A Guide to Setting up a Simple Backyard Compost System

Gardening Guides from The Kitchn

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Over the past five years, working with Denver Urban Gardens, I came to understand why so many gardeners call compost "black gold." Now that I have been able to transition to a personal home garden, finding a way to easily compost was essential. Just this week, my boyfriend and I installed a two-bin compost system in our backyard, and we are already in love with it. I am even finding that even a lot of the things that were going into my recycling bin are now finding a home in my compost bin.

Here are a few of the things we considered when building our new compost system, along with some lessons learned over the years. Let's get our hands dirty!

What Is Composting, Anyway?

First, what exactly is composting? Composting is taking your kitchen scraps and waste, and helping them decompose into soil that incredibly good for your garden. It's basically controlling and speeding along nature's decomposition process by recycling organic matter and transforming it into a nutrient rich soil amendment. It is a sort of "reincarnation," if you think about it.

Consider the following points, and you will be well on your way to making composting a part of your daily life.

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Location

When you are planning an outdoor compost system, choose a location with access to a water source, in an area that receives moderate sunlight. You do not want to completely dry out the composting material, but the added heat from sunlight does speed along the process.

What You Can Put In Your Compost Bin

Add both nitrogen-based (or green) and carbon-based (or brown) items into your compost bin.

To get the breakdown process started and keep it going, maintain a ratio of green to brown at about 1:2.

Green

  • Vegetable and fruit scraps
  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Egg and nut shells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags
  • Bread products
  • Manure (from cows, sheep, chicken, or rabbits)
  • Flat beer

Brown

  • Cardboard products
  • Dead leaves, branches, pine cones and needles
  • Paper egg cartons
  • Sawdust and hay
  • Untreated wood
  • Tissues and newspaper
  • Lint
  • Shredded junk mail
  • Wine corks (I happen to have a lot of these in my compost pile!)

What You Shouldn't Put in Your Compost Bin

Most compost systems do not reach the necessary internal temperature to completely kill any bacteria present in the following items, so it is best to leave them out. Adding synthetic components can actually destroy the microorganisms necessary for the composting process.

  • Bones and meat
  • Fats and cooking oils
  • Dairy products
  • Waste from dogs or cats
  • Treated wood
  • Weeds or diseased plants
  • Yard clippings with pesticides or herbicides on them

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Size and Style

Here is where some creativity comes in to play. If you live in a small apartment, consider vermicomposting, a tabletop composter, or a small bin that fits onto a balcony. For small-scale composting, a single bin or tumbler-style bin is perfect.

If you have a fair amount of yard and garden matter to work with, I recommend a two- or three-bin system, like I am using (pictured above). The benefits here? You will always have an actively composting bin and another that is already cured and ready to use.

Like a less-structured, freestyle approach? If you are not concerned with aesthetics, employ a "no-bin" style: find an out-of-the way space in your yard and just make a pile. Layer the "green" and "brown" components, give a good watering, and till. In the fall, cover with a tarp, and let the compost continue developing over the winter. You can even bury kitchen and garden scraps directly into the soil between rows of vegetables and within beds. Composting can be that easy!

The Necessary Steps

The basic steps for composting are:

  1. Layering
  2. Watering
  3. Turning
  4. Repeating.

Begin by building your compost bin on well-drained soil. I laid a layer of flagstone and gravel in my bin, to aid with drainage. Fill your backyard compost bin with a 6-inch layer of "brown" matter and a 2- to 3-inch layer of "green" matter. Water until moist, but not soggy, similar to the feel of a damp sponge. Repeat the layering process and turn. The more frequently you turn, the faster the organic material will break down.

The compost is ready when it resembles the color of healthy soil, has a loamy consistency, and wafts a pleasant, earthy aroma your way. The finished compost will be ready anywhere between about two months and a year, depending upon what goes into your compost, your ratio, and how often you turn.

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Common Problems and How to Fix Them

  • Compost is smelly - You are most likely not tilling enough to allow for proper air circulation, or you may have watered too much. Just add dry "brown" material and turn.
  • Compost has stalled - Your compost might be too dry. Add more "green" material, water, and turn.
  • Compost is slimy - There might be too much moisture in the mix. Add more "brown" material, back off on watering, and turn.

Keys to Successful Composting

  • Take time to break larger pieces into smaller sizes to speed up the process.
  • Be mindful of the 1:2 ratio of "greens" to "browns."
  • Activate a new compost bin using a shovelful of soil from your garden, in order to introduce beneficial microorganisms, or opt to purchase a compost activator at your garden center.

Composting for Anyone

Still feel overwhelmed, or are you short on time or space? As I mentioned earlier, try indoor composting. I also recommend checking out local community gardens in your area. Many welcome your kitchen and garden waste in their own composting programs. Perhaps your city has a bio-waste pickup program, so you can simply set out your compostable material by the street. Regardless of your constraints, there are options to participate in this exciting process!

As soon as you begin composting, your garden will rejoice. Your friends might even celebrate your new hobby and send you their unwanted kitchen scraps. One of my girlfriends gives me the leftover pulp from her daily juicing. She is definitely getting some of my tomatoes later in the season in return!

Have you had success with composting, or are you giving it a shot this season? What are or were your biggest hurdles to overcome?

(Image credits: Jayme Henderson)

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