Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Backyard Compost

My composting adventures all started about 9 years ago when our local Penn State Cooperative Extension office offered a free composting bin (the round one in the picture) when you attended their free composting seminar. It sounded like a win-win for me, so I signed up. I was just starting to garden, and quite frankly I had no idea what a compost was until I saw the ad for the seminar. About a year later, our township offered square composting bins for $12, which was quite a steal, so I bought one and I was on my way.

So what did I learn at the seminar? That composting is a great way to recycle yard and kitchen waste, return nutrients back into your soil and that it is quite easy. It's kind of hard to screw it up and when you do, it is easy to fix.

I have a system going, but I am a laid back composter. For starters, a compost needs to be turned regularly to decompose. During the winter, I still add kitchen waste to the compost, but I rarely turn it because I'm a wimp in the cold. I literally run to my bins, dump the food scraps and run back in the house. Usually, I'm wearing my bathrobe. Yes, I'm sure it is quite the sight.

There are a few basics though that you need to know. A compost needs two types of materials to develop: Carbon/Brown(dry) and Nitrogen/Green(fresh). A compost that is 3 parts carbon/brown to 1 part nitrogen/green is best. Too much green and you'll end up with a slimy, smelly mess full of fruit flies. The brown components will prevent that from happening. But honestly, I'm not measuring what I add to the bins and my compost decomposes quite nicely.

  • Some common examples of Carbon/Brown sources: bark, cardboard, (shred for easier decomposing), corn stalks and cobs, coffee grounds & filters, rinsed egg shells, dried leaves, newspaper (shred for easier decomposing), pine needles, tea leaves, straw
  • Some common examples of Nitrogen/Green: cow, poultry, horse, pig manure, vegetable & fruit waste, non-treated grass clippings, hair, non-treated garden waste
  • What should not be composted: meat, fish, grease, bones, oily foods, dairy products, solid waste from cats, dogs or humans, diseased or insect infested plants, weeds that have gone to seed (I avoid composted weeds altogether), I also don't add invasive plants like mint, wood ashes, bbq charcoal, plastic, metal glass, branches or wood chunks.

How I Compost:
As you see above I have 2 bins. I stopped adding new materials to the round bin last fall. After a long winter sitting idle, I am turning it regularly and hopefully it will be ready to be used in a month or two.

I have been adding kitchen scraps to the square bin all winter and I'll keep it going until I empty my round bin and then I'll start adding to the round bin. I'll leave a little compost in the bin, so that I have some carbon/brown to start with, otherwise, I might end up with too much of a green/fresh mix and here come the flies. When I've stopped adding to a bin, it is supposed to "cure" for 4 weeks before you use. I don't really time myself, but when the compost is crumbly and dark brown, I add it to the garden or flower beds.

I collect vegetable, fruit waste, coffee filters all year round in my plastic tub that I keep in the freezer. When it fills up, I take it to the compost. In the colder months, we eat more frozen produce and we don't have as much waste and the tub doesn't fill up very fast. It will start filling up much faster soon as we increase our intake of fresh food in the spring and summer. I like my freezer method because it eliminates any smell and fruit flies in my kitchen.

I don't add a lot of grass clippings into my compost for a couple of reasons. (1) We used to have a dog and our back yard was his potty. (2) Grass clippings are abundant and will fill up the bins fast. (3) All of the grass will turn your compost into a green, wet mess, like I mentioned above. You'll need a lot of carbon/brown materials to counteract all of the grass. So, we just leave our grass clippings lie on the ground.

We have very few trees on our property which leaves us with little to no dried leaves in the fall. So I take my neighbors fallen leaves and I fill my bins every fall. The dried leaves are carbon/brown and will help decompose all of the kitchen waste that I send to the compost every winter. Extra dried leaves are good to have on hand through out the spring/summer to help when your pile becomes too green/fresh. If possible, store extra dried leaves in bags or an extra bin for this purpose.

