems with odors, pests, reseeding, or slowing down the compost process, don’t put any of these items in your pile.

  • Invasive weeds that spread by roots/runners — e.g. crabgrass, bamboo
  • Meat, fish, dairy products, bones, fats, bread
  • Large branches or pieces of wood
  • Pressure treated woods
  • Bar-b-que or coal ashes
  • Dog or cat wastes
  • Materials with thorns or spines-e.g. rose branches, cactus

 

 

Essentials of Composting

With these principles in mind, everyone can make compost.

Biological Process
The compost pile is really a teeming microbial farm. Bacteria, the most numerous and effective composters, are the first to break down plant tissue. Fungi and protozoans soon join the bacteria and, somewhat later in the cycle, centipedes, millipedes, beetles and earthworms all do their parts.

Materials
Anything growing in your yard is potential food for these tiny decomposers. Microorganisms use the CARBON in leaves or woodier wastes as an energy source. NITROGEN from grass or green materials provides the microbes with the raw element of proteins needed to build their bodies and multiply. (The more decomposers there are, the faster the compost pile will break down.)

Materials with a higher carbon content include "brown" materials like dried leaves, dried weeds, straw, sawdust, wood chips, or sticks/branches. Materials that have a high nitrogen content include "green" items like fresh grass clippings, green weeds, cow or horse manures, and fruit and vegetable trimmings from the kitchen.

What's the "best" recipe for compost? It depends! But a good rule of thumb is to build a pile that has about 50% green materials and 50% brown materials.

Surface Area
The more surface area the microorganisms have to work on, the faster the materials will decompose. Chopping, shredding, or chipping garden wastes before adding them to your compost pile will help speed up the decomposition process.

Moisture and Air
All living things on Earth, including the microbes in a compost pile, need a certain amount of water and air to sustain themselves. Microbes function best-and composting happens the fastest-when the compost heap is about as moist as a wrung out sponge. It is usually necessary to add water to the compost pile to keep the decomposition process going. The pile also needs to be turned periodically to get more air into the center of the pile.

Volume
A large compost pile will insulate itself and hold the heat given off by decomposers. The pile's center will be warmer than its edges. The ideal compost pile size is 3' x 3' x 3' (one cubic yard). Piles smaller than this will have trouble holding this heat, while piles larger than 5 feet on a side don't allow enough air to reach the decomposers (microbes) at the center.

Note: These proportions are only important if your goal is to make compost quickly. Slower composting requires no exact proportions.

 

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