Growing your own vegetables is one of the easiest ways to do something great this summer. In this article Janice discusses ten different ways to make organic compost for your garden. This article gives an overview of organic gardening with the pros and cons. It saves a lot of emissions in packaging, transporting, and cooling food. And it is fun. And at the same time, you can close a loop and turn your kitchen and garden waste into compost. This way you don't have to go to the garden center to buy expensive compost.
But how do you compost and which type of compost suits your situation? From a compost pile to worm compost and bokashi. Whether you have a balcony, a small garden, or a large garden. Composting is always possible. How will you make compost?
What is compost?
Compost is ultimately digested organic matter in a form that is absorbable by soil life and plants. Perfectly mature compost already begins to resemble hummus and is full of nutrients and acts like a sponge. Formally, bokashi doesn't belong there (because it's technically a fermentation process), but because bokashi is also a solution for converting kitchen waste into plant food, I've included it too. Furthermore, it is good to know that you should focus on soil life, not plants. If you feed the soil life, they will feed your plants.
Ten ways to make compost
Compost Method 1: Chop drop
Chop drop is especially suitable for wild plants.
The easiest way to make compost is on the spot in the garden. Is there a wild plant among your beets and other vegetables? Pull it out and drop it on the spot. The plant will dry out on the spot and be absorbed by fungi, bacteria, protozoa worms, and other soil life, feeding the soil right near your pods and beets.
And you don't have to lug around buckets and wheelbarrows. On a slightly larger scale, it can also be done with, say, a hedge that you trim. Don't rake away the trimmings, just shovel or rake them under the bush. There at first forms shelter for all sorts of critters and then nourishment for your hedge.
Compost method 2: Mulching
Mulching is especially suitable for: garden ‘waste' such as pruning, leaves, wood chips, grass clippings, and thinner branches.
Mulching is somewhat similar to chop drop but is more targeted. Mulching is also called surface composting. Especially with perennials, it can help gradually get good nutrition into the soil without disturbing the soil (and soil life and roots). A fruit tree often roots superficially, so you don't want to dig at that.
But you can just put organic material down in the tree bed. There it will slowly compost by itself and be washed down by rainwater or mixed by worms with the soil below. You'll also keep the soil covered from bright sun and dry winds this way, so it's less likely to dry out. If you are going to mulch on poor soil I recommend starting with a thin layer.
That way you build up soil life which can process the mulch. Then you can use a slightly thicker layer because you already have more soil life, etc. The best is a nice mix of all kinds of organic materials. Woody materials and more moist green materials mixed together. That way you get a diverse supply of nutrients and the mulch stays airy.
Compost method 3: The leaf basket
The leaf basket is especially good for leaves.
In the fall, you can collect a bunch of leaves and throw them in a basket. In many municipalities, there are also leaf baskets where your neighbors throw their leaves. You can empty these and use them for something useful. For your own leaf basket, a piece of chicken wire in a circle is sufficient. Think of a meter diameter and a meter high. But it doesn't take much. Throw your basket full of leaves.
Preferably leaves of pioneers like birch and alder or for example linden. The leaves of climax trees like oak and beech can also be used, but take longer. You can use them, but then in the mix with other leaves. You can just leave it in a place that is not too wet. Covering it against heavy rain helps. Also to make sure the leaves don't blow out of the basket.
And with any luck, you'll have nice airy leaf compost by spring. That's ideal for seeding because it's so airy. If you don't want to buy seedling compost, start a leaf basket each fall.
Compost method 4: A compost barrel
A compost barrel is suitable for: all kinds of kitchen and garden waste.
Composting can also be done in a compost bin. In some municipalities, you can get one for free or with a discount. A compost bin is often double-walled and therefore insulated. This is an advantage because it makes it easier to get the compost up to temperature, even for smaller quantities and in winter.
But it is also a disadvantage because it is harder for oxygen to enter the compost. Soil creatures like worms and bacteria also need to breathe. A compost barrel is closed and therefore suitable if you have vermin-like rats in the neighborhood.
Compost method 5: The compost heap
The compost heap is particularly suitable for: large gardens with lots of garden waste.
An old-fashioned compost heap is also possible, of course. Some swear by an open heap because that would give better aeration and less weight on the bottom layers. Others make a container from pallets, for example. Important is that you aim for about one cubic meter. A smaller compost heap will not reach the right temperature and the composting process will take a long time.
Start with a layer of “brown” material. These are woody carbon-rich materials that provide structure and aeration. Then add an equally thick layer of ‘green' material. Think of your kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and fresh leaves. These mainly add nitrogen and moisture.
Repeat until your pile is big enough, then add a few hands of good black garden soil. There is already a lot of soil life in there that you can use to ‘graft' your compost into. Moreover, the grains of sand in the stomachs of worms help to grind everything up nicely. Now your compost pile is ready.
