DIY Compost

Humans have been composting for thousands of years to improve the health of our soil, food, and planet. Now you (and your garden or lawn) can also reap the benefits of composting.

And here is how:

All compost requires four primary ingredients: air, moisture, carbon (which we’ll refer to as “browns”), and nitrogen (which we’ll refer to as “greens”). Browns consist of plant-based materials such as dead leaves, branches, twigs, newspaper, and unbleached brown napkins. Greens consist of materials such as grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, and coffee grounds. In general, you’ll want to add slightly more browns than greens. (If you run out of browns, ask neighbors to donate their extra leaves, twigs, or newspapers. If you live in a city, it’s easy to find browns—just raid the free newspaper dispensers!)

In order for decomposers (bacteria, fungi, and insects) to do their thing, compost also needs air and moisture (more on this later). Decomposition is an energy-intensive process, and aerobic bacteria produce heat as a side effect. Expect the compost to get very warm—even hotter than 50 degrees Celsius in the center of a pile!

Establishing Your Own Compost


There are two ways to compost outside: In a pile (just like it sounds) or in a composting bin (basically a contained pile). If you’re only planning to compost leaves, grass clippings, and other non-food materials, then a pile should be just fine. The City of Johannesburg recommends opting for a bin if you’re planning to compost food waste, too (in order to prevent rodents).

To compost in a pile:

  1. Start by selecting a dry, shady spot near a water source (such as a spigot). Ideally, the area will be about three feet wide by three feet tall (though it’s possible to have larger or smaller piles). Try to keep the compost away from garden beds (in case it attracts pests, who might want to eat the foods in your garden!).
  2. If desired, give the pile some structure with chicken wire, snow fencing, or by nailing scrap wood together to make a box.
  3. Next, start adding browns and greens, in equal parts, as they’re collected (be sure to chop up larger sticks and shred big pieces of newspaper before adding them).
  4. If the first materials you add are dry, moisten them as you go by lightly spraying the compost with water until it’s damp (but not soaked).
  5. Once things have started decomposing (you’ll be able to tell because they’ll start to change shape and color), mix in grass clippings, more greens, and fruit and vegetable scraps (try to bury the food scraps under other decomposing material).
  6. Every time you add materials to the pile (or at least once a week), “fluff” the pile by turning it with a pitchfork. This will promote aeration, which is essential to the decomposition process.
  7. Optionally, you can lay a tarp across the top of the compost to keep in moisture.

To compost in a bin:

The process for using a bin is virtually identical to composting in a pile, only it takes place in (you guessed it) a bin. Bins can be purchased from retail or mail-order businesses. They come in a variety of styles, so make sure to do your research to see which best suits your space and needs. Store-bought bins can be pretty expensive; luckily, it’s pretty easy to make your own bin or tumbler(a bin that can be easily turned with a handle).

Pro tip: If your compost pile or bin is outside, it’s useful to set up a little bin inside (mine is on the kitchen counter). Add compostable kitchen scraps to this bin until it’s full, and then dump the contents in the bigger compost pile to save on trips outside.

Using Your Compost

Compost is ready to use in gardens and lawns when the material is dark and rich in color and you can’t identify remnants of food or yard waste (If the compost looks mostly ready but there are still a few chunks of material, use a screen to sift out the chunks and add them back to the pile before using the garden-ready compost). Be patient: This can be a lengthy process, especially for outdoor composts, which are affected by a variety of factors (including weather, pests, compost composition, etc). Outdoor compost can take anywhere from two months to two years to be garden-ready, while indoor bins can produce viable compost in just two to five weeks. Once the compost is ready, apply it to lawns and gardens to give soil a hearty dose of nutrients. This will ensure that the soil stays healthy and is able to grow healthy crops for years to come.

For anyone new to composting, there’s bound to be a period of trial and error—don’t get discouraged!

Very soon you will reap the benefits. \


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