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Composting 101

Turn unwanted items such as pine needles, coffee grounds, leaves, and fruit peels into compost; you’ll improve your soil and create a rich garden. Create a homemade compost program can both help the environment and provide fertilizer garden.

Courtesy of Better Homes and Gardens ®

Start with the Basics of Composting

It's easy to cook up your own compost, but before you let the pile stack up, you need to know the two types of composting: cold and hot. In either case you’ll be layering organic materials with a dash of dirt to create a concoction that turns into the best soil builder around.

Cold composting is simply taking out the organic materials in your trash such as fruit and vegetable peels, salad leftovers, and egg shells and corralling them in a pile or bin. It will only take a year or so for the material to decompose.

Hot composting is for the more serious gardener and only requires four ingredients.  They are: fresh "green" plant material, dry "brown" plant material, air, and water. Together, these items feed microorganisms, which speed up the process of decay. Hot composting only takes one to three months during warm weather.

To create your own organic hot-compost heap, wait until you have enough material to make a pile at least 3 feet deep. Then, to ensure an even composition, create alternating 4- to 8-inch layers of green and brown materials. Green materials consist of vegetable scraps, grass clippings, and plant trimmings. Brown materials include dried leaves and shredded newspaper. Sprinkle water over the pile regularly so it has the consistency of a damp sponge. Don't add too much water or the microorganisms will become waterlogged and won't heat the pile properly. You can check the temperature of the pile with a thermometer or simply reach into the middle of the pile with your hand.

During the growing season, you should provide the pile with oxygen by turning it once a week with a garden fork. The best time to turn the compost is when the center of the pile feels warm or the thermometer reads between 130 and 150 degrees. Stirring up the pile helps it cook faster and prevents material from becoming matted down and developing a bad odor. At this point, the layers have served their purpose of creating equal amounts of green and brown materials throughout the pile, so stir thoroughly.

When the compost no longer gives off heat and becomes dry, brown, and crumbly, it's fully cooked and ready to feed to the garden.

Composting 101

Compost is a key ingredient
in a lush, easy-to-maintain

Good Greens for Your Compost
• Fruit scraps
• Vegetable scraps
• Eggshells
• Coffee grounds
• Grass and plant clippings

Good Browns for Your Compost
• Dry leaves
• Finely chopped wood and bark chips
• Shredded newspaper
• Straw
• Sawdust from untreated wood

Bad for Your Compost
• Anything containing meat, oil, fat, grease
• Diseased plant materials
• Sawdust or chips from pressure-treated wood
• Dog or cat feces
• Weeds that go to seed
• Dairy products

Types of Composting Containers

A Simple Bin

Composting 101

A simple wire-fence bin makes
an inexpensive compost corral


A bin helps contain your compost pile and makes it more attractive. While you can buy a commercial plastic container from a garden center, it's easy to build your own. A simple circular or square structure can be made from fencing wire. The bin should be at least 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep to provide enough space for materials to heat up. Use untreated wood or metal fence posts for the corners and wrap wire fencing around them. The fence mesh should be small enough that materials won't fall out. When the compost is ready, unwind the wire and scoop the compost from the bottom of the pile. Then re-pile the not-yet-decomposed materials and wrap the wire back around the heap.

Top-loading, bottom-unloading bin.

Permanent Bins
More permanent bins can be constructed of wood or masonry blocks. Here, boards are added to the bin's front as the pile grows taller. 

Triple bin.

Compost Condo
While one compost pile is good, many hard-core gardeners feel three is better. By building a trio of bins, you can compost in stages: one bin will be ready, one will be brewing, and one will just be starting. A triple bin is best for a more active composting system. Turn the pile into the next bin when it reaches peak internal heat. 

Tumbler-style composter.

Compost Tumblers
Tumbler-style composters come in several configurations. The most common are the horizontal drums that are mounted on wheels or axles to allow mixing of materials.


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