If all goes well, the temperature will rise considerably after 3 or 4 days. A sign that the soil life is working. Around 55 degrees you can still put your hand on it. Around 60 degrees it starts to hurt. Then you have to turn and aerate. If you don't, it gets too hot and some of your compost burns. This releases unnecessary CO2 and means there will be less carbon in your compost later.
Also, some of the soil life dies if it gets too hot. Turning is done with a pitchfork or manure fork. You just scoop the hump to the side and build a new hump. Try to get the stuff on the outside in the middle. That way new oxygen gets in and the process starts all over again. Eventually, you'll have to turn like this 5 or 6 times, and then you'll have mature compost if all goes well.
If you do everything right and it's on the up and up, it can be done after only 10 to 12 weeks. In the meantime, build up a second compost pile. Two compost heaps in pallets. The left one is still under construction. In the right one, I planted a pumpkin for the “who has the biggest” contest with the neighborhood.
Compost method 6: A compost mill or compost drum
A compost mill or drum is especially suitable for: large professional kitchens with a vegetable garden.
If you have a large kitchen (for example, at a restaurant, canteen, or daycare center) and want to compost a lot quicker, a compost drum or compost mill may be a good solution. A composting drum is a kind of cylindrical drum on legs. In it, you throw your kitchen scraps every day and then, with the help of a crank, turn the whole drum for a while.
So you shake the compost easily and often which makes the composting process go faster. Compost mills are often insulated so it heats up even faster. A disadvantage is the cost is around $ 200, – or $ 300. But for a restaurant with a large vegetable garden, it could be a sensible investment.
Compost Method 7: Bokashi
Bokashi is especially suitable for: homes with a small garden or balcony.
As I wrote in the introduction, bokashi is actually not composting but fermenting. Yet bokashi should not be missing in this overview. Because the input remains kitchen and garden waste and the output remains food for your garden. Bokashi works on the basis of anaerobic processes.
So no oxygen is used and no co2 and methane gas is released. This makes bokashi slightly better for the climate on paper and keeps all the nutrients in your ‘compost'. For bokashi, you need a sealed bokashi bucket. You keep adding a layer of kitchen waste and some bokashi starter (ferment).
Your kitchen waste is changed in structure from the inside out. But it continues to look about the same. After only a few weeks you have made bokashi that you can use in the garden. The disadvantage is that it still looks like food. Not a pretty sight in your garden. Therefore bokashi is often buried and that's also a disadvantage because you often only do that when you plant something or at the beginning of a season. You can also add the bokashi back to your compost. Composting will then go faster.
The advantage is that such a bucket is sealed and you don't smell anything. You can just put the bokashi bucket in a corner of your kitchen. Also, the leachate (juice from your kitchen waste) that you can drain is useful. It is full of nutrition and can be diluted with water to give your houseplants some extra nutrition.
Compost-method 8: Worm compost
Worm compost is especially suitable for: small to medium-sized gardens. Or as a second system next to “regular” compost. Where the worm compost is for the vegetable garden with annuals (more nitrogen and bacteria) and the compost is for the perennials (more fungi and carbon).
Worm compost has become increasingly popular in recent years. Using special ‘tiger worms', you compost a little faster this way than with a compost pile. You need 3 or 4 containers. You can buy these or make them yourself from cement tubs, for example. The bottom bin has a tap to drain off leachate from plant and kitchen scraps.
The other containers have a whole bunch of holes in the bottom about an inch long. You start with a layer of woody airy material (cardboard, wood chips, straw) at the bottom. This way you create air and space. Then you can just put in your kitchen scraps. Wait about three days and then add the worms. You can buy these online, or score them from someone you know who already has worm compost, 50 worms are enough to get started.
Is there a 30-centimeter layer in your first bin? Then put the next bin on top and just continue filling there. The worms will naturally crawl up to the food when the food runs out at the bottom. So you continue to build until you reach the top. And then you can keep using the bottom bin as compost and then put it back on top.
Leachate is also a benefit of worm compost. That's handy to have for your houseplants or plants outside that need a boost. Another advantage is that it can be done in a fairly small space and is sealed. A disadvantage is that fruit flies can nest in it. And it does take a lot of care what you put in there. Many people lose their entire worm colony because the container gets too wet, too hot, too cold, or too acidic. But if you take good care of these little pets, they produce wonderful, fine, crumbly compost.
Compost method 9: The composting toilet
A composting toilet is especially suitable for people who want to minimize the input and output of their system and for remote gardens where there is no toilet nearby. Note: If you are taking medication (including the birth control pill), then pouring urine on your plants may not be such a good idea.
For the die-hards, there is also a composting toilet. The idea is simple: Just as it is a waste to throw away useful nutrients from kitchen and garden waste, it is a waste to flush away useful nutrients from our own excrement accompanied by gallons of clean drinking water. And there's something to that, of course.