It is very important to turn the pile regularly to aerate the pile. Aerating your pile wakes up all the micro-organisms that are munching. The more you turn your pile, the faster you'll get usable compost. Composting can take 6 weeks to 12 months, depending on how much you are turning your pile. Now that the weather has warmed up, I take a garden fork and turn the pile every time I add to the compost. I am also turning the pile that I am curing right now.

The compost needs moisture to help speed up the process. The moisture level should be that of a damp, wrung-out sponge. Bins also should not be in full sun, as the full sun will dry them out faster. Unfortunately, my bins are in a full sun corner of my garden. It is really the only spot I have for them and because they are black, plastic bins, they get very hot. I have to constantly add water to the bins in the hot summer. When I know we are getting rain, I might go out and open the bins up to let the rain in, otherwise I use water from my rain barrel. I just have to remember to close them up to avoid critter dining.

My bins were very inexpensive, but they are small and I fill them up quite fast in the summer. What I like about my bins is that they have lids to keep critters out. I have a major critter problem in my yard and until we get another dog, critters will continue to treat my back yard like their own personal buffet.

Compost bins are easy to make yourself with recycled wood pallets or plastic garbage containers. You will find hundreds of DIY ideas with a simple google search.

I am really glad I started composting. I know I am a geek when I say it is fun, but it really is and I think it is going to be a great lesson to teach my kids. The cycle of our compostable garbage, from kitchen waste to compost to garden to table, is fascinating.

Although my favorite part of composting might be what sprouts up every year out the sides of the bins. Last year, a pumpkin plant started growing out of the side of one of my bins.

Do you have a compost? If so, how is your system different? Would you like to start composting and have questions? Let us know about it in the comments.

Thanks for reading. If you would like to receive FREE updates of FBS, there are four ways to do so:

This post is linked to Works for Me Wednesday and Your Green Resource at The Greenbacks Gal.


  1. Thank you for writing this very informative article. I have been considering composting but had no clue how it all works. Now I know! Now to find a bin...

  2. I grew up composting, and have pretty much always done it (minus a few years in college and abroad). But I also do the dump and run method in the winter. I always find turning the pile to be a pain, so we are really close to "investing" in a turning composter. They create compost much quicker, and we won't have trouble with our dog and critter getting.

    Keep up the composting!


  3. I'm so excited that you got your bins so inexpensively. We're moving soon and I hope to get into a house again, and then we'll start our mini-garden and again, and start composting for the 1st time. I can't wait!

  4. Angie - Good luck with your composting. It is much easier than it might seem.

    Darcy - My husband just said to me that we needed to get one of those turning composters. They seem to cut the time down quit a bit.

    Monique - Good luck with your move.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. I too am guilty of the dump and run routine, while wearing a bathrobe! But we are finding we need to be better composters, as we need more and more for the garden.

  6. Thanks for the compost tips! I'm trying to do better on mine this year. Love your bins!

  7. I wrote about my lazy composting method a while back. It's hardly the best one can do, but it's easy and it does work!

    Another source of browns is paper towels, napkins, and tissues. We minimize use of these things, but when we do use them if they don't have any dairy, blood, or chemicals on them (never had a problem with vegetable oils) they go into the compost. They break down really fast.

  8. Thanks for the great info. I'm jealous of your cheap composting bins. Mine is just a big pile in my yard that has been infested with weed seeds. :( Anyway, I love the idea of keeping the scraps in the freezer. I think my hubby would go for that method!

  9. This is so helpful. Thank you for this info! I want to start composting this summer, but I've been intimidated to start.

  10. Nothing geeky about it, composting *is* fun. I've been using the open pile method, turning about every month or so.

  11. I just came here again via Your Green Resource, and this time I noticed a sticker on an avocado peel you were putting into your compost. Those stickers are plastic, so they will never biodegrade, so you want to remove them before taking out the compost rather than have to fish them out of the compost later.

  12. I like the freezer idea. I compost too, but don't like to take my scraps out daily and I do hate having it sit on my counter.


Thank you for reading Family Balance Sheet and taking the time to leave a comment. I love to hear from readers.