I'm about to give you the deep, dark secrets of composting.  Ready?

Compostable materials—vegetable kitchen scraps, manure, grass clippings, leaves, shredded paper, straw, etc.—fall into two categories.  The "greens" are nitrogen-rich sources of compost.  As their name implies, they are often green in color, but manure and coffee grounds are also considered greens because of their high nitrogen level.  The mental test is simple.  (Please don't actually do this!)  If you put it in a closed plastic container, would it get stinky and rotten?  If the answer is "yes", then you're dealing with a green!  The "browns" are composting sources that are almost all carbon with very little nitrogen left.  Things like dead leaves and paper won't do much of anything on their own in an airtight container.

Take a little more browns than greens.  Throw them together outside in a big pile.  If it gets dry, water it.  If it doesn't heat up or later gets cold, add a greater percentage of greens.  If it starts stinking, add a greater percentage of browns.  You will get compost faster if you occasionally turn the pile, but I'm too lazy for that and prefer to just wait it out.  (To be perfectly honest, I almost never water, either.)

If you have far more leaves than anything else, you can cold compost them by themselves and get a rich leaf mold, but instead of the six months that hot composting takes, expect to wait two years.  It's helpful to screen the compost before you use it to remove any large pieces that haven't been broken down.  A piece of chicken wire on a frame of 2x4s works fine, though some people make fancier solutions with rotating drums and the like.

Voila.  That's it.  You're now the neighborhood compost expert.

No matter how you maintain your compost, you will typically need at least a 3'x3' pile to make enough mass to keep the center nice and hot.  There is nothing wrong with a pile on the ground.  A bin, however, will cut time to compost and keep things neat.  Don't fall for those overpriced composters in the gardening catalogs.  Here are a few cheap ideas that will work for almost everyone.

  • If you have a source for free used wooden pallets, you can make a nice frame for a big compost heap with two pallets to a side.  It will eventually rot away, but only after many years of faithful service.
  • A simple, cheap bin can be made of new materials by driving four green-painted utility fence posts into the ground three to four feet apart.  Hook chicken wire around it, leaving a few extra inches loose to ensure that when you open a side to gain access it will be easy to close again.
  • A pricier but prettier bin can be made with preformed fencing sections from a hardware store.  I love these from Lowe's, though next time I'm going to line them with chicken wire, since I lose too much compost through the wire.  This is still much cheaper than any prefabricated options, and I like how easy it is to lift off a side for access.

Keep in mind that you will eventually need a minimum of two bins or piles—one for finished compost, and one for compost in progress.  Some people have three—finished, still composting, and being actively added to.  Choose what works for you, and happy composting!

This has been a guest post by Genevieve from Bowie, MD
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Tips on How to Compost