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The Ultimate Guide to Composting at Home – Tips for Beginners

Updated: May 7

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Growing up, my Nani's village house always felt like a haven, especially her garden out front. It was an explosion of colors, with roses, marigolds, and vegetables all thriving under her care. The secret to her success? The homemade compost she'd expertly create using kitchen scraps and yard waste. That earthy smell and the sight of her turning the compost pile are etched in my memory. Today, I want to share some of Nani's simple but powerful composting tips, so you too can transform your garden into a lush paradise.

So if you are looking for ways to reduce waste, live more sustainably, and create a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your garden then composting at home is an excellent solution! 

Not only is it easy and environmentally friendly, but it also produces "black gold" to help your plants thrive.

What is Composting?

Let's start with the basics. Composting is the natural process of recycling organic matter like food scraps and yard waste, transforming them into a nutrient-rich soil amendment called compost. It's like nature's very own recycling plant!

Benefits of Composting

Why should you compost? The benefits are numerous! Composting:

  • Reduces landfill waste: A significant portion of our trash is compostable material. Composting helps keep this out of overflowing landfills.

  • Enriches your soil: Compost adds valuable nutrients back to the soil, fostering healthy plant growth.

  • Reduces the need for chemical fertilizers: This makes your garden more organic and sustainable.

  • Improves soil structure: Compost makes soil more porous, enhancing its ability to hold water and air.

  • Attracts beneficial organisms: Compost creates a welcoming environment for earthworms and other beneficial microbes.

Getting Started: Basic Composting Tips for beginners! 

1. Choose Your Composting Method

There are several ways to compost. Here are some popular options:

  • Compost Bin: A contained system for easy composting, ideal for smaller yards.

  • Compost Tumbler: An enclosed system that's easy to rotate for faster decomposition.

  • Open Compost Pile: A simple, direct method is perfect if you have space.

  • Worm Composting (Vermicomposting): This method uses red wiggler worms to create nutrient-rich compost.

2. Select a Location

Your compost setup needs:

  • Sunlight: Speeds up the decomposition process. Partial shade is okay too.

  • Accessibility: Choose a spot you can easily reach to add materials and maintain the compost.

  • Drainage: Avoid areas prone to waterlogging.

3. The Essentials: What to Compost

Let's break down what you can and cannot compost:

  • "Greens" (Nitrogen-rich):

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps

  • Coffee grounds and filters

  • Tea bags (remove staples)

  • Grass clippings

  • Eggshells (crushed)

  • "Browns" (Carbon-rich):

  • Dry leaves

  • Shredded paper and cardboard (non-glossy)

  • Straw or hay

  • Wood chips and sawdust (untreated)

  • Dryer Lint (from natural fibers)

  • What to Avoid:

  • Meat, fish, and bones (attract pests and odors)

  • Dairy products

  • Fats and oils

  • Diseased plants

  • Pet waste

  • Weeds that have gone to seed.

How to Build Your Compost Pile?

Here's a step-by-step guide:

  1. Start with a layer of browns: This allows for drainage and air circulation at the base.

  2. Alternate greens and browns: Create layers like a delicious compost lasagna!

  3. Keep it moist: Your pile should feel like a damp sponge, not soggy.

  4. Mix and turn: Occasionally turning your pile with a pitchfork speeds decomposition and ensures even breakdown.

  5. Smaller is better: Chop up larger items to speed up the process

Troubleshooting Compost Problems

1. Bad Odors

  • Causes: Bad odors from a compost pile typically suggest an imbalance in the compost's composition. This can often be due to an excess of nitrogen-rich materials, commonly referred to as "greens" (like kitchen scraps and grass clippings), or from having too much moisture which creates anaerobic conditions.

  • Solutions: To remedy this, introduce more carbon-rich materials, or "browns" (such as dried leaves, straw, or shredded newspaper), which help absorb excess moisture and balance the nitrogen. Also, aerating the pile by turning it more frequently will introduce oxygen, which is crucial for aerobic decomposition and helps reduce odors.

2. Attracting Pests

  • Causes: Pests are attracted to compost piles because they are potential food sources. The inclusion of meat, dairy products, fats, and oils in compost provides strong odors that can attract animals and insects.

  • Solutions: To prevent attracting pests, avoid adding these materials to your compost. Additionally, bury any kitchen scraps deep within the compost pile, covering them with a thick layer of browns. This not only minimizes odors that attract pests but also accelerates their breakdown.

3. Slow Decomposition

  • Causes: A compost pile that decomposes slowly may lack sufficient nitrogen, or "greens", which are essential for microbial activity that breaks down organic matter. Another common issue could be inadequate moisture, as water is necessary for the microbes to thrive and function efficiently.

