If you are just starting out on your homesteading journey, a great first step is learning how to compost. Starting your first compost bin can be really exciting for us homesteading/self-sufficiency geeks. Finally! Freedom from the garbage collectors! Or is that just me? It’s possible to mess compost up, (and believe me, I know how NOT to compost) but it’s even easier to get it right. In fact, even if you really screw up your compost pile if you leave it alone long enough chances are it’ll work out.
But here’s how to make compost the right way!
It’s really, super duper simple. Pile half “green” things and half “brown” things in and mix them up with a little water until they turn into amazing nutrients for your garden. The end.
DIY Compost Bin
Okay, maybe you want a little more detail on how to start composting. I know I did when I first started. The first thing I wanted to know was how to make a DIY compost bin, preferably a free one. The winner there was getting four pallets for free , then lashing them together in a cube with baling twine. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s fast to put up and take down if you want to move it. You can pull of just one side for turning, and you can make as many sections to it as you want if you need more space.
My other favorite compost bin that I’ve had is a little black plastic one that a neighbor gave me. I like it because it’s small so I have to turn it frequently instead of procrastinating and it’s short enough that my chickens can get into it easily. I don’t harvest the finished compost out of the tiny little door on the bottom though. THAT’s a pain. I pick up the whole bin, move it over a few feet and pile any unfinished compost back into it, then scoop up anything that’s ready for the garden into a bucket and haul it away.
Browns versus Greens
After you have a bin it’s time to put stuff in it. Brown things are items that are high in carbon, such as leaves, straw, small branches, paper, wood chips, and sawdust. Green items are high in nitrogen, which is kitchen scraps, grass trimmings, freshly pulled weeds, and animal manure.
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If you have too much brown your pile will take too long to break down. Too much green, and it will use anaerobic decomposition, which is smelly, as opposed to aerobic decomposition. You also need to have the entire pile slightly damp throughout. If it’s hot and dry, add a little water. I like to dump dirty animal water into my pile in the summer to keep it moist. I also wash out bunny litter boxes over the compost to catch that run off as well. If there’s not enough water from the chores that day I might give it a squirt when I refill the goat’s water. In the winter, a piece of plywood, or even some cardboard over the top will help it shed water and stay at an ideal moisture level.
I threw all my scraps and leaves in a bin. Now what?
Every week (haha, yeah right, like that’s going to happen around here!) turn your compost to mix the layers of brown and green, and to increase air flow. You can use a shovel, although a pitchfork may be easier, and mix it up. I like to move it into a new compost bin, because that way I know I’ve reached the entire pile, but I also tend to procrastinate more because then it’s a bigger job. Just keep it nice and airy and you should be fine. When it’s broken down you can start spreading it on your gardens for an awesome nutrient boost for your plants. If it’s not completely broken down you can still use it like a mulch, especially if the original ingredients are mostly indistinguishable. I also like to keep my compost bin inside my chicken run. This makes it easier to feed the chickens supplemental weeds and kitchen scraps, and they keep the pile nice and turned for me.
Composting for the Lazy
You can even compost right IN your gardens without using a bin at all. That’s called sheet composting, and you still need to keep a ratio of browns to greens, but you layer them on top of each other, finishing with a layer of brown for aesthetics. It’s usually a good idea to no make your layers too high when you are sheet composting, because you want the soil microbes and the worms to jump start the process for you and start breaking things down, but if you are starting a new garden bed in the fall and it’s going to “cook” overwinter you can get away with a lot more bulk than when you are cultivating a delicate front yard garden of salad greens. If you use the sheet composting method and your mulch is still in place when it’s time to plant seeds or transplants, rake it all to the side, do your planting, and when they are established, rake it back into place. This ensures the newly planted seeds have good contact with the soil, and then prevents weeds from crowding your new plants. You can also simply bury your kitchen scraps directly into your garden, and let the earthworms do the work for you, without fussing too much with layers and mulching. It builds your soil, and requires minimal effort.
If you live in an apartment you can still compost! Worm bins are a great small space composting method. You can raid someone’s compost pile for red wrigglers, or you can purchase them. They need a box or plastic tub to live in (about 2 gallons), filled with a couple inches of lightly moistened leaves or shredded newspaper and a light sprinkling of soil. Bury your kitchen scraps weekly in a corner of the worm bin and the worms will migrate to the food and eat it, turning your waste into nutrient rich castings.
The easiest way to harvest the worm compost is to set up a tiered bin using three plastic tubs. The bottom of the lowest layer is solid for collecting the compost tea. The next two bins have 1/4 inch holes drilled in the bottoms to allow the worms to travel upwards, and in the sides for airflow. Start your worm bin in the center box and when it’s time to harvest the casting place their new food and bedding in the box above them. As they run out of yummy snacks they will move into the new bin, leaving their castings below for you to harvest. Working Worms has a page with pictures of this type of bin.
The biggest problem I have seen with worm bins is fruit flies. If that becomes a problem feed your worms more vegetable scraps and put a hold on the fruits for awhile. You can save up your kitchen scraps for your worms by placing them in a brown paper bag in the freezer between feedings. Worms are a little more particular than outside compost bins. They like things at a particular temperature (60-80 degrees, hey, just like me!), and they like their moisture to be just right (slightly damp like a wrung out sponge). If you get it right your worms will feast and multiply, and if you get it wrong they will either attempt to crawl out of your worm bin, or die. Which is sad. I don’t keep a worm bin at the moment because I have more than enough chickens and goats clamoring to eat my refuse, but it’s still a great option for smaller spaces.
Compost Chicken Manure
Another easy way of composting is to do a deep litter method in your animal pens. I do this for all of mine, rabbits, goats, and chickens. You spread a small layer of straw on the bottom of the coop/shed/hutch/run, and daily you spread a little more to cover any refuse you see. The straw keeps it clean and absorbs the moisture and the smell. Every six months or so dig it all out. The bottom layers will have composted down and can be used in the garden. The upper layers can go into a compost bin as a nice jump start (especially the rabbit-pee soaked straw; that gets a pile HOT!), or you can use them to mulch empty garden beds. If they are heavy on the nitrogen you can also use them as a mulch if you mix it with a high carbon mulch such as wood chips.
Whether you are a gardener or raise animals, compost is your friend. Find a way to make it work for you, make things easier, and grow huge vegetables. I know you can do it!
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My Favorite Compost Books