Backyard composting converts leaves, kitchen scraps, paper and other organic materials into a valuable soil conditioner that boosts plant growth and helps the soil retain water. Compost can be used on gardens, lawns, and houseplants. How much compost you can generate depends on the amount of compostable materials you regularly have available and the space you have for composting. Compost is a wonderful conditioner for soil, full of nutrients, essential minerals, and enzymes that plants need to grow.
Composting simply put, is a means to speed up the natural decay process, by bringing together the right ingredients in the right amounts, under the right conditions.
- Helps plants grow faster, bigger, and healthier.
- Reduces the need to buy plant food, soil amendments and pesticides.
- Conserves natural resources and replenishes the nutrients lost from soil.
- Improves the structure of soil, making it easier to dig.
- Increases water retention, reducing erosion and the need to water your garden as often.
- Reduces the amount of trash your household generates and ends up in the local landfill. In North Carolina, 25% of a household’s trash is yard trimmings and food scraps that can be composted.
- Diverting organic waste from landfill reduces greenhouse gases and leachate generated from municipal solid waste landfills.
- Reduces costs associated with hauling waste.
What is Backyard Composting?
Backyard composting is an easy and cost-effective way for people to convert their own organic waste materials, such as yard trimmings and fruit and vegetable scraps into a rich soil conditioner in their own backyard.
Many gardeners agree that a backyard compost system is an important part of a healthy garden.
There are 3 main types of backyard compost systems:
- a manufactured compost bin,
- a do-it-yourself (DIY) compost bin,
- and an open pile.
What are the Drawbacks of Backyard Composting?
- Requires a little outdoor space (approximately 4 foot x 4 foot x 4 foot).
- Requires a little time (approximately 5 minutes each week).
- If done incorrectly, can emit odors and attract pests (does neither, when done properly).
What Backyard Composting System Should I Choose?
Manufactured compost bins are a great starting point if you are trying backyard composting for the first time. They are contained systems that take up less space (approximately 3 foot x 3 foot x 3 foot) and are pest resistant. Drawbacks include the initial cost of buying the bin, expect to pay anywhere from $50-$200 for a compost bin. Another drawback is the amount of compost you can produce is limited to the size of the bin. There are several different types of manufactured compost bins available.
Things to look for in a good compost bin include:
- Made from a durable material, which can withstand the elements.
- Adequate ventilation.
- A tight-fitting lid and/or door.
- Conical shape for easy compost removal.
Do-it-yourself (DIY) compost bins or open piles are less expensive alternatives to a manufactured bin and can yield more compost due to their scalable size. You will need an area between 3 foot x 3 foot x 3 foot (minimum) to reach desired temperatures in the middle and 5 foot x 5 foot x 5 foot (maximum) to keep the amount of mixing manageable. Common materials used to construct DIY compost systems include, plastic trashcans, concrete blocks, wooden pallets, chicken wire etc…
Compost heaps are simply open piles of yard waste and food waste and yield the most amount of compost, but keep in mind, the bigger the pile, the longer it takes to mix. Compost heaps are more suitable in rural locations, away from residential structures, as they are open to the local ecosystem. As a source of food and warmth, compost piles can be inviting for small critters to make a home, especially in winter.
The Earth Machine is the most widely used compost bin on the market. It’s basically a plastic dome with air holes on the sides, locking lid and no floor. Food scraps, paper towels, grass clippings, leaves or anything biodegradable like cotton or linen clothing can be dropped in through the lid. Having the bottom of the bin open to the bare earth means that microbes, fungi and earthworms have access to the new food source and will happily come up out of the ground and turn the waste into usable compost. Currituck County offers Earth Machine compost bins at 50% discount in April & May.
Where Should I Place My Backyard Compost System?
After selecting the type of compost system to use in your backyard, you need to decide where to place it. There are a number of important things to consider when placing your compost bin or heap.
- Situated on bare ground/dirt/grass – necessary for the system to drain, and for decomposers/insects to come and go freely.
- Close enough to your home – to make using it convenient, while still in accordance with the local ordinance.
- Close proximity to water – within reach of a hose pipe or rain barrel to maintain the right moisture level.
- Adequate Air Circulation – needed for decomposition to occur. Most manufactured bins have air vents, but they are no good if blocked by a wall or fence.
- Partial Shade – ideal to prevent drying out in the summer, excessive heat build-up in plastic bins, and sudden changes in temperatures.
- Away from structures – structures susceptible to rot should not be in contact with decomposing materials, so do not put your system up against a wooden fence, shed or storage building.
What Can I Put in My Backyard Compost System?
Composting requires 4 basic ingredients:
- Carbon rich materials – or ‘Browns’ as they are often referred to, include things that are dead and dried out, such as dead leaves.
- Nitrogen rich materials – or ‘Greens’ as they are often referred to include things that are freshly cut, such as freshly cut grass clippings.
Carbon and Nitrogen rich materials should be added at a ratio of 2:1, so this means you need twice as many ‘Browns’ to ‘Greens’. If this ratio is not maintained odors will likely develop. Below is a list of organic waste materials suitable for backyard composting.
