How to Backyard Compost: The Basics

Composting may be one of the best things you can do for the environment. It pulls valuable nutrients out of the landfill, giving them a chance to decompose and return back to the earth and drastically increases the carbon-storing power of soil.  Something that reduces waste and stores carbon? Sign us up. 

Not every city has commercial-scale compost facilities or has curbside compost pickup available, though.  For many of us, having an at-home compost pile is the only option if we want to compost our food waste and backyard compostable packaging.  Starting a compost pile at home is a no-brainer if you have a food garden or flower beds, but even if you don’t, we should all consider composting our food scraps.  It’s a great way to learn and teach others about the decomposition process, and donating your finished compost to community gardens or neighbors is a great way to spread the love.  

It may sound daunting, but starting a compost pile can be a fun and simple process with a little bit of planning and background information.  We’ll go through the key components for a successful compost pile and how you can start returning nutrients to the soil today.  

What is Composting?

When composting, you’re harnessing the power of all the microorganisms that live in the soil to break down organic material into a nutrient-rich material called humus.  Worms, fungi, bacteria, mites, and more are all a part of this process.  Your goal when managing your compost pile is to provide everything these microorganisms need to do their job well. This includes lots of the right food, plenty of oxygen, water to keep them moving, and the right temperature to stay active.   

what can you compost


The 4 Key Elements

There are four key elements that affect your compost (and the critters living within it).  These will all need to be managed during the composting process for a successful pile:

1. Temperature

The microorganisms that decompose all the yummy organic material you put on your compost pile like heat. To keep them happy and highly active, your compost pile should be between 135 degrees Fahrenheit and  160 degrees Fahrenheit.  Luckily no added heat is necessary because the microorganisms will create this heat as they begin to digest and break down the nutrients in your compost pile.  That is, as long as you have the correct nutrient balance, which is described in more detail below.


2. Oxygen

The microorganisms in your compost pile like heat, but they also need oxygen.  As they digest, they use up the oxygen that is found in the tiny spaces between the material of your pile.  Once they’ve used up that oxygen, the microorganisms will start to die off and the pile will turn anaerobic (i.e. rotting).  This is why most compost piles smell, because all or portions of the pile don’t have enough oxygen and are starting to rot away.  To prevent this, your compost pile will need to be turned over periodically.  This turning creates new pockets of oxygen for the microorganisms to keep doing their important work. 


3. Moisture

Water is key to any compost pile because it acts like a highway that microorganisms travel on to different parts of the pile.  Water also makes the nutrients in the organic material more accessible.  If you live in a rainy area, you may have no trouble with moisture, but if not, you’ll need to monitor the moisture of your pile and add some if necessary. The amount of moisture needed will vary based on the type and size of material in your pile but a good rule of thumb is that your compost pile should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. 


4. Nutrient Balance

This is, perhaps, one of the most important parts of building a home compost pile.  You are always looking for that perfect balance between carbon and nitrogen.  You will often hear the different organic material that is high in carbon as “brown” material and the organic material high in nitrogen as “green” material.  

“Brown” organic materials include things like woody stems, dry leaves, sawdust.  “Green” materials include food scraps, green grass clippings, vegetable clippings, etc.  A common mistake of home composters is to have too much nitrogen or “green” materials and not enough carbon or “brown” materials.  

Obtaining the right balance of these two takes some experimentation and is different for each pile.  If your pile is very smelly and starting to feel a little slimy, add some carbon.  If it seems dry and is decomposing slowly, add some nitrogen.  Put your mad scientist hat on and have fun with it!

Which Pile is Right for You?

There are many different ways to build a compost pile and a quick search on the internet will confirm this.  Possibly the most common is the “three bin” system.  In this system, you build a bin with sides for each stage of the composting process.  The first bin is for fresh new material, which is moved to the second stage when it is in the middle of the composting process, then finally to the third stage where your finished compost is stored.  

The three-bin system is convenient, but if you’re short on yard space, you may want to consider a compost tumbler.  With this method, you place your compost materials in the tumbler and simply give it a turn.  The benefits of the tumblers are that your compost pile will stay contained and very aerated, potentially accelerating the decomposition process.  The downsides are that the size of the tumbler will limit the size of material you put in and it can be difficult to see how your compost is doing. 

If you are REALLY short on space (like living in an apartment), consider composting with a worm bin.  Worm bins are small, contained, and harness the miraculous power of worms to break down food scraps and other organic material.  Worm bins have their own special requirements for management not covered in this article, so be sure to do some research to make sure you get the right kind of worms and it is managed correctly.  The benefits of worm bins are that they are odor-free (when managed correctly), relatively inexpensive, and require less heavy lifting. 

Starting to compost isn’t so daunting.  All it requires is a little bit of know-how, a lot of patience, and a willingness to experiment. By making backyard composting the norm, we can keep millions of pounds of food and yard waste out of the landfills, closing the loop on the vital nutrients those organic materials contain.  We will also be increasing the demand for backyard compostable packaging, like the wrappers on our truffles, creating a more sustainable future for everyone. Happy composting!

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