Earliest archaeological records of composting dates back to around 2320 BC with the discovery of a set of clay tablets. The discovery that compost could fertilise and improve soil occured as civilisation moved from hunting and gathering to tending fields and livestock. Fast forward to present day, and this ancient gardening technique is still being used.
Unfortunately the art of composting, which was once common knowledge and a daily habit, has largely been forgotten as a result of fewer households growing food and as more people moved to the cities (with waste disposal a standard municipality service). There are also misconceptions that home composting is too complicated and too smelly.
However thanks to pandemic lockdowns, there has been a renewed interest in self-reliance activities such as growing food and vegetable gardening. Consequently, the humble activity of composting to create low-cost soil conditioner is gaining traction. Plus, composting is a great way to keep green waste out of landfills thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions and thus mitigating climate change.
Different types of compost systems
Composting is easy once you understand the basics; if you want to garden more seriously, you can even approach it more scientifically or not – it’s all up to you. In this article, we’re sharing basic composting tips for beginners.
So first things first, you’ll need a compost system. The four common types of compost systems are: classic plastic bins, tumblers, homemade open bay and Bokashi composting.
Before you decide on the system, you’ll need to consider the following:
- How much food scraps and green waste do you/your household throw out each week?
- Where will you put the compost system? For example, if you don’t have a backyard, where will you put it?
- What is your budget?
- When will you need the compost by?
Deciding on which compost system to choose will depend on your answers to the above questions. There are pros and cons to each system.
Pros: Stand-alone, easy to move around the yard, compact, no fuss and budget-friendly, water drainage is also easier given it’s placed on a surface.
Cons: Minimal ventilation so rots slowly (anaerobic decomposition) and will require you to aerate it once in a while with a pitchfork; as a result, it takes longer to create usable compost.
Pros: Makes turning compost easier, faster composting (aerobic decomposition due to more oxygen for bacteria and fungi to help break down matter), fewer rodents due to closed system, looks tidier.
Cons: Size of compost pile will be limited to size of drum.
Pros: Higher compost volumes because takes up larger surface area, can make one yourself from old wooden pallets.
Cons: Not suitable for apartment dwellers, potential for rodent and other pest infestations.
Pros: Ideal for renters and those living in apartments; fits in kitchen cupboard.
Cons: Fills up quickly and can be costly when add up the cost of the Bokashi mix (the food source for the micro-organisms that help to break down the green waste).
What to compost
Most people divide compost ingredients into two groups: ‘browns’ which are carbon-rich natural ingredients, and ‘greens’ which are nitrogen-rich ingredients.
Here is a list of common materials you can throw into your compost:
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Grass and plant clippings
- Cut flowers
- Coffee grounds
- Egg shells (crush them to help accelerate the decomposition process)
- Tea leaves and plastic-free tea bags
- Dry leaves
- Sawdust (from untreated wood)
- Shredded newspaper
- Wood chips
- Cotton fabric and natural fibres
What not to compost
It’s not always clear-cut what can be composted as it is dependent on the individual. Here are some common ingredients that people avoid placing in their compost systems either due to human health concerns, pest and rodent concerns, or smell:
- Meat and dairy products (you can if you want to but be wary of attracting rodents)
- Diseased plant materials
- Sawdust from treated timber
- Pet faeces (use a separate pet composting system for these)
- Fat and oils
How to compost
An easy way to compost is using the layering method. As the name implies, you simply layer the ‘brown’ and ‘green’ matter into your compost system. This method is ideal for open bay systems and plastic bin systems.
Here’s how the layering method works:
- Start your compost pile with layers of cardboard or newspaper (brown matter).
- Next, add a layer of green matter such as grass clippings or veggie scraps.
- Then alternate your piles between browns and greens until you reach the top of the open bay or plastic bin.
- Water the compost pile to keep it moist and leave it for 3-6 months.
- Regularly check on the pile and use a pitchfork if need be to check that all matter has broken down.
- You’ll know it’s ready when the compost has broken down and is dark and crumbly and you can see lots of worm and bug life. Spread over your veggie gardens to improve soil fertility.
For the tumbler composting system, a good start is to aim for the 50:50 carbon/nitrogen ratio and just monitor it as you keep adding more green or brown ingredients.
For Bokashi composting, read this post for a comprehensive step-by-step guide.
Common composting issues
Even with the best intentions and efforts, you may still have issues, particularly with your carbon and nitrogen rations. Here are some common composting problems and solutions.
Problem #1: Not breaking down quickly enough.
Solution: Aerate the pile by turning it over as it’s not getting enough air. Also make sure to cut up your particles so that they break down quicker.
Problem #2: It’s smelly.
Solution: Turn pile to aerate it and add more ‘browns’ because it’s too wet which is causing the odor.
Problem #3: It’s attracting rodents.
Solution: Avoid placing food scraps, dairy and meats into the compost bin and make sure that any food scraps are not exposed. Check to see how they may be getting in to the bin and deal with that problem either by placing the bin on concrete or ensuring lids are secure.
Other helpful resources
To learn more about composting, check out the classic book on composting The Rodale Book of Composting as well as Organic Book of Compost. There are also plenty of YouTube tutorials that you can access for free that will step through the process if you’re a visual learner.
If you’re renting a room in a sharehouse or live in a small space, check out our post, “I Live in an Apartment and Have Been Composting for a Year. Here’s My Advice...”.
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