ZennEarth Tips: How to Compost

Composting is an easy and sustainable way to improve your soil while eliminating organic materials ending up in landfills.

At the highest level, compost is biodegraded organic material. Compost is made as a result of the natural breakdown of organic material, such as leaves, grass clippings and vegetable scraps, into a pile or bin and letting it decompose by bacteria, fungi, and insects which live in the soil.

Why composting is important

Compost is important for many reasons. To start, it makes any soil better. No matter if you’re starting with heavy clay soil that drains poorly, or sandy soil that drains too quickly, compost can help with either. In all soil, compost provides nutrients, helps mitigate soil contaminants and pathogens, binds heavy metals, improves soil drainage and infiltration, reduces soil runoff and erosion, and improves the overall structure and texture of the native soil.

Composting also dramatically reduces the amount of solid waste going to landfills – the single largest manmade source of methane gas, a highly potent form or greenhouse gas.

Suffice it to say, compost is the single best soil amendment you can add to any soil to feed your plants and help the planet.

How to make your own compost

In order to make your own compost, you’ll need four key ingredients:

  • Brown (Carbon) Materials
    • From Indoors
      • Shredded paper and newspaper
      • Cardboard
      • Stale bread
      • Pizza boxes
      • Dog hair
      • Used paper towels and napkins
    • From Outdoors
      • Dried leaves
      • Sawdust
      • Hay
  • Green (Nitrogen) Materials
    • From Indoors
      • Eggshells
      • Vegetable scraps
      • Fruit scraps
      • Coffee grounds
    • From Outdoors
      • Grass clippings
      • Plant trimmings
      • Chicken manure
  • Air
  • Water

You should expect to have a ratio of 2 parts brown material to 1 part green material (twice as much carbon as nitrogen). When in doubt, always error on the side of more brown materials.

I recommend keeping your brown and green inputs in either:

  1. A Pile (ideal size 4’ x 4’ x 4’)
  2. A Bin – make your own, get one used, buy new

If you don’t have a ton of space and want an indoor composting option, you can use worm composters, a series of stacked trays that are, yes, filled with hundreds of worms.

If you’re not down with the worm thing, you can still compost indoors with a fermenting Bokashi system.

How often to turn and water your compost

Turning your compost introduces more oxygen into your pile. Doing so weekly will help the material break down quickly.

Once a week, you want your compost to be as wet as a wrung-out sponge. Moisture is one of the key ingredients for creating compost quickly. Dry materials will break down into compost, but the process will take much longer. Why? It’s the microbial activity within the compost pile that works to break down all those materials. Like all life, those organisms require water, food, and air for survival. If you provide those elements, the organisms thrive and can make quick work of your inputs.

I spray my compost pile once each week. When I turn the heap, I’m exposing the inner contents. It’s at this point I spray everything down until it’s the consistency of a wrung out sponge. Then, I continue turning the pile to get a good distribution of moisture and materials all through the heap. It takes about five minutes to get everything incorporated and gathered back together.

How do you know if you’re composting correctly?

  • Your pile is breaking down material, you no longer recognize that apple core
  • Your compost has a nice earthy smell, it shouldn’t be stinky
  • Your compost is full of worms and other beneficial insects (if your kids are bug lovers they will love this part of composting)
  • You are turning and watering your compost at least once a month
  • You have the right size pile (at least 3’ x 3’ x 3’)
  • You are achieving the right temperature
    • Good: 110 – 130 degrees F
    • Better: 130 – 150 degrees F

Is there a composting service in your area?

In 2009, San Francisco made recycling and composting a requirement for all businesses and residences. It passed the nation’s first mandatory composting law, and while a few progressive cities have followed suite, most haven’t.

Here are a few cities that compost for you:

When is compost ready to use

  1. When you can no longer identify any of the original ingredients.
  2. It will have a rich, earthy smell.
  3. When you squeeze finished compost, it should clump but break apart easily when you run your fingers through it.

When how and where to compost

  1. When? Spring and Fall or a few weeks before you plant.
  2. How? If it’s brand new soil, lightly work it into a depth of several inches. From then on, topdressing is fine. Don’t till as this will disrupt or destroy the natural soil environment.
  3. Where? Around the plants, as close to the base of the plant you can get.
  4. Don’t have a use for compost? Use your compost on your apartment complex’s landscape, donate your compost or sell it.

Composting FAQ

  • When buying compost, what should I ask for and where can I purchase it?
    • Look for certified compost. Certification indicates that the compost has met the standards of the US Composting Council (USCC).
  • Should I add water to my compost pile or leave it dry?
    • I spray my compost pile once each week. When I turn the heap, I’m exposing the inner contents. It’s at this point I spray everything down until it’s the consistency of a wrung out sponge.
  • What do I do if my compost smells?
    • Add more browns (carbon). Adding a layer of browns like leaves at the top can help.
  • How do I achieve the right temperature?
    • Have the correct ratio of browns to greens (twice as much brown material to green material. Materials like grass clippings can help.

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