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It is perfectly normal for new composters to be impatient. I know I was ready to spend a good chunk of change when I first got started in an effort to expedite things and ended up buying two different tumblers, an aerator, and several compost starters. I was dumb.
When it comes to kickstarting your pile, there is a simple way to do it: a homemade compost starter. In truth, there’s an even simpler way: patience. But if you’re like me (impatient) and want something that will move the needle, we’ve got a method.
While we’ll talk about whether or not you need a compost catalyst later in this article (after the recipe), let me go on record here and say that there is no reason that you should ever need to buy a commercial compost starter. They an unnecessary waste of money that may or may not even be effective.
And, after all, if you’re handy enough to be composting at home why wouldn’t you be handy enough to follow a four step recipe to make your own (vastly superior) compost starter. Oh, you are handy enough? Perfect, let’s do this.
But first, a slight deviation. When I make cookies, I don’t really care why I need to add baking soda. I just follow the recipe and, if the cookies are good, I chalk it up as a success. In composting, however, I feel like you should have a thorough understanding of what is going on and that included understanding what we’re going to include in our compost starter recipe and why. While the exact ingredients differ, there are three main parts of any compost catalyst:
- Beneficial bacteria
- A food source (sugar)
- A nitrogen source (ammonia in this case)
The entire purpose of a catalyst is to create an environment that fosters an explosion of benefical growth. The majority of the decomposition that takes place in a compost pile or tumbler is done by bacteria. The more bacteria you can get into your pile, the faster it will decompose (although excessive bacteria are although the producers of smell so you may need to add brown to reduce bacteria and slow things down)
To further give bacteria a boost we’re going to add in a source of nitrogen (the same reason people pee on their compost). Nitrogen is a key component is the proteins that your compost-friendly-bacteria need to build their structures. Having it in spades allows them to grow faster than ever.
Now that we are on the same page as to ingredients and aims, let’s look at our specific recipe and method for a homemade compost starter:
Home Compost Starter Recipe
- Shovelful of aged compost or good garden soil
- 1/2 cup Molasses
- 1/2 cup Ammonia
- 5 Gallon Bucket
- Fill your 5-gallon bucket 2/3 of the way full of warm water.
- Add ingredients, stir.
- Leave your bucket in a warm/sunny place for 24-48 hours.
- Add your newly created compost started to your compost pile or tumbler (you’ll obviously need to adjust the amount you add based on the volume of your compost)
*Bonus Step If you want to create the most beneficial microbial community possible, aerate your catalyst using a fish tank pump. This will ensure that there is maximal growth of the proper (aerobic) type of bacteria.
In you’re familiar with compost tea, you’ll see how similar this recipe is. The purpose, in both cases, is to provide a medium and environment that fosters huge amounts of microbial growth. In the warm water the bacteria from your soil or pile will flourish and, when reintroduced to your pile or tumbler will hopefully give your composting a boost.
Wait, no beer?
If you’ve read many recipes, you’ll know that it’s a common (even trendy) practice to add beer to your compost accelerator. Unfortunatley, this is more of a wives tale than anything and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Beer is added in the hopes of putting two things into you pile: yeast and sugar. The truth is, very few American beers have any yeast in them at all as it is filtered out before the bottling/canning process. And if there was yeast, it would be of little value.
Yeast is a fungi and the majority of decomposition in your pile is performed by bacteria. Beer yeast in particular has no place in your compost because it is specialized for fermentation, not breaking down lignins or metabolizing cellulose.
So, while there are uses for beer in your garden, adding it to your compost starter is not one of them.
Do you really need a compost starter?
Needing a compost starter is usually an indicator that there is something more seriously wrong with your pile. A slow decomposition rate is simply a symptom and adding a starter will likely do nothing but mask that symptom for a bit.
We covered the follows issues in more more depth in our “Why is my Compost Not Breaking Down?” article but here are some things you need to get right:
- Incorrect Ratios. If you have too many browns in your compost,
- Inadequate air and water.
- You need to wait. Most compostable have all the bacteria they need without any help. Making quality compost takes a long time (see just how long it will take you) and it will probably take you several weeks before you notice any significant changes.
–> See 5 Tips for Making Faster Compost
So, yes, make and use a DIY compost starter! But be sure that you’re just boosting what’s already working and not utilizing a crutch.
2 Other Ways to Give Your Compost a Boost
If you are already confident that you have the basics of your composting method correct and think that it’s a bit too much effort to brew up a homemade starter, there are a few other things you can do if you want faster results.
- Kick up the nitrogen levels in your pile/tumbler. Additional nitrogen will probably result in a slightly stinky pile (not a problem unless the smell offends you) but will also speed up the process. Don’t go overboard but you can add extra nitrogen by adding manure, dumping in some grass clippings, or even peeing on your compost.
- Increase the volume of your pile. I know, if you had more items to compost, they’d already be in your pile, right? Well, here’s the thing. The mass of your pile is directly related to how fast it decomposes. Larger piles are able to generate far more heat due to their increased microbial activity. If you want to speed things up, it might be worth it to source additional compostables from grocery store dumpsters, sidewalks, your neighbors, etc.
At the end of the day, making your own homemade compost starter is a method that takes minimal effort and possibly will help out your compost. Unlike the promises given on other sites, I won’t promise that you compost will all-of-a-sudden take off or that you’ll have compost in 14 days from now. Compost takes time but, if you brew your starter and fix what’s wrong with your pile, the results with come!
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