A Comprehensive Guide to Composting at Home
So you want to start your own garden this year in hopes of eating the food you grow? That’s great! But did you know that the food you grow could be nutritiously fed with the leftover scraps of the organic matter you ate? Brilliant! This is part of the process of composting. Composting is one of the best ways to recycle, reduce trash to landfills, and create a better life for your garden plants.
What is Compost?
Compost is the breakdown of organic materials like foods or natural materials derived and grown from the earth. There are two types of composting processes: anaerobic composting which does not include the use of free flowing oxygen and aerobic composting which invites free flowing oxygen. This article will further elaborate on aerobic composting requiring access to open air. Aerobic composting is very simple to start in your garden to begin composting right away.
The final result of aerobic composting is carbon dioxide gas, water vapor liquid, and dark brown organic matter like dirt. Decaying matter like fruits and vegetables begin to wither, shrink, and release their gases, leaving behind rich nutrients as a byproduct in the dirt as they further breakdown. In the compost pile, the minerals from the organic matter’s nutrients are released into the soil to create more nutrient dense soil and ultimately make the nutrients easily acceptable to the plants when you spread it into your garden. To give you an easy visual of another example of organic matter breakdown, think of fallen leaves and dead plant matter in our yards and forests. When the leaves fall late in the year, where do the leaves go?
Dead and dying organic material begins to break down into smaller fragments and dirt or compost thanks to the natural abundance of oxygen, bacteria, fungi, and creatures in the soil of the earth. Fungi and some bacteria require oxygen to grow which is why your decaying and dead organic matter from the kitchen love the abundance of oxygen. These species will live and thrive off of this decaying matter in order to do their life’s work of further breaking substance down. In order to grow, fungi and bacteria absorb the gasses released by the organic matter and ultimately take over the material to break it down into dirt.
But first in the process as a whole, rain water and the moisture that naturally occurs in compost as a by-product of the release of gases such as oxygen and hydrogen (H2O), further dissolve some of the organic material. This is known as a process called leaching. The acidity and molecular components of water from rain is the first line of breaking down the material of the organic matter. Then, creatures of the dirt, like earthworms and insects begin to move through the soil which ignites a process called mixing. When dead and dying organic matter is placed in soil with earthworms, the earthworms move through the soil, attracted to the food, creating holes and canals which helps open the dirt where oxygen can become more present. The oxygen feeds the bacteria and fungi. These pieces of organic matter begin to break down into smaller pieces by way of oxygen exposure through contact with water and soil creatures. It then becomes easier for small spores of fungi to attach themselves to these smaller pieces and with absorption of oxygen, the fungi grow bigger to consume and decompose the remaining dead matter. After the fungus's role is over, it too breaks down and dies. This is how we get our finest pieces of dark brown dirt. Except it’s not just any dirt.
The cellular components of organic plant matter released additional organic nutrients and molecules from the physical fruit, vegetable, or coffee, etc. These nutrients can remain in the soil over a period of time and contribute to how we get nutrient rich compost soil in assistance to feeding the plants of our gardens.
The compost soil is wet and dense with nutrients from the breakdown of the organic matter. These factors help plants and the soil around their roots to maintain moisture and absorb nutrients over extended periods. Symbiotically, due to the high density of nutrients, compost soil better retains the water, making near perfect conditions in your garden beds without having to use excess water!
One of my favorite nutrients, dense in compost soil, is nitrogen and is provided as a by-product of one of life’s greatest pleasures, coffee. The plants of our gardens love nitrogen to create lubricated stems and leaves. Nitrogen and a small atom of magnesium make up the chlorophyll in plants. The chlorophyll is the green pigment in plants which supports the foundation of light absorption from the sun. The compost soil ultimately aids the plant in retaining water in the soil and yet also helps leaves grow to absorb more sunlight. Just a heads up, too much nitrogen in your soil will not permit the budding of flowers!
Compost is amazing for gardens in areas where there is a lot of clay soil, compost soil can be added in to break up the density and increase airflow. The amount of carbon dioxide, released by the organic matter in the broken down compost soil, aids in feeding plants because they take in carbon dioxide and exchange it for the release of oxygen. This soil support caters to healthier leaves for more oxygen to support our bodies.
In the end, we get nutrient dense soil from compost and it supports the overall health of the soil around the plant and the plant itself. In my own experience, using compost soil every 6-8 weeks has been one of the greatest ways to produce more fruits on my plants as my plants grow higher with more leaves and stems in the summer garden. At other times, I place my compost soil at the base of some of my indoor plants and they begin to sprout new leaves fairly quickly, too!
