Benefits of Compost
Compost is a soil amendment with many benefits. Compost:
- increases the nutrient content of soil
- improves soil structure and water holding capacity
- regenerates poor soil and remediates contaminated soil
- reduces storm water runoff and erosion
- improves soil's carbon retention
- suppresses plant disease and pests
- promotes higher crop yields
- improves plant growth
- reduces the need for fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides
- prevents methane emissions from organics decomposing in landfills (methane is a greenhouse gas more than 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide)
Compost operations can be small-scale (personal, home composting) or large-scale (municipal or industrial). Compost operations can be a stand-alone business or part of a farming operation. Production and use of compost also sustains local and regional green jobs.
Composting Basics/Frequently Asked Questions
What can be composted?
Anything that is organic (used to be alive) will compost. What should be composted depends on the setting, size, and management of a particular composting set up. See "What can I add to my compost pile?" for more information.
Why should I compost?
Composting allows for the beneficial reuse of organic materials such as kitchen scraps and yard debris. Keeping these materials out of the trash conserves scarce landfill capacity, decrease methane productions (a potent greenhouse gas implicated in climate change), and conserves nutrients. Compost is a very beneficial for soil and plant health.
Is composting difficult?
Composting is a very simple natural process. Following a few guidelines will help make your composting experience a good one. Anyone can compost!
What can I do with the compost I produce?
Compost is often called "black gold" due to the high regard that farmers and gardeners have for it. Depending on how much you produce, you can add it to your garden, fertilize the lawn, feed your houseplants, or gift it to gardeners. Learn more about using compost below.
What does compost do for the soil and plants?
Compost increases the organic matter content of soils, which allows them to hold significantly more water. Compost improves soil structure, improving the texture of soils that have too much clay or sand content. Compost contains nutrients that are readily available to plants and is a a powerful defense against plant disease and pests due to its high level of beneficial microorganisms.
What can I add to my compost pile?
In general, any kitchen scraps or organic (used to be alive) materials can be safely composted, with a few exceptions. The following guidelines will work well for most small-scale home composters:
most kitchen scraps
|meat & bones
||large quantities of cooking oil
|small pieces of yard waste
||dog, cat, or human feces, diapers
|bark & twigs
|napkins & paper towels (unbleached)
||weeds that have gone to seed
||non-organic materials (plastic, synthetics, metal etc)
|coffee grounds & filters, tea leaves & bags (no staples)
||toxic materials, chemicals
What about adding meat, bones, weed seeds, etc to my compost bin?
While these materials will compost well in certain situations, there are conditions that need to be met for this happen successfully. A large enough compost pile, managed so that temperatures exceed 140F throughout the pile (turned), is needed in order to adequately and safely compost these materials. So the answer to this is, "it depends." If you have the proper conditions, you can safely compost these materials. Most home compost bins, however, are not large enough or hot enough to do so, and therefore these items should be excluded.
Do I have to buy "compost activator" or add anything to the pile to help it get started?
There is no need to buy any type of compost activator. It can be helpful to add a small amount (shovelful) of ordinary garden soil and/or finished compost to the pile to help it get started. The will inoculate the pile with many of the insects and microorganisms that the pile needs to start composting.
Does the pile have to get hot to make compost?
No, compost can be made through either a hot process or a cold one. Both can produce good quality compost. It takes longer to get finished compost using the cold process than if the pile is able to heat up. Materials such as manure, meat, diseased plants and weed seeds should be added only to large piles that exceed 140F so that they are thoroughly inactivated. Many small bins that are managed as static (unturned) piles produce fine compost through the cold process, it just takes longer to obtain a finished product.
Do I need to turn my pile?
Turning is not necessary to make compost. While turning will speed the composting process by providing aeration, an unturned (static) pile will also make good compost. If you want your final compost quickly, turning will help, but it is not necessary otherwise.
How do I know when my compost is ready to use?
When compost is ready, it will look dark and crumbly. There will be no sign of the original materials. Some bins allow for finished compost to be removed from a lower access port while unfinished materials remain higher up in the bin. If there are any large pieces or recognizable materials found, just place them with the unfinished materials to age longer.
Can I still compost if I do not have any outdoor/yard space? Can I compost in an apartment?
There are several possibilities that will allow you to be able to compost. You might compost at the house of a friend, relative, or neighbor who has outdoor space. If you are a member of a community garden or have access to one, you may be able to compost there. Or you can use worms to compost indoors; vermicomposting allows anyone to compost, even in small spaces. A worm compost bin can fit in a cabinet under the kitchen sink or other small spaces. There are also compost facilities in Vermont, many of which accept residential food scraps. Contact your local solid waste management entity or a Vermont compost company to explore this option.
