Starting a Backyard Compost
"However small your garden, you must provide for two of the serious gardener's necessities, a tool shed and a compost heap. A wire bin takes up negligible space and can be concealed by shrubs, or you can make a small pit into which you sweep leaves and clippings, but try not to fall into it."
Starting a backyard compost – the foundation of it all
If you are thinking about starting a backyard compost, you will need to decide just how you want to go about it – after all, there is more than one way to skin a cat. All things considered, while I have checked out most of the commonly used garden composting systems – true understanding can only come after years of first hand experience. My immediate experience, of course, is limited to straight-forward single bin composting or laying down an open pile, which I and my family have done for years. Nothing fancy in our house….
So, whether you favour making compost with just a simple heap on the bare ground or with soil incorporation such as trench or pit composting, whether you like the idea of using a single container or a more elaborate multi-bin system, or whether you decide on a rotator or tumbler, remember that we are merely helping to optimise a natural process that will happen with or without us, in one form or another.
So, which method and/or system will you favour?
When starting a backyard compost, the system you choose must depend partly on how you want to play it. I am guessing that you will either be keen as mustard, or in two minds about the whole thing. If the former, you will probably be ready to plunge in, ready to try all sorts of different systems and methods and to expend heaps of energy. If the latter, you may well be a ‘hammock composter’ – happy to toss the stuff in the bin and just let it rot. Both ways will end up as Black Gold, so no worries there.
If you decide to go ahead, you will need to consider:
- the space you have available.
- what ingredients and what quantities of ingredients you will have available.
- how physically strong you are.
- the amount of time and effort you wish to spend on your new ‘hobby’.
- how much money, if any, you wish to spend.
Each of these and, no doubt, other factors will play a part in your choices. For example, a small garden means that a large 2-3-bin set-up is probably out of the question. A lack of suitable ingredients or life in a town house, would indicate that an indoor worm farm or bokashi may suit you better. Starting a backyard compost may not be for you. If you suffer from back problems, or if you are not physically fit, you probably would not appreciate having to toss great quantities of ‘stuff’ in the air when you are aerating your heap or moving it from one bin to another in a static turning system. In this case, maybe a ‘tumbler’ or ‘rotating’ system would better meet your needs. Do you want the relative ease of “cold composting” which can take over a year to see results, or would you like to go full on and do faster “hot composting” right from the word go?
Once starting a backyard compost becomes a reality therefore, your first tasks will be choosing
- which method you will use
- where you will place your bin
These two questions should be considered together as you will find often that the answer to one will depend on the answer to the other.
Where should I place my compost?
For simplicity’s sake, if you have the room, you could start with a simple collection of plant waste where everything is layered directly on to the soil. It appears that most people do this to begin. Choosing a suitable site is straight-forward
- You need an area that has good drainage and does not get water-logged in wet weather.
- You need shade, to prevent drying out, and some sunshine, (especially necessary if you live in a cooler climate) to keep your heap at a reasonable temperature.
- You also need a handy water-supply so that you can water your ingredients whenever necessary.
TIP: If you are going to use kitchen waste, please think of the cook and avoid placing your heap half a mile from the house. By the same token, do not site it right by the kitchen window where the odd smell or fly may annoy that same valuable member of the family!
If you have neighbours close by who over-look your backyard, be thoughtful and do not make your heap a part of your landscaping. Siting it in a discreet corner where it will not evolve into an eyesore or ( God forbid if it is ever neglected) a source of ripe odours and breeding flies is a really sensible move.
Starting a basic backyard compost
Dumping a heap of material directly onto bare earth, or in to it, is the most basic way to start and is very often the first choice of those just starting out who are lucky enough to have a suitable backyard. It is simple and natural and while it is a slow process, it takes up less time and effort on a daily basis, than almost any other method around.
We have already mentioned briefly how the ingredients in a compost may be split into two types, known as ‘brown’ and ‘green’.
- Brown materials typically would be dried leaves, wood chips, shredded newspaper, cardboard, etc. These materials are rich in carbon.
- Green materials would include kitchen waste, grass clippings and some manures. These are rich in nitrogen.
TIP: Not all organic waste is necessarily suitable for processing by this method, so check out our lists to make sure.
When you have decided where you wish to place your heap and are ready to go, clear the area you have chosen, stripping out all plant matter including the roots. On the bare soil, place a layer of woody, twiggy material to provide your pile with drainage. Next, add a layer of ‘green’ materials – a small amount of grass clippings, some green leafy waste from the garden perhaps mixed with vegetable or fruit peelings. Then, add a layer of ‘brown’ waste – e.g. shredded cardboard, newspaper, or some wood chips followed by a small handful of dirt from your garden. Continue with this layering until either you run out of materials, or you have amassed the volume you want.
It is best to cut up your ingredients as small as you can before adding them to your compost, as this allows the micro-organisms present to access the nutrients they need to do their work. It also assists in maintaining the correct temperature and in improving the flow of oxygen, another vital ingredient.
Sprinkle each layer with water as you go, but do not soak it. It is important that you keep your pile damp, (which explains the reason for a handy water-supply) and that you turn it every 5-10 days to keep it aerated. (opinions vary again here, but be sensible about it. You will soon be aware if problems develop)
I turn the ingredients in my bin every time I add a fresh load of waste, probably about every second or third day. Turning the material in the pile adds oxygen and is necessary if your aim is to keep the pile warm enough for the decomposition process to proceed at a more rapid pace. It also prevents the aggregation of wet, nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings and it also means that edible treats enjoyed by certain night prowlers are well-buried at the bottom of the pile! Be aware, though that too much turning can be drying and you certainly do not want that!
The best thing about starting a backyard compost is that you can do it for no money, with no tools but a garden fork and with a minimum of effort. It is easy to make that all-important decision. Of course, starting a backyard compost is just what it says it is. It is just the beginning. If you contract the ‘bug’ the ways forward are endless and fascinating and you may well find yourself with a hobby for life.