Pee contains a lot of nitrogen and has already been made sterile by the kidneys. It can be added to your fruit trees as fertilizer. Poop is trickier. It can contain pathogens and must compost for 3 years or so to be safe (if you want to know exactly, look up the regulations). A composting toilet is simply a bucket under a shelf with a hole in it. You poop in the bucket, wipe with eco-toilet paper and throw that in the bucket too.
Then you take a scoop of sawdust from a container next to you and sprinkle it over the turd. By doing so, you cover it for the person coming after you, keep odors at bay, and the sawdust draws moisture from the poop. This slowly creates a lasagna of poop with wood chips. The trained composter recognizes in it the lasagna of nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich material. When the bucket is full, dump it somewhere in a barrel or bin outside where it can compost for another 3 years and after that, you will have good and safe compost.
Compost method 10: Neighborhood compost
Neighborhood compost is especially suitable for: inner cities with small gardens and close-knit neighbors.
Technically, this is not a way of composting, but a cooperative form. But that doesn't make it any less interesting. In a number of cities, projects have been started to compost together with a neighborhood or street. Concretely, there is a thing in the street where everyone can put his kitchen waste.
And over time, compost comes out at the bottom for the neighborhood to use on their balconies and gardens. Sometimes they use worm compost as a method, sometimes a compost barrel or bin. It takes some organization, but composting together can be a lot of fun and connect the neighborhood as well.
General tips for better composting
Whatever approach you choose for your compost, there are a few things always helpful to keep in mind:
Make everything small: Whatever method you choose, the permaculture principle of “enlarge the edge” certainly applies here. If you just cut the stalk of the broccoli into 10 pieces, the area is many times larger than the whole stalk. And that makes it much easier for fungi and bacteria to process it. So everything goes faster. Adding big things can, but it takes longer.
Beware of immature compost: Many people who use compost in the vegetable garden complain about snails. In nature, snails are the cleaners of organic material. If you add unripe compost to your vegetable garden, you are in fact adding organic material and thus attracting the slugs to your vegetable garden. And while they are there, they like to nibble on your new plantings. Therefore, especially with annuals, only use mature compost.
Don't worry too much about the carbon/nitrogen ratio: In books and on the internet you can find all kinds of tables with the carbon/nitrogen ratio (C/N) of all kinds of substances. You can use them to calculate and thus get your total compost heap to an ideal ratio of 25/1 or 30/1. But that is a lot of work. It's easier to just add about 50% green, fresh, juicy material and 50% brown, dry, harder material. And even if you're a little off on that, you'll be fine.
Composting is thinking ahead: Brown material is easy to store, green material is not. Therefore, in the fall and winter, you can collect brown material (fallen leaves, wood chips, pruning) and put it in a place that is not too wet. In spring and summer, you have more green material (fresh leaves, grass clippings, the caps of your beans). These determine how thick the layers of your compost will be. And from your stockpile, add as much brown.
Worms don't eat plant material: Good to keep in mind. Worms are an important link in composting, but they don't eat your organic material themselves. Bacteria and fungi do that for them. Only after those have done the first round of decomposition can worms do anything with it.
They then mainly eat the bacteria and continue to grind the organic material in the meantime. Worms do pull leaves under the ground. They roll it up against the wall of their corridors. Then bacteria and fungi get to work on it. Only later can the worm use it itself.
What can't go in the compost?
Some things can't be processed in compost or are more difficult to process. A few things to watch out for:
- Cooked food composts very slowly, but blanched food often can.
- Bread is tricky because it will mold.
- Fried food won't because there are no living compounds left and fat preserves.
- Onion and garlic can only be used in moderation because the smell keeps soil life at bay.
- Eggshells add lime, but the decomposition takes a very long time. Therefore, you need to grind them beforehand. Some collect them loose in a container where they dry out and then throw them in a mortar or blender.
- Exotics like avocado peels and citrus peels take a very long time to compost because our native soil life is not used to them. Bananas can also take much longer than apples or pears. I do add these leftovers but cut them much smaller.
Conclusion: There is always a way to make compost
You see, whether you have a big garden or a balcony, there is always a way to make compost. You can compost alone or with the neighborhood. And you can ferment or let worms do the work. How do you make your compost?
Harvest organic material with your lawnmower
Additional tip: If you want a tight and healthy lawn, always mow with a mulching mower. If you want a lawn that is rich in herbs and flowers, mow with a catcher. This way the soil will be withered and all kinds of herbs and flowers will get a chance.
The clippings can be harvested immediately as organic material for the compost. But mix it well with other materials because otherwise, it forms such a sticky mess. This can be done with a petrol lawnmower or an electric lawnmower with batteries.
Janice is a full-time mom who likes to write on a range of topics in her spare time. She specializes in the Home, Garden, and Recycling topics. Janice is our Lifestyle and positive vibe expert. She keeps the office running.