DIY compost

Backyard Composting for Beginners

Whether you’re looking to reduce your kitchen or yard waste, or your want to create a nutrient rich amendment to guarantee a bountiful harvest from this year’s garden, learning how to compost in your backyard is an incredible tool to add to your DIY arsenal.  And while it may seem intimidating at first, composting at home is simple and easy to master if you understand a few basic tips.  Better still, as there are a number of different composting techniques in use today, there is sure to be one that will perfectly suit your needs, your space and your time constraints.  Read on for a primer on the most popular composting methods in use today and what makes each stand out.

Why compost?

Compost is an ideal organic additive for garden beds, container gardens and houseplants as it is the quickest and surest way to improve soil structure and nutrient content.  Not only is compost rich in the essential nutrients and minerals that plants need to grow strong, healthy and resist pests and pathogens, compost also helps improves soil’s ability to retain water and drain properly. 

But beyond its utility in the garden, composting at home is an environmentally-sound decision that reduces the need for chemical fertilizers all while reducing your home’s food waste output and greenhouse gas emissions.  Both eco-friendly and enriching to your garden and houseplants, there’s so much to love about compost.  And when it’s produced in your backyard, you save money and time all while having the peace of mind that comes with knowing exactly what goes into your garden soil.

Necessities:

Hot composting: tumbler or stationary compost barrel, compost thermometer
Cold composting: compost bin
Bokashi: bokashi container, EM
Vermicomposting: worm bin, countertop compost bin

Hot Composting

When most people think about composting, they think about hot composting.  And for good reason.  While hot composting may require a bit more hands-on work than other methods, it is capable of producing the highest volume of finished compost in the shortest amount of time.  

Hot composting is an outdoor-only composting method that uses the combination of aeration, moisture, heat and a specific ratio of nitrogen to carbon-rich ingredients to create the ideal environment for beneficial microbes, bacteria and fungi to thrive.  

To begin, compost piles are formed either by mounding ingredients in a pile, ideally 4’ square, or by using a store bought or DIY compost bin.  While it is not necessary to use a bin, they can make turning compost simpler, reduce pest activity and keep yards looking tidier.  Popular store bought compost bins include tumblers, which are limited in size but make for easy compost turning, and stationary compost barrels.  DIY compost bins can also be made on a budget by using upcycled, heat-treated (as opposed to chemically-treated) wooden pallets or chicken wire.

For efficient and odorless composting, yard and kitchen waste should be added to hot compost piles at a rate of three parts carbon-rich, “brown” ingredients (such as sawdust, straw, autumn leaves, sticks and twigs and shredded non-glossy paper) to one part nitrogen-rich, “green” material (such as kitchen scraps, chicken and rabbit manure, grass clippings, coffee grounds and eggshells).  Piles are then turned every few days and are monitored so that they maintain the moisture level of a wrung sponge, adding water or additional brown material as needed. 

When these ingredients are in place, hot compost piles begin to generate heat, which can be monitored with the help of a compost thermometer.  A temperature range of between 141 and 155°F is ideal for the beneficial microorganisms in compost piles to thrive.  Temperatures below this range will slow composting rates and temperatures above this range can kill microorganisms and halt composting altogether.

In as little as four weeks, core temperatures of hot compost piles should begin to drop, signaling that the composting process has finished.  When completed, you should have rich, dark, earthy-smelling compost that is ready to use directly in your garden.  Because of the heat generated during hot composting, not only is this process quicker than other methods, but it also produces a finished compost that is free of weed seeds and plant pests and pathogens that cannot survive hot temperatures.

Cold Composting

Cold composting is very similar to hot composting; however, as a passive composting process, it requires less work but takes longer to produce a finished product.  Additionally, because it does not generate heat, it does not kill off weed seeds or plant pests or pathogens, so weed seeds and diseased plant material should not be composted using this method.

As with hot composting, cold composting piles are formed either as loose mounds piled in backyards or added to store bought or DIY compost bins.  Yard waste and kitchen scraps are combined at the same ratio of three parts carbon-rich material, to one part nitrogen-rich material and piles are maintained at the moisture level of a wrung sponge.  The difference is that cold composting piles do not need to be regularly turned, although turning will speed up the composting process.  If you choose to not turn your compost pile, it can take up to a year to generate finished compost using the cold composting method.

Trench Composting

A variant of cold composting, trench composting allows you to compost kitchen scraps even without a compost pile or bin.  For this method, kitchen scraps are simply dug directly into garden soil either in holes or in trenches.  To deter scavengers and other garden pests, be sure to dig all kitchen scraps at least 10 to 12” deep.  As the scraps naturally degrade, they enrich garden soil and, when dug in at the base of plants and trees, serve as an all-natural, organic plant fertilizer.