Home Composting Guide
Here are the basics steps of setting up composting at your home.
Step 1. Decide on a location.
Ideally the spot you choose will be convenient to where the majority of compostable materials will be produced; nearby the kitchen area is best for most home composters. Locate the bin so that it is easily accessible, regardless of the weather. When deciding on where to place your bin, consider the physical characteristics of your space, such as where the snow piles up in the winter and where water flows during heavy rains. Slogging a few hundred feet in the depths of winter to add materials to the bin might lose its charm after a while. You will want easy access to keep your motivation level high.
Sun or shade? Either will work. Avoid low lying depressions where water ponds if possible.
Step 2. Decide on a bin type.
The best style of bin for you depends on a number of factors:
- How private is your location? While a pallet bin or even a simple pile might work for homes further from neighbors, a purchased compost bin might be better suited to a townhouse development.
- How fast do you want/need to produce finished compost? If speed is important, a bin that allows for easy mixing will be preferable. A static (unturned) pile will works well, but takes longer.
- How much compost feedstock (kitchen scraps etc.) will you be composting? Large quantities of material require bigger bins or faster composting.
- Cost can be a factor as well. Bins can be built at little or no cost. Purchased bins vary in cost depending on size, materials, and craftsmanship.
Step 3. Construct your bin or set up a purchased bin in the designated spot.
See "Build a Bin" below for DIY ideas or contact your local solid waste management entity for local opportunities to purchase compost bins. Now you are ready to get composting!
Step 4. Start your pile with "Browns" and "Greens".
The composting process works best when an optimal amount of both carbon sources (browns) and nitrogen sources (greens) are used. A C:N ration of 30:1 (browns:greens) is ideal.
Start your pile with a source of browns (dry leaves and plant debris, shredded newspaper) and add some fresh green materials (kitchen scraps and coffee grounds). Cover the fresh green material with some of the browns. Water until the pile is moist, but not soaked, like a wrung out sponge.
BROWNS (Carbon sources)
GREENS (Nitrogen sources)
|dried grass, weeds, and plants
||kitchen scraps (stems, peels, etc.)
|dry leaves and small sticks
||coffee grounds & tea leaves
|straw and hay
||green grass, weeds, & plants
||fresh manure (only add to larger, hotter piles)
|newspaper, paper towels, napkins (unbleached)
|most dry organic materials
||most fresh organic materials
Step 5. Continue to add materials year-round
It is helpful to cover fresh additions underneath brown and older material. Stockpiling dried leaves in the fall can be helpful, especially if your supply of browns are in short supply seasonally. During the winter, most compost activity will decrease or halt but you can continue to add to the pile. When warmer weather returns, compost activity will resume. Do not let the pile dry out, it should maintain the consistency of a wrung out sponge.
Step 6. Manage your pile by turning it, if desired.
If your bin style allows it, and you want to speed the compost process, use a pitchfork or other suitable tool to turn and move the material in the compost pile. The materials on the outside of the pile can be brought to the center, and those in the center moved towards the outside of the pile The most heat and biological activity occurs in the center of the pile.
If you do not want to turn your pile, simply continue to add materials. The size of the pile, C:N ratio, types of materials added, and management factors will determine if the pile heats up or not. Compost can be made through either the hot process or cold process; both will produce excellent compost.
Step 7. Finished Compost
When compost is finished, it will be crumbly and dark in color. There should be little indication of what the feedstock materials were. Use it in your garden, apply to the lawn, fertilize houseplants; there are many good uses for compost!
Build a Bin
Compost bins can be easily constructed from materials available at low or no cost.
A simple yet sturdy bin can be constructed out of salvaged wood pallets. Three pallets can be arranged to create an open bin. Adding a fourth pallet will close the bin in, preventing children, pets, and other critters from gaining access to the compost. The pallets can be wired together, tied with rope, or secured with bungee cords or stakes. Additional bins can be easily added if needed. A three bin system is popular: one to store brown materials (such as stockpiling leaves), one for active composting, and one for aging compost.
Chicken wire or hardware cloth
Another low cost option is to use chicken wire or hardware cloth. A simple square, rectangle, circle, or triangle shaped bin can be constructed by driving several stakes into the ground to frame the desired shape and secure the enclosed material. Chicken wire or hardware cloth can also be added to the wood pallet design to add another obstacle to keep out critters .
A simple garbage can with a lid can easily be turned into a compost bin. Drill 1/4-1/2 inch diameter holes in the bottom and sides of the bin to allow for air circulation and drainage. Then place the bin in the desired location. If desired, a few holes can be drilled in the lid as well to facilitate the addition of moisture when it rains. You can also paint a mural or design on the compost can for added affect.
