Composting 101: Everything You Need to Get Started

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  • Buy or Make a Compost Bin

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    You can buy a composting bin at your local hardware store or garden center for anywhere from $50 to $200. There are many different kinds -- so which should you get? The answer is whichever one you can picture yourself using.

    Don't get suckered into buying a compost bin with a lot of bells and whistles (moving parts, special equipment). Buy one that's relatively simple.

    Whichever that one is, make sure you get someone to show you how it works.

    Or, you can build a compost bin yourself. Here's a DIY backyard composter from Sunset magazine.

  • Collect Your Kitchen Scraps

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    Here's what you CAN collect for compost: most raw fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, shredded egg cartons, tea bags, and coffee grounds. Make sure everything is chopped up into bite-sized pieces so they'll break down quickly.

    Do NOT compost: citrus anything, cooked food, seeds, anything with meat or oil, anything growing mold (you'll spread the mold in your compost), cheese, fish, junk food.

    Here's a nice long list of things you can and cannot compost.

    You can collect these scraps in a counter-top compost bin or keep in a plastic bag in the freezer until you're ready to take it out to your main composter.

  • Balance Green Matter With Brown Matter

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    Your compost needs a balance between what's called "brown matter" and "green matter."

    Brown matter is stuff high in carbon like dead leaves, soil (yes, really), ashes, sawdust, and shredded paper.

    Green matter is stuff high in nitrogen, like kitchen scraps and grass clippings.

    You want to layer green matter with brown matter and maintain a ratio of 25 to 30 parts brown matter to 1 part green matter. You don't have to get totally scientific about it and measure everything, just keep that ratio in mind.

  • Stir Occasionally

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    You may want to stir up your pile every once in a while. Stirring compost is controversial, actually -- some say it's not necessary. I say it can't hurt. If nothing else, it gives you the chance to take a peek and make sure everything is breaking down in a healthy way.

  • Troubleshoot Your Composting

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    © cotesebastien/iStock

    Is your compost smelly? You have too much green and not enough brown. Add garden soil, leaves, or ashes. Having too many kitchen scraps is also what's going to attract pests. Your compost should smell neutral.

    Don't mistake roly poly bugs and worms for pests, though. If you see those critters in your compost that's fine -- they're actually helping break down your compost into humus. Maggots, on the other hand, are bad news. Remove them if you see them and add more brown matter.

    Your compost should be warm, around 100 to 150 degrees in the summer (colder in the winter is okay). That kills off pathogens and speeds up the breakdown.

    If you add too much brown matter it could slow down the process, so don't get too carried away.

    Make sure the compost is slightly damp, but not soggy.

  • Harvest Your Humus

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    © cotesebastien/iStock

    If you're just getting started, it will probably take 6 months to a year before your compost breaks down into enough humus to use. You're playing the long game here! Just keep collecting your scraps and stirring and count on making use of your compost in the spring. Once you've done it longer and get the hang of it, you can find ways to speed up the process.

    Humus is the dark soil-like material that results from composting. It's not a good idea to use it in place of soil -- you actually mix it into your garden soil. You can also scatter it around plants so long as the leaves of your plants don't touch it.

  • Get Help If You Need It

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    © sarasang/iStock

    Believe it or not, there are people out there who are PASSIONATE! about composting and would love to help you, so don't be afraid to ask. Here are a few resources.

    1. Your local botanic garden. Call them up (or look at their website) and see if they have experts on staff. Many botanic gardens host composting workshops.

    2. Your local community garden. Chances are they have a composter and someone will be happy to show you how it works.

    3. U.S. Composting Council. This nonprofits website has pretty much everything you'd want to know about composting.

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