Bokashi Composting

Hailing from ancient Korea, bokashi is a composting method that utilizes an anaerobic environment and beneficial microorganisms to breakdown organic matter.  However, unlike hot or cold composting, this process works by pickling and fermenting food scraps, rather than actually composting them.  This speeds up the processing time, producing a finished product in as little as four weeks.

Bokashi composting consists of two main elements: an airtight container and effective microorganisms (EM).  A bokashi container can either be homemade with a bucket or a complete, premade system can be purchased online.  EM, which is generally composed of either wheat or rice bran that has been inoculated with lactobacillus and other beneficial bacteria and yeasts, can also be made at home or purchased from a retailer.

To begin composting with bokashi, a sprinkling of EM is added to the base of the bokashi container and 1 to 2” of food scraps are added and then topped off with a final sprinkle of EM.  Food scraps are then added to the container as they accumulate, and each layer of scraps is topped with an additional layer of EM.  When the container is full, the lid is securely fastened and your bokashi system is left to ferment for two weeks.  At the end of two weeks, you will be left with a pre-compost, which looks essentially unchanged from the original food scraps; however, it has been predigested and fermented by the EM and has already begun to breakdown.  

At this point, the bokashi pre-compost is far too acidic to add to gardens, so it needs to be left to ferment for an additional two to four weeks.  This can be done by allowing your pre-compost to rest in a dedicated outdoor bokashi pile, adding it to your worm bin or by digging the pre-compost directly into garden beds at a depth of 10 to 12” to prevent scavengers.  However, if you opt to dig your pre-compost into your garden soil, be sure to avoid planting any plants nearby for at least two weeks to prevent root burn.  After two weeks, pre-compost should be thoroughly broken down, pH stabilizes and your bokashi compost is ready to add to planters and gardens. 

It should be noted that, as bokashi is an anaerobic process, food scraps should only be added once a day and lids should be replaced immediately after use to keep out air.  Using a countertop compost bin to gather food scraps before adding them to your bokashi container can help limit the number of times the container is opened, working to maintain an optimal, anaerobic environment.

Beyond its efficiency at processing kitchen scraps, bokashi excels as a composting system as it can be done indoors, even in the depths of winter when outdoor hot and cold composting slows to a halt.  Additionally, because of its high acidity, bokashi can breakdown food scraps, like cooking oil, meat and bones, that cannot be processed with other composting methods.  Finally, as food scraps breakdown in a bokashi system, they release a highly nutritious liquid known as “bokashi tea” which can be added to outdoor compost piles as an accelerator or diluted at a rate of 1:100 and used to fertilize gardens and houseplants.

Vermicomposting

Also known as composting with worms, vermicomposting uses a specific type of earthworm known as “red wigglers” to breakdown kitchen scraps, paper products and other organic material to create rich, nutrient-dense earthworm castings.  Functional as either an indoor or outdoor composting system, vermicomposting begins with a worm bin, which can either be purchased online or made at home with simple plastic storage totes.  Substate, consisting of garden soil, shredded newspaper or rehydrated coconut coir, is then added to the worm bin and moistened to the consistency of a wet sponge.  Red wigglers, available online in quantities ranging from 100 to 2000 and above, are then added to the container and your vermicomposting system is ready to use.

As with bokashi, kitchen scraps should be accumulated in a countertop compost bin and added to your worm bin once a week, or less, depending on how many worms you have and how quickly they digest food waste.  When adding scraps, dig scraps into one side of the container and then cover them with substrate to prevent fruit flies and other pests from accumulating.  Every week, alternate which side food scraps are added to you bin and remove any stubborn scraps that worms don’t seem interested in.  

After several months, your bin should be mostly earthworm castings, which can be harvested and sprinkled around garden beds and houseplants.  After removing the old castings, replenish your tote with new substrate and your worms will keep thriving for years.  

Conclusion

When choosing which composting method is right for you and your garden, it is important to consider whether you’re looking for an indoor or outdoor system, if you intend to compost all year long, your space constraints and how much time you want to dedicate to composting.  From hot composting to vermicomposting, each method has its benefits and excels in different ways.  For an optimal setup, it is sometimes best to combine two or more composting options, such as bokashi with cold composting, to ensure you can continue to compost during winter.  Whichever method you choose, creating compost at home is simple and rewarding and is sure to improve your garden soil and produce harvest this growing season.

outdoor tumbling composter

bokashi starter kit

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