Fancier bins can be constructed out of other materials, such as cedar boards. Avoid using pressure treated materials. A compost bin can be an attractive element in the yard, so paint and decorate the exterior to your liking.
Find more DIY bin designs on the Compost Resources page.
Leaf & Brush Composting
Leaves are a valuable source of nutrients that can be utilized in a number of ways. Rather than being a nuisance, leaves can be a valuable resource for your lawn and/or compost.
Leave the leaves
If the quantity at hand is not too large, leaving them to decompose in place can be a good solution. This will allow for the transfer of the nutrients contained in the leaves to nearby plants. Mowing leaves that are on the lawn will chop them up finer, speeding their decomposition. Letting the leaves decompose on the lawn also increases the soil's water retention, which deceases the need to water the lawn the following season. If there are too many leaves or letting them decompose in place is not an option, gathering them up will still allow you to enjoy their benefits.
Stockpile the leaves for compost
Compost piles need to have more browns (carbon source) than green (nitrogen source) to maintain an optimal C:N ratio and operate properly. Stockpiling leaves to use in composting will provide you with a ready source of carbon materials throughout the year. An easy way to contain leaves is to drive a few stakes into the ground and attach chicken wire to them, forming an enclosure. Remove leaves as needed to add carbon to the compost pile. Paper leaf bags will also work, and the paper can be composted as well (tear it up first to facilitate decomposition).
Make leaf mould mulch
Leaves will also compost quite well by themselves, especially if kept moist. It is not a speedy process, but a pile of leaves will turn into an excellent material known as leaf mould. This material is an excellent additive for plants and can be used as mulch. Making leaf mould is quite simple. The best method depends mostly on space considerations and how quickly you want a finished product. The simplest procedure is to build a large pile of leaves, wet and cover it with a tarp. If kept moist and covered, it will turn into leaf mould in a few years. A quicker process is to first chop up the leaves by mowing over them with lawn mower and then rake them into a pile. Wet and cover them as before. If space is an issue, a simple staked chicken wire bin enclosure can be used to store them. Cover it to retain moisture.
Note about evergreen leaves
While evergreen leaves will also decompose and create leaf mould, it is best to gather pine needles separately as they will produce an acidic leaf mould. This is best suited for use on plants that prefer acidic soils, such as blueberries, azaleas, and rhododendrons, and to produce blue flowers on certain varieties of hydrangea.
Brush, generally tree and shrub prunings, can be a valuable addition to compost piles as well. The key factor in composting is the size of the feedstock. Small diameter twigs and prunings that have been cut up into smaller pieces will compost quicker. Adding some twiggy pieces to the compost bin helps to create air pockets and improve aeration. The important factor is the size and amount of brush. If there is a larger quantity and/or if the pieces are big, building a separate brush pile may make more sense. If the material can be cut or chipped into smaller pieces, it is a beneficial addition to the primary compost pile.
Another option for making good use of brush is to start a hugelkultur bed. Deciduous materials are preferred over coniferous for this project. A hugelkultur bed is essentially a "bed" of brush and other wood materials of various sizes that can be placed in a trench or built upon the ground surface. A variety of materials including fresh grass clippings, leaves, compost, and soil are added to it to create a large mound. Plants such as vegetables are then grown in the bed. The material contained within it composts slowly in place. Advantages of this system include a high level of moisture holding capacity, active microbial and fungal activity, and high nutrient levels. Further detailed information on construction and maintenance of a hugelkultur can be found online.
Vermicomposting is simply composting that is sped up by utilizing special worms to do most of the work. As the worms eat the organic materials (kitchen scraps), they expel worm castings, a very fertile form of finished compost.
The worms aerate the material with their bodies as they work. Red wigglers are quite efficient, consuming their body weight daily; this would be equivalent to a 140 pound person eating 140 pounds of food each day! They reproduce easily, so you will be able to add additional worm bins if you desire or gift worms to others to start their own worm bins. And the real beauty of worm bins is that they do not need to be outdoors to work. A bin can be placed in a basement or even under the sink in a cabinet.
Basic vermicomposting supplies:
- supply of red wigglers
- bin container for the worm farm
- food for the worms (kitchen scraps)
Depending on your source of worms and the types of materials you choose to use, your vermicomposting costs can vary from free to over $100.
