Recipe: Make Your Own Compost

Woman scraping vegetable scraps into a compost container
Photo: Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock/Thinkstock

Recently, I was at a high school cafeteria that had bins for compost, trash and recycling. What a great way to teach students about the values of reducing trash! We can do this too while we live in our own homes — compost, recycle, and then trash. Home composting is an easy way to turn waste from your yard and kitchen into a rich material that you can use to improve your soil. Did you know yard trimmings and food scraps make up nearly 1/6th of our garbage?  There’s no need to throw these items into the trash — instead, convert them into a dark, crumbly mixture that can be used to improve your soil and reduce your use of fertilizer and water.

What You Need to Make Compost

  1. A compost bin to make or purchase
  2. Throw in your kitchen scraps and yard waste
  3. Mix it up with a shovel or pitchfork occasionally

While those are the simple steps to composting, let me give you a few more details:

The easiest style of compost bin is to use a chicken wire-style fence, wrapped into a circular shape. It’s open to air and it’s easy to stir and get into. Bins can also be built from scrap lumber, old pallets, snow fence or concrete blocks. You can also purchase several styles at a local hardware or lawn and garden store.

Like a simple recipe, compost also needs the right ingredients to produce the best results.

The Key Ingredients to Compost

  • Nitrogen-rich greens
  • Carbon-rich browns
  • Water
  • Air

Nitrogen greens provide nitrogen and act as a source of protein for microbes (which breakdown the materials). Examples include: green leaves, coffee grounds, tea bags, plant trimmings, raw fruit, vegetable scraps, lawn clippings.

Carbon browns provide carbon and energy for the microbes. Examples include: straw, sawdust, twigs, dried grasses, brown leaves and shredded newspaper or small amounts of cardboard.

Water and air are important because the microbes are alive in the compost pile. And like all living things, they too need air and water to live. Water allows the microbes to grow and travel around in the pile to decompose materials. Turning your pile each week provides air to speed up decomposition and control odors.

Don’t compost these items: diseased plants, meat, dairy, oils, pet feces, weeds that have gone to seed, and ash from charcoal or coal.

Instructions to Make Compost

  1. Choose a spot in your yard that is partially shaded and at least two feet from a structure. Other considerations include having it close by where you can easily add materials and having close access to water and good drainage. Also, check your local laws on where you can compost in your location.
  2. Lay a 4-6 inch base of browns. Then add 4-6 inches of greens. Then 4-6 inches of browns. It’s essential to leave them in layers until you turn them a week later, and be sure to layer in these amounts for the best results.
  3. Water as you go, your compost pile should be moist, like a wrung-out sponge. Squeeze a handful and if small beads of water appear between your fingers, you have enough water. Your pile will get wet from rain, and if it gets too wet, just turn it more frequently to help it dry up or add more brown materials to soak up the excess moisture.
  4. Turn it. Once you build the pile, the microbes get to work. As the materials decompose, the pile will get hot on the inside and you might even see steam. Every week, turn the pile using a pitchfork or shovel to mix up the brown and green layers and move materials toward the center of the pile. You can empty the bin and re-layer or just work new materials into the bin from the outside in. Continue to repeat until it looks dark and crumbly and fresh smelling and no longer looks like what you originally put into your compost bin. In the summer, this can go fast, and in the winter, it can stop, but don’t worry, it starts back up on its own in the spring.

How Do You Use Compost?

Once the compost is finished, mix it into your soil. With sandy soils, compost acts like a sponge, retaining water and nutrients where it can be reached by plant roots. In clay-heavy soils, compost makes the ground more porous, creating tiny holes and passageways that help soil drain more quickly. You can even spread compost on low spots in your lawn or use as a mulch for landscaping and garden plants to help protect the soil from erosion and drying effects from the wind and sun. You can also mix compost into pots for container plantings.

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Jen Haugen
Jen Haugen, RDN, LD, is a kitchen nutrition consultant based in Minnesota. She loves all things Midwest (hello, hotdish!), she gardens, and loves to bring joy into the kitchen with tools that make cooking fun! She blogs at www.jenhaugen.com. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.