Examples of Organic Materials that can be Composted
- Dead Leaves (not black walnut trees)
- Twigs & sticks
- Paper napkins & paper towels
- Pizza boxes
- Paper bags, and paper/pulp egg cartons
- Paper drink trays
- Sawdust, wood bark & wood chips
- Newspaper and non-glossy paper
- Nut shells (not walnut)
- Cotton balls
- Cotton, wool, linen, burlap & hemp
- Yarn, thread and string
- Pencil shavings
- Paper baking cups
- Bamboo skewers and toothpicks
- Fresh grass clippings
- Shrub, bush & plant clippings
- Houseplant leaves
- Fruits & vegetables
- Flowers & dead blossoms
- Freezer-burned fruits & vegetables
- Egg shells (rinsed )
- Coffee grounds & filters
- Tea leaves (no bags)
- Old, expired herbs
- Hair, pet fur & feathers
- Beer & wine making dregs
- Hops, beer and wine dregs
- Aquarium algae, plants & seaweed
- Herbivorous animal manure (rabbits, cows, sheep, chickens and horses)
What Should I Not Place in My Backyard Compost?
Some materials may pose a health hazard or create a nuisance and therefore should not be used to make compost. Such item as:
- Animal feces
- Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
- Diseased or insect-infested plants
- Charcoal ash or coal
- Pressure treated lumber, wood or plywood
- Pine Needles
- Heavily coated paper
What Tools Do I Need for Backyard Composting?
Now that you have selected the type of backyard composting system you want and where to place it, it’s time to get started. Here are some handy tools to help you:
- Kitchen container with a tight-fitting lid, to collect food scraps in.
- Watering can or garden hose for watering.
- Loppers/pruners/hedge trimmers for chopping large materials (optional).
- Pitchfork or compost turner (easier to use in a compost bin) for aerating materials (optional).
- Handheld garden fork for burying food scraps (optional).
- Shovel for removing compost.
What Method or ‘Style’ of Composting Should I Choose?
Composting is as much an art as it is a science, in that we all do it a little differently. However, there are 2 main styles of backyard composting:
Also known as Throw-as-You-Go (most common).
Cold composting also know as throw-as-you-go is as simple as collecting yard waste and kitchen scraps like fruit and vegetable peels, eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, and putting them into a pile or bin. The decomposition process takes longer, around 3-12 months. Cold composting may not reach a high enough temperature to kill seeds, but it will produce a nutrient rich, dark, crumbly compost all the same. Most people compost at home using this method.
Also known as Batch style composting.
However, if you are in a hurry to make compost, using the Batch style or ‘hot’ composting will produce results in as little as 2-3 months. The batch style takes a little more planning upfront. You make a batch of compostable materials all at once, using stockpiled items such as a pile of leaves, a pile of grass clippings. Then you layer them in the right amounts to achieve the right balance of Carbon to Nitrogen. This almost guarantees your compost system will reach a higher temperature and decompose faster. One drawback is most people who use this method soon discover they will need another compost system because they stockpiled more ingredients than will fit in their first system, and you cannot add new materials, until the first batch is ready to harvest.
What Are Ideal Conditions for Composting?
- 4 feet x 4 feet x 4 feet ideal size system
- 2:1 ratio of Browns (C) to Greens (N) feedstock
- 131°F – 145°F temperature in the center
- 40% – 60% moisture level
- 6.5 pH – 8.0 pH level (neutral)
- 0.5” – 2.0” particle size
- 5% oxygen level
- >35% porosity (air space)
Ideal conditions courtesy of Rhonda Sherman
Department of Horticultural Science at NC State University
Do You Want Some Useful Tips for Backyard Composting?
- Collect fruit and veggie scraps in a container with a tight-fitting lid, and empty at the first sight of fruit flies.
- Bury fruit and veggie scraps under a layer of ‘Browns’ to prevent flies.
- Avoid putting protein rich foods like, meat, bones, grease, and dairy products in your compost system. These can smell and attract bigger critters.
- Avoid adding yard waste treated with chemicals, such as herbicides or pesticides, especially if you plan to put finished compost on edible plants.
- Avoid adding weeds that have gone to seed unless you can reach temperatures higher than 135°F in your compost bin.
- Don’t add worms to your compost pile, decomposers should be free to come and go.
- If you don’t have the strength to mix your pile with a pitchfork/compost turner simply poking holes in your pile with something long and thin, like a stick will also work.
- If your compost system does not have a lid, cover with a tarp to hold in moisture.
- Water your system when it looks/feels dry. If the system dries out it will become dormant. It should remain moist like a wrung-out sponge, but never soggy.
- If you experience odors, add/mix in more “Browns”.
- Finished compost, smells earthy like soil, is dark brown to black in color, has a crumbly texture, and none of the original materials should be recognizable.
- Add finished compost to your beds one month before planting.
- You can send compost (as a “waste sample”) for testing to North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to test for nutrients.