Composting 101

published on 30 September 2022

Getting started with composting

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Guest Contributor: Cassey Anderson, CSU Horticulture Agent

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Composting in the garden 

Is your late-season garden still going strong? Ready to throw in the towel? Either way, you may be starting to see quite a bit of plant debris building up. This month we’ll share some basics of getting composting in your yard down to a "T," if not an exact science. 

What is composting?

Composting, in its basic form, is a way of breaking down organic material into a long-lasting fertilizer that can help improve soil and provide a long-term nutrient source for plants. Most soils, particularly those used for vegetable gardens, benefit from at least 4-5% of the soil being organic material. This slowly releases nutrients such as nitrogen to help feed plants as they grow. Composting can be as complicated or as simple as you want to make it. 

How can I get started composting?

The first thing you’ll want to consider is how you want to accomplish composting. If you have a yard you can create a pile, a container, or purchase numerous styles of compost bins. For indoors you may need to rely on additional help from something like a red wriggler worm. 

What type of compost system should I use? 

Top: 3 bin system; Lower left: black open bottom bin; Lower right: rotating bins
Top: 3 bin system; Lower left: black open bottom bin; Lower right: rotating bins

Composting can be as simple as piling everything into one big mound in your yard, but many people prefer to use a container of some sort. You can build your own or purchase one pre-made.

If you’ve got the space it can be good to use a 3-bin system. You can find plans to build these through many DIY website and Extension programs across the nation. In this system you add to a section for a season, then the next one in the following year, and by year three the first section is typically ready for use in the garden.

Black plastic compost bins can be great, but it’s often wise to steer clear of the spinning ones, especially in warm and dry climates as they can prove difficult to keep sufficiently moist. Additionally, when you’re continuing to add materials it can be hard to get a finished product.

There are also numerous fancy in-home systems that promise a finished product fast. These are still new and may be good in certain applications, but they are expensive. 

What should I put into my compost bin?

 Your compost will need both
 Your compost will need both "Greens" and "Browns." Aim for about a 50:50 mix.

So, you’ve figured out what type of composter you are, now for the details of how to be successful. Generally composting needs four different components. These are: brown material (high in carbon, dry, slow to break down), green material (high in nitrogen, moisture, quick to break down), water, and air.

Greens and Browns: Browns include leaves, straw, paper, sawdust, and woodchips. Greens include food scraps (even coffee grounds!), grass clippings, manure, garden debris and non-seedy weeds. Generally, you want at least 50% brown material and 50% green material, although different ratios abound on the internet. When possible, layer the two different types of material.

Water: When adding water to your system you want to aim for your pile to have the moisture of a wrung out sponge, not too wet and not too dry. In much of the nation this is easy to achieve, in drier climates, we may need to supplement water our systems if we want a quick composting process. Without all these your pile may be slow to decompose, could get smelly or be otherwise problematic.  

Air: If you want your compost finished quickly, you will need to introduce oxygen into the system by rotating the pile frequently. The more often you turn it, the quicker it will decompose, and you could see a finished product in months. There are large screws you can purchase to use in turning your pile, but a garden fork or even shovel will work as well. 

With good turning, moisture management, and a balanced addition of browns and greens it is possible to get a finished product within about 6-8 months, but due to winter it’s often reasonable to expect this season’s material to be ready for the following season. 

No animal or dairy products! Try to avoid adding animal or dairy products in your home compost system, the primary reason being to reduce pest attraction and reduce potential pathogens getting into your garden system. Commercial compost systems can manage them because they get to a high enough temperature to kill off the pathogens that can develop. 

Troubleshooting your compost project

There are several ways that composting can go wonky. Notice I did not say go wrong, because you can rectify almost any compost issue.

Stinky compost? If your pile is stinky you need to add more brown material (newspaper can work if you’re out of leaves, straw or wood), or to aerate the pile more effectively.

Compost not breaking down? If your pile isn’t breaking down or getting warm you may need more moisture, more air, or to add more green plant material. 

Can I just bury my food scraps in the ground in my vegetable garden? Unfortunately, this is not a best practice. The material is unlikely to finish before the next growing season so you may be unearthing pieces when spring planting. Additionally, they can throw off nutrient balances in the soil. 

Can I add diseased or woody plant materials to my compost? Home compost systems are typically small and are not able to get to high enough temperatures to kill pathogens in diseased plants or leaves. Best to leave these out, send them to a commercial facility, or put them into the trash. This is true for both viral and fungal issues in the plants. You also do not want to include any weedy plants that have gone to seed. Compost piles are an excellent nursery for new plants whether you want them or not! 

Skip diseased plant materials when
Skip diseased plant materials when "feeding" your bin. 

How do I know when my compost is ready to use? If you can still see what the material originally was, your compost is not yet ready for use in the garden. It should no longer have a food, or rotten smell, should be dark brown and relatively moist. Use and enjoy! 

Want to know more about getting your garden ready for winter? Check out our post on "Putting Your Garden to Bed."

 If you have specific questions about composting, or about your fall garden be sure to contact your local Extension office. 

What if every gardener shared just a little?

One small donation can have a tremendous impact. Just imagine, if every gardener planted one extra plant to share, or donated just a pound from the garden. Collectively, we would have an abundant source of fresh, healthy produce available to be distributed to families experiencing food insecurity in our own communities! The free Fresh Food Connect mobile app connects you to a local hunger relief program, then manages and tracks your donations of homegrown produce throughout the season.  Download the app today!

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