Red wigglers are not found in typical garden soil. They sometimes can be found in manure or compost piles. Standard earthworms or nightcrawlers will not survive in a worm composting bin. Usually you will start out with a small population of worms that will then reproduce to reach your desired capacity. You should feed them less kitchen scraps at first until their numbers grow. Red wigglers can be easily purchased online and are inexpensive. A batch of 1,000-2,000 worms should be adequate for most home composters. This will allow your worm bin to get up to speed quickly.
Bin choice depends on several factors including how much you want to spend, volume of food scraps produced to feed the worms, and the proposed location of the bin. There are some nice commercially made bins available with various characteristics and prices. An inexpensive bin can be constructed using a plastic bin widely available at stores. Purchase one that has a tight fitting lid and is opaque since worms do not like exposure to light. You may also be able to find a free bin by obtaining a 3 or 5 gallon bucket from a bakery or grocery store. Find one with a tight fitting lid.
Preparing the bin
To make your own bin, drill holes around the side of the bin starting 4 inches from the bottom. The holes should be small, no larger than 1/8 inch. Holes can also be drilled in the lid. The holes provide air circulation. If you drill holes in the bottom, you will need to provide a pan to catch any leakage. You can place a screen over larger holes to prevent worms from escaping.
Use a carbon source (browns) such as shredded newspaper, paper towels, or dry leaves, to create bedding. Shredding the bedding helps the worms process it easier; they will consume the bedding as well as added kitchen scraps. The bedding needs to be damp, with the moisture level like that of a wrung out sponge. The moisture level is very important; if it is too wet or too dry, both the worms and the compost will suffer. Dampen the bedding before adding the worms. The bin should be about 3/4 full of bedding.
Then gently add the worms to bedding, tucking them in so they are covered.
Feeding the worms
You can feed your worms almost any kitchen scrap except for meat and bones. Smaller pieces are easier for them to eat. Start with a relatively small amount, tucking it into the bedding and covering it with bedding material to reduce the chances of any flies or odors. Check to see how they are doing; it will take them some time to get started. Adjust your feeding amounts and timing according to how they are progressing. Tuck their food into different spots each feeding. Replace the cover tightly every time after opening the bin.
After a few months, the bedding should be mostly gone and the contents of the bin should look brown and "organic". Now it is time to remove the compost and refresh the bin. You can do this by moving the finished compost to one side of the bin and installing new bedding material (moistened as described above) in the cleared section. Add some food waste to the new bedding and seed it with finished compost as well. The worms should migrate over to that section within a few days. You can then remove the finished compost and add additional bedding to that spot so the bin is ¾ full. Then keep adding fresh food waste as before.
After a year or so you may have sufficient numbers of worms to add additional worm bins or gift them to friends. Separate out the extra worms into a small container with some of the finished compost in it and place them in their new quarters.
Temperature is important!
Do not let the worms freeze or get too hot. Ideal temperatures for them range from between 40-80 F. In Vermont, they cannot be outside in the winter or inside any structure that gets too hot. Do not let them dry out nor drown in fluids. Respect their needs and wishes. If they refuse to consume a type of food, then do not attempt to feed it to them; fortunately they have fairly broad tastes.
Use the compost
Worm compost can be fed to any type of plant. Worm castings are also great for making compost tea. Read more about compost tea below in Using Compost.
Compost is a nourishing soil amendment that is beneficial to add liberally to gardens, vegetables, fruit, ornamental plants, and houseplants. Trees of all kinds also appreciate a topdressing of compost as well. You can mix compost into the soil or topdress the plants.
Note on acidity:
It is advisable to leave wood ash out of the compost bin so that it does not make the compost too acidic. While some plants, such as blueberries and azaleas, prefer acidic soil, leaving wood ash out of your compost will enable you to use it on all plantings.
Starting seeds or transplants? Add compost into the soil mix to encourage a strong, healthy start.
Topdress your lawn with compost by scattering it approximately 1/4 inch deep over the lawn.
Compost tea is a liquid fertilizer made from a small quantity of compost or worm castings. It is a good way to stretch your compost if you have only a small quantity, and a great way to share the wealth of worm castings amongst all your plants.
Simply put some finished compost into something like an old nylon stocking, knot the ends and place in a bucket of water. Let it steep for a few hours or even a few days.
You can also aerate the mix for 24 hours with an aquarium aerator. This option adds oxygen to the tea which helps bacteria proliferate and become more resilient. The bacteria nourish and protect the plants and soil to which you apply the tea.
Apply the resulting 'tea' to plants as a liquid fertilizer. The tea can be added to houseplants and seedlings as well. Just like reusing a tea bag, you can make tea with the bagged compost several times before returning the leftovers to the compost pile.
If you have more compost than uses for it, check with gardener friends or a local community garden. A gift of good finished compost will be appreciated.