This is the longwinded version, if you want to start composting in 5 easy actionable steps, check those out here.
The Composting Cycle of Life
Composting is the natural breaking down of materials. When we think of the circle of life we typically think of animals eating other animals. But the reality is much much larger.
In the full circle of life, a plant draws nutrients from soil and the air to create its structure. When the plant dies, the nutrients that it took from the soil are slowly released from the structure of the plant as it decomposes until they are once again available for use.
If an animal eats part of the plant, the nutrients will eventually return to the soil when the animal poops, pees, or dies. In this natural version of the cycle, there are no diverted nutrients. Everything of value ends up back in the soil to grow another generation of plants.
Home composting is an attempt to fix the massive disruption that humans have caused to the cycle. Humans divert massive amounts of nutrients from returning to the soil in several ways:
- Eating from soil we don’t poop on. When we consume plant material we don’t utilize all the nutrients in contains. Instead, we deposit them in a toilet and send them to a central plant. What a “waste.”
- Commercialized farming. In commercial farming, the point is efficient production (profit). Optimizing plant growth means helping plants to suck nutrients out of the soil as fast as possible. After the most nutrient-rich part of the plant is harvested for consumption the rest of the plant is removed from the soil (as opposed to falling where it grew and returning its nutrients). What we have done is optimized soil depletion.
- Fostering an unproductive single species environment. The artificial environments that humans create (flower gardens, lawns, etc.) often require the removal of material in the name of aesthetics and care. We pick up called fruit from our lawns, remove dead flowers stems, mow our lawn, etc. This all moves nutrition away from the soil.
It comes as so surprise that humans are the main wrench in the composting life cycle. Now, I’m not vilifying what we do (okay, maybe commercialized farming) but we must accept that the ways things are happening comes with a heap of consequences. Unless we can mediate the effect we have on our soil we run the risk of having very nutrient-poor soil that, in turn, produces less and less food over time. So what is the solution?
Composting in your yard is the one-person, small-scale solution to this problem. By composting your own food scraps, yard waste, and maybe even some human waste you are able to reintroduct valuable nutrients and microbes to the soil.
Backyard composting attempts to add nutrients back into the soil in a much faster and more effecient way than would ever happen in nature. While it might take hundreds of years for a soil to recover on its own, the purpose of backyard composting is to create the right condition to turn a maximum amount of “waste” back into soil.
Who started composting?
When I was in second grade (or so, my memory is fuzzy) I remember reading about how the settlers of Jamestown were starving because they couldn’t figure out how to grow food. The Native Americans helped them by teaching them to fertilize their corn as they planted in. They would dig a shallow hole and drop in a small fish or two with the corn seeds. The fish could decompose and provide nutrients for the corn as it grew.
However, the idea of composting hardly originated there.
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The benefits of Composting
There are three main benefits:
- It improves the soil.
- It reduces the impact of your waste.
- It decreases the need for commercial fertilizers.
The 4 Types of Composting
- your reason for composting will influence what type of composting you should do.
What things do you need to figure out?
- how involved you want to be
- where you are (apartment, laws, etc.) also space
- The volume of things you have to compost
- The use you have for the compost
Cold Composting Pile
A cold composting pile is the easiest (and therefore slowest) type of backyard composting there is. In cold composting you do none of the work and Mother Nature carriest the burden. You simply put your yard waste and scraps in a pile and let them sit. The pile slowly breaks down just like it would in nature.
Cold Composting: The Good & The Bad
- It’s easy. If you don’t want to worry about your compost, this is for you.
- It’s cheap. You don’t need a single tool to get started, just a spot to put it.
- It’s super slow. If you want finished compost to use, this might not be for you. it can take months or even years for things to break down all the way.
- You need a location. Unlike tumbler or vermicomposting you can’t compost on your balcony. You need a place for your pile.
Hot Composting Pile
Hot composting is the active version of cold composting. It’s what composting could be in nature if circumstances played out perfectly for fast and effecient decomposition. As you can imagine, it requires a bit more effort on your part than cold composting as you need to create and control those conditions.
In hot composting you want to control the ratios, moisture, and air levels in your pile to promote maximum bacterial/microbial growth. These microbes are the main workers in decomposition and expedite the process. While they’re working hard to break things down a ton of heat is released which speeds up the process even further.
If you have the desire and the time to put some love and care towards your compost, hot composting is the way to go. Many gardeners consider it to be the only “true” form of composting and will probably look down on you if you choose another way.
Hot Composting: The Good & The Bad
- Speed. Hot composting is a (relatively) fast method of composting that can handle a high volume of materials.