Disclaimer: the compost is not a fertilizer but compost does have fertilizer value. Fertilizer is like food for the plant to give it the proper nutrients it would need to grow. Fertilizer would contain the proper amount of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, or Potassium that is required for the plant to grow. However, if you supplement your compost pile with organic matter that can be rich in these elements, then your plant may benefit from compost alone!
Where to Keep and Build Your Compost
Before you can do anything, you'll need a container to put your compost in to give it time to decompose.
In the Home
Before you're ready to bring your compost outside, I like to keep my scraps in a glass container that has a lid. This is a sustainable and easy option that allows flexibility so you don't have to run outside all day long with your scraps.
DIY Compost Bin
The best place to keep your compost is in a structure made with natural materials. This could be a bin-like structure made with wood, cinder blocks, bricks, etc. This compost plan is my top recommendation as you can keep the new dirt separated from the food that is actively decomposing.
Ready-Made Compost Bin
There are, of course, alternatives to making a bin yourself. Here are a few ready-made compost bins I recommend:
Materials to Add to Your Compost
The following is a group of lists that may guide you in composting ethically and correctly to avoid issues down the line in the garden.
Foods and their main nutrients which I love to compost with:
Used coffee grounds (Rich in Nitrogen, neutral pH)
Banana peels (Rich in Potassium, rapid breakdown)
Finely crushed eggs shells (Rich in Calcium)
Strawberries/pineapple (Sugar/rapid breakdown)
Foods to compost with caution:
High acidity/low sugar
Sugars are great for composting as it attracts earthworms and insects to come through and facilitate more oxygen flow. High acidity materials like tomatoes can throw off the pH balance which could end up killing the good nutrients in the soil that support healthy breakdown. If this pH reaches the plant, the plant may suffer.
Compost needs additional support with carbon and oxygen
Great sources of carbon include brown, dry organic matter such as:
Fresh grass clippings can also be added to compost, however, they are categorized as wet organic material just as the fruits and vegetables are. So the key here is a ratio of two to one, green, wet plant matter to brown, dry matter. This is a rough estimate and can be measured by the eye.
Things to avoid adding to your compost and why:
Stickers from your washed fruits and veggies
Paper towels (contain other chemicals for absorbance which are not beneficial nutrients and could throw off the balance of the soil)
Cooked food (contain oils that are not able to break down in the soil)
Animal bones, meats (attracts pests which would contaminate the compost)
Micro-plastic tea bags (tea bags that are not paper will not breakdown)
Avocado pits (can take a long time to break down due to their density)
Black walnut tree leaves/twigs or yard debris treated with pesticides
Weeds from the garden (potential to grow back stronger and take over)
How to Compost at Home
First, you'll want to store your compost in in a dry, shady area that's easily accessible to water.
You can add any brown (dried plants, newspaper, etc.) or green matter (kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, etc.) as they are collected. Large pieces will not be able to decompose easily, so be sure to chop or shred them into smaller pieces. For best results, mix three parts brown with one part green materials.
Depending on where you are and how much rainfall you get, you may need to gently moisten your newly added matter. In areas, it's common that the atmosphere is wet enough that you may not need to add water often, or at all. Just note if your compost starts to look too wet or has a strong odor — if it does add more brown matter and stir often.
Aim to stir your compost once a week to properly aerate the matter.
When the matter at the bottom of your compost bin is dark, dry, and rich in color, then it's ready to add to your garden!
Being able to treat your garden to fresh, nutrient-dense compost is such a great way to revitalize the earth and it's fruit (or vegetables). Follow this guide to start composting at home to build a much more sustainable future for yourself and the earth.
This piece was written and contributed by:
Reiki Master, Intuitive Guide, Nursing Student
Erin is a Reiki Master, Intuitive Guide, and Nursing Student out of Denver, Colorado. She thoroughly enjoys studying environments and the exchange between humans and the natural forces at play. Erin studied Health and Environmental Communications at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, NJ. Here she learned much about Human Ecology, Environmental Policy, and Psychological Behaviors. Erin now offers Reiki, Intuitive Readings, and Breathwork through her business The Mindful Bird. She also works at large state hospital on the Bone Marrow Transplant unit as a nurses aid. Once a week, Erin volunteers Reiki for Cancer patients and nurses at this hospital. She is currently applying to nursing school in hopes to complete her BSN in December of 2022. In her free time, Erin enjoys gardening, spending time with her roommates and partner, studying energetics and the subconscious mind, and writing. Erin is an avid learner and lover of the cycles of life.