What is Compost and How to Set up an Easy Composting System

DIY compost bin

Compost affectionately referred to as “black gold” by gardeners is another word for a material called Humus. (not Hummus—but you can make that too once you get your soil right…)

Basically it is a dark brown spongy material that can be produced through the act of mixing together different organic materials into a pile and letting them naturally “cook” for about a month or so.

Why Make Compost

Compost is valuable to gardeners because it can increase the fertility of the soil as well as cut down on soil diseases and retain lots of extra moisture.

It is the stuff found on forest floors, and when made correctly it will smell like the forest floor. The forest makes its own compost which is one reason large trees can flourish with no need for someone to go in and fertilize or water.

The reason thy typical home gardener does not have any compost on our “floor” is because we like to rake, mow, clean up, and throw away our yard waste.

One solution that can allow one to still be tidy yet have compost for soil is to collect all of the yard waste into a pile, let it “cook” for about a month, and then spread it into the garden beds when ready.

There is also a more advanced method called composting in place, which we will discuss elsewhere, but that basically involves placing the compostable materials directly into the garden and letting them break down there.

In addition to the tremendous benefit to garden soil, composting allows home gardeners to fully recycle 100% of yard waste that was likely being discarded. Compost is essential for successful backyard gardening and urban homesteading.

How to Make Compost

Our system has been working for 10 years and is cheap and easy. Here’s what we do.

Make a Compost Cage (actually two):

We make our compost cages out of hardware cloth because it is cheap, strong, and stands up on its own without the need for a frame. One compost cage can be made out of a section of hardware cloth (which is like a stronger version of chicken wire) that is about 12.5 feet long by 3 feet wide and has 1/4 inch mesh holes.

See the links at the bottom for obtaining items mentioned through our partners at Amazon (we receive a small commission if you click through our link). Generally, you need to buy 50 feet of hardware cloth at a time, which is enough to make 4 compost cages which may be more than is needed, but that’s OK because hardware cloth also makes wonderful tomato and other plant cages and has many many uses throughout the home and garden.

Form the hardware cloth into a round cage. Cut a length of about 12.5 feet using gardening shears or small tin snips and form it into a round cage with a diameter of about 3 to 3.5 feet.

Overlap the ends by 1-2 feet and wire it together where it overlaps, in two places at the top and two places at the bottom, with heavy duty wire ties.

That’s it! Basically our compost cage is just a piece of hardware cloth with the ends connected together. It should stand 3 feet high.

Make two compost cages.

Select a location:  Carry the cages to a spot in your yard where they will live. You may want to place them out of sight, like behind the garage, although it really doesn’t look  like an eyesore when caged, and there shouldn’t be any smell. But there will be bugs, worms, etc. which will aid in the “cooking” process.
Load up:  Now for the fun part. Every time you chop a weed, rake leaves, or mow the yard (if you pick up the clippings for aesthetics), dump the yard waste into cage #1.

What Materials can be Composted

Leaves, grass clippings, used coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps, paper towels, shredded newspaper, shredded cardboard (a little at a time), coffee filters, dead plants, sawdust (little at a time), wood ashes (little at a time), egg shells, pasta, pine cones, nuts, very small pieces of wood/wood chips, hay, straw.

What Materials Cannot be Composted

Manure, meat, cat litter, poison ivy, glass, wood, glossy magazines, colored paper and colored or shiny cardboard, anything with chemicals, dirt, soil, rocks, etc. When in doubt, look it up or don’t do it.

Turning / Mixing

You may be surprised at just how much stuff you can fit into cage #1, as it will keep shrinking down on itself. Make sure that the cage can get rained on regularly or else water it occasionally. In addition to moisture, compost also needs some air circulation which is why our cage is has the 1/4 inch mesh holes and and also why we are going to “turn it.”

Every couple of weeks or so, take the wire ties off of cage #1, take it apart, move it over a few feet, and reassemble it.

Using a digging fork, shovel, or your hands, toss the materials back into the cage. As you do this, break up clumps and try to get it all mixed up well. That’s it. Turning speeds up the process. The more you turn it the faster it cooks, although it is not absolutely necessary.

Eventually, you should start to notice after a week or two that the center of the pile is getting hot (starts to cook).

How to tell when Compost is Ready

When you are turning the compost for the second or third time, you will notice that the center of the pile is dark and doesn’t really look like the original ingredients anymore. Put this finished or nearly finished center material into the second cage that up until now, was not being used. Toss the rest back into the first cage to continue to cook.

I find it easiest to first peel off the top and sides of the compost pile and toss them back into cage #1, then toss the remaining center stuff into cage #2 so it can cure and finish up cooking.

In summary, use Bin #1 for “cooking” and bin #2 for “curing” the finished product.

How to tell if Compost is Ready to Use

Finished compost is still going to have bits of leaves in it and little remnants of things, and these can stay in the finished product or be sorted out and tossed back into Bin #1 to cook some more, it’s no big deal.

Once cured, add the finished product into your garden beds. Just shovel or toss it onto the top of the soil as a mulch. You can even rake it into the lawn to improve the soil there.

If you are a stickler about esthetics, you can screen the compost prior to adding it back to the garden or lawn. An easy way to do this is to take a cage apart, place it on top of a wheelbarrow and dump the finished compost on top, a little at a time, rubbing it through the “screen” and into the wheelbarrow. What falls into the wheelbarrow will be a beautiful screened compost you can show off to your friends. But screening is not necessary, and I tend to skip it.

compost that has cured

This is what finished compost looks like (source: fvtchort.wikispaces.com)

What about the Perfect Mix or Ratio: 

A batch of compost should contain a mix of what is referred to as Greens and Browns in order to start cooking. Browns are things that are heavy on carbon and generally brown in color like leaves, cardboard, paper, dried out dead plants, ash, saw dust, etc.

Greens are the more fresh looking things (that are Nitrogen heavy) such as grass clippings, freshly cut weeds, fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, etc. Basically you want about 2 parts Green to 1 part Brown, but personally, I just chuck it all in as I have it, and it seems to do just fine.

But if you find you have tons and tons of Green for example, you may want to hold back tossing it all in until you can scrounge up some Browns to throw in with it.

One secret that permaculture style gardeners and organic gardeners know is that you should never have bare soil in your garden beds. There should always be some form of organic mulch as the top layer of the garden beds and compost is great for this. You will see wonderful improvements to your plants once you start to make and use Compost!

Make sure to check out our other articles, especially the one about composting in winter found here.

Check out these products as well!

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