  • Solutions: Boosting the decomposition process involves adding more greens to your pile, such as vegetable peels, coffee grounds, or fresh grass clippings. These additions should be balanced with browns to maintain proper carbon-to-nitrogen ratios. Also, ensure the pile remains moist but not waterlogged; it should feel like a wrung-out sponge. Regular turning helps distribute moisture and greens throughout the pile, facilitating faster and more effective decomposition.

Harvesting Your Compost at Home!

Congratulations on reaching the final step of your composting journey! When it's ready, your compost will be dark, and crumbly and emit a pleasant, earthy aroma—a sure sign you've done things right. Typically, it takes several months to get to this stage, depending on how well you've managed your compost pile.

Now, let’s talk about how to harvest that black gold:

  • Pause Fresh Additions: First things first, stop tossing new scraps and greens into the pile. This break allows the materials already in there to fully break down without new stuff piling on top.

  • Let It Finish Up: Give your pile a little more time to work its magic. This rest period is crucial for allowing the entire batch to decompose evenly.

  • Sifting Time: Once you feel your compost is uniformly decomposed, it’s time to sift through it. Use a mesh screen to separate the fine, finished compost from the larger, unbroken pieces. Don't worry about the chunks that didn't make it through the sieve—they're just not ready yet. Simply toss them back into your new compost pile for another round.

  • Enjoy Your Compost: Now for the best part! Take your beautifully finished, nutrient-rich compost and spread the love around your garden. Your plants will thrive with the boost of nutrients that compost provides, enhancing growth and health.

By following these simple steps, you'll turn kitchen scraps and yard waste into valuable compost, closing the loop in your garden ecosystem with a sustainable flourish.

How to Use Your Compost? 

Now for the fun part – using your homemade compost! Here's how:

  • Top-dressing: Spread a thin layer of compost around existing plants for a nutrient boost.

  • Mix into garden beds: Work compost into the soil before planting.

  • Potting mix: Create a nutrient-rich mix for potted plants by combining compost with soil.

  • Compost tea: Steep compost in water to create a liquid fertilizer for your plants.

Composting Tips for Apartments: Think you can't compost with limited space? Think again!

Don't let a lack of outdoor space discourage you from composting. Here are ingenious solutions perfectly suited for apartment living:

Small Compost Bins

These countertop or under-the-sink bins are designed for small spaces. Choose one with a  lid to contain odors and opt for a charcoal filter if you're particularly concerned about smells.

Worm Composting (Vermicomposting)

Worms are fantastic little composters! Set up a worm bin in a cool, dark spot indoors. They efficiently break down food scraps with minimal odor – it's like having your own mini-recycling plant.

Community Composting

Many cities and communities have programs that accept food scraps for large-scale composting. This is a convenient option  to contribute to the cause even without your own compost pile.  Search online for community gardens or composting programs near you.

Electric Composters

These compact countertop appliances revolutionize composting in small spaces. They quickly turn food scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer, often within a day, making them perfect for those who want a fast and convenient composting solution.

Bonus Tip: If you have a balcony, even a tiny one, you might be able to accommodate a small composting bin or tumbler!

Advanced Composting: Bokashi

Ready to take your composting to the next level? Bokashi fermentation is an interesting option:

  1. What is it: Bokashi is a Japanese method that uses special microbes (Bokashi bran) to ferment food waste in a closed container. It's a great option for small spaces.

  2. Benefits: Ferments food scraps quickly with minimal odor and can even include meat and dairy (which you normally avoid in regular composting).

  3. How it Works: The fermented material must be buried in soil or added to a regular compost pile to finish the process.

Bonus Tip: Give Your Compost Pile a Boost

While store-bought compost starters are available, here are some readily available Indian ingredients that can activate your compost and give it a desi boost:

  • Dahi (Yogurt): A dollop of plain yogurt introduces beneficial bacteria to your compost pile. Just like you use yogurt to set curd, it can help kickstart the decomposition process in your compost!

  • Jaggery (Gur): This natural sweetener provides readily available sugars that fuel the microbes in your compost, accelerating breakdown.

  • Besan (Gram Flour): Besan is a great source of nitrogen, a key ingredient for healthy compost. A sprinkle of gram flour can help balance your carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and speed things up.

  • Cow Dung: Traditionally used as fertilizer in India, well-aged cow dung is a rich source of microbes and nutrients that can significantly activate your compost pile. Be sure the dung is fully composted before adding it.

These desi alternatives are readily available in most Indian kitchens and can be a cost-effective way to activate your compost.

Remember, moderation is key. Start with small amounts and monitor your compost pile.

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