- Hot composting kills weed seeds, nasty bugs, and can clear some manures from some pathogens.
- Hot composting can break down things that would be very difficult to break down in a cold compost pile
- Upkeep. To maintain optimum conditions you have to care for your pile regularly (usually daily).
- Pests. While compost shouldn’t be smelly if any of them are it’s hot composting. This can attract pests as well as being its own problem.
If you’ve seen commercials for composting tools it probably involved an attractive middle aged woman in a sun hat smiling as she put some leaves into her compost tumbler. And I can’t blame her. Compost tumblers are totally awesome and are the easiest point-of-entry for many people (including myself) into the world of making compost.
A compost tumbler is typically a barrel-shaped container mounted on either rollers or a rotating shaft. You simply open a little door, put your material to compost inside of it, and give it a spin (to mix and aerate it).
Tumbler Composting: The Good & The Bad
- Compost is contained. This is advantageous if you are trying hard to control pests of smell.
- It’s easy to aerate your compost. This is beneficial is you are unwilling or unable to turn over a traditional compost pile.
- Faster compost. Because it is aired more regularly and heats up from the sun a compost tumbler tends to be much faster than a cold compost pile
- You have a buy a compost tumbler. They really aren’t that expensvie but that may be a drawback if you’re trying to start composting on a shoe-string budget.
- Limited space. If you have more material that will fit into your tumbler you either need to buy another tumbler or start a pile to work in conjunction with your tumbler.
If there is a runner-up to cold composting when it comes to the “natural” aspect then worm composting (more properly “vermicomposting”) is a close second. In vermicomposting you utilize worms (typically hundreds or thousands of them) in a “bin” to consume your scraps and turn them into nutrient rich worm castings (poop).
Vermicomposting is an excellent choice for anyone who wants and indoor or balcony solution as it is quick, doesn’t stink,and doesn’t have a bunch of mess.
Worm Composting: The Good & The Bad
- Worms can handle a wide variety of waste, including many varieties of poop.
- Cost. While it’s not a ton, there is some amount of money involved in buying or building a bin and stocking it with worms.
- Upkeep. Worms are fairly self-sufficient buy you shouldn’t be leaving your bin unkempt for months on end.
Bokashi composting is a revolutionary way to compost the things that most people consider uncompostable. Well here’s a secret, mother nature has the tools to break down just about everything, she just needs the right application of environment and time.
In Bokashi composting people have been successful at composting bones, fats, sugary things, acidic things, whole carcases, dairy, etc. It involves placing alternating layers of your scraps and a Bokashi inoculant (such as wheat bran or sawdust) in a bucket (or other airtight container) and then sealing it up.
Once the container is sealed a bunch of anaerobic bacteria get to work fermenting whatever is in the bucket until it is a nutrient rich and safe soil additive. While it doesn’t produce huge amounts of compost or take care of a large volume of waste, Bokashi composting is a viable option if you have things that you can’t compost in a traditional pile or need to compost somewhere like you deck where you can’t have an open container.
Bokashi Composting: The Good & The Bad
- Bokashi Composting is the fastest, safest, and best option for breaking down things like meat and dairy.
- Minimal smell as your container is sealed and airtight.
- Difficult to do at high volume.
- More materials are required than simply having a compost pile.
Choosing a Spot for you Composting
Choosing a sport to start composting isn’t rocket science. I was writing an article on this subject not too long ago (which you can read here) and most people, when I asked them how they chose their composting spot, responded with something like, “Well, that’s the only spot I had.”
Typically, the spot that you have available is going to dictate what type of composting you do. If our are in an apartment, choose vermicomposting, bokashi composting, or a well-sealed tumbler. If, however, you have land or space available, choose a tumbler or some sort of pile.
The main thing to consider in the placement of your compost is that it needs to be close enough to be convenient but far enough away to not be troublesome. Most piles need watered, aerated, and fed on a regular basis. If your pile or tumbler is too far from your house then the likelihood of it getting what it needs is significantly lower. However, some piles (especially unbalanced ones) can produce a smell, they can attract pests/varmints, they can look a bit nasty, and tend to do better when they’re out of the sun. So consider those options and find a place that will work for you.
We currently rent a small house with a small backyard that is bordered by a triplex on one side and other house’s driveway on the back. For most of the year we still to a two tumbler system that lives on our back patio.
Starting Your First Pile: Get the Ratio Right
Things to include in your first pile
Don’t include these
Most things an be composted.
A quick tip for faster compost: break it down.
Caring for your pile
How long it takes
Using your compost
Yes. See this article for more info.