Those who are not yet living the homesteading dream may be confused about the passion with which homesteaders talk about compost but homesteaders, even backyard gardeners, know the tremendous difference compost can make in their gardens. There are several different composting techniques, including vermicomposting, making it a simple project anyone can undertake.
You may have read guides that make composting seem complicated but there is no reason to feel intimidated. If you follow a few simple guidelines, you will be planting seeds in nutrient-rich soil you made yourself!
Compost is a mixture of decomposed organic material that is used as a potting medium or fertilizer. Making compost is easy, it saves money otherwise spent on fertilizers and potting soil, and it makes good use of kitchen and yard scraps. It may seem like there is nothing you, as an individual, can do for the environment but composting is something that truly makes a difference. Twenty-eight percent of residential trash headed for a landfill is made up of food scraps and yard waste. When you compost these materials properly at home, they will break down into usable compost within weeks. When these items are taken to a closed-off landfill, those same materials can take decades to decompose, all the while releasing methane into the air.
The first, and most important, thing to know before you begin your compost pile is exactly what you can and cannot add to the bin. These are often divided into categories called wet (or green) and dry (or brown) materials. Green materials provide nitrogen to the mix and include things like fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves, grass clippings, coffee and tea grounds, and filters. Brown materials add carbon and include dry, dead leaves, wood shavings or sawdust, shredded paper, twigs, and dryer lint.
Never add meat, bones, animal fat, or dairy to your compost. Eggshells can be added, but they need to be rinsed out before composting.
The second most important thing to provide your compost is oxygen. As organic materials decompose, they oxidize carbon for energy, using oxygen and producing carbon dioxide. Sufficient oxygen prevents this process from becoming anaerobic and producing the rotten-egg smell many people worry about when beginning a compost pile.
If you can compost outdoors, there are two basic options, which you can customize as you see fit. These options are the open bin and the closed bin, which are exactly what they sound like.
The open bin is exposed to air and is usually a three-bin system. There is an active pile, a decomposing pile, and a finished pile. The active pile is where you regularly add food and yard scraps you want to compost. As the material begins to break down, transfer it to the decomposing pile. Once the material is completely broken down, transfer it to the finished pile.
The material in the middle of the active and decomposing pile is exposed to more heat and breaks down more quickly than the material on the edges of the pile. In order to allow all material to decompose, the piles should be turned once a week. Simply flip it with a pitchfork or rake.
The closed bin is most often a tumbler because a closed system needs to be aerated daily. As you turn the drum of the tumbler, the materials move around and open up air pockets, which provide needed oxygen. Once the waste material reaches 4 inches from the top of the tumbler, stop adding waste materials. For a household with less material, a single-chamber tumbler will be sufficient. If you want to constantly add waste material, opt for a double-chamber tumbler.
Apartment homesteaders are in a somewhat different situation when it comes to composting. Even homeowners who live within homeowner association restrictions will need to find an alternative to backyard compost piles. Luckily, indoor composting is a viable option. By introducing one addition to your bin, composting is quick and odor-free.
What magic ingredient makes indoor composting possible? Earthworms. Red wigglers, to be exact. This is called vermicomposting and the worms—able to consume half their body weight in food scraps every day—make quick work of kitchen scraps. Material passes through the worm’s body and becomes vermicompost, an incredibly nutrient-rich soil amendment. There are bins you can purchase that fit under your cabinet, sit on your countertop, or stand on the floor, but you can easily make your own vermicomposting bin with a few simple materials.
A vermicomposting bin needs to start with at least one pound of red wigglers. Consider the amount of scraps you produce from your kitchen before opting for more worms. One pound of worms requires a 14-gallon plastic bin with a lid. Purchase a second lid or a lipped baking sheet. You will also need an electric drill.
Drill holes around the top of the bin, one of the lids for oxygen, and around the base of the bin. In the worm bin, there will be liquid runoff. The drain holes around the base let the liquid drain out.
Fill the bin two-thirds full with shredded newspaper. Moisten it with a spray bottle and fluff. Place your bin on top of the second lid or baking sheet. Add your red wigglers and food scraps. Feed them food scraps daily and cover with newspaper.
In three months, your scraps and paper strips will be compost. Move the finished compost to one side of the bin and add fresh newspaper strips to the other side. Add food scraps to the fresh paper side for one month, enticing the worms to move from the finished compost. After one month, remove the finished compost from the bin.
Worms can be added to outdoor bins to accelerate the breakdown of organic materials, and you can opt to keep your worm bin on your patio if you live in an apartment. Worms cannot be exposed to direct sunlight, so be sure there is always a layer of newspaper strips on top of the waste material. Worms are also susceptible to freezing, so cover your bin as you would your most tender plants.
Whether you are looking for a responsible way to decrease plant disease, increase crop yields, or are just beginning your homestead journey, it’s important to understand everything comes from dirt. The healthier your soil, the better your homestead. Compost is the easiest, most environmentally-friendly way to build soil. Composting is also a project you can start small and grow. One more unexpected bonus—compost is a huge hit at local farmers’ markets and plant sales. Your kitchen scraps can be turned into cash!