First Steps In Composting – An Introduction For Beginners

My family regard my enthusiasm for composting with some amusement. They’d probably say, if pressed, that it’s verging on an obsession!  But here’s the thing. Composting is a fascinating subject and so much more interesting than just a pile of rotting vegetables and grass clippings!

Composting Principles

Good composting is both an art and a science. You need the right ingredients, the right amount of moisture and for rapid composting you need to turn your compost heap from time to time. You don’t even need a composting container, but you can buy or make one if you want to. None of this is difficult to achieve if you follow some simple rules that I’ll set out below. And once you get the principles right, you’ll be able to break the rules and make some of your own!

Problems with composting

It’s taken me nearly three years to really get to grips with how composting works. And that’s partly because I struggled to find clear information on what’s actually involved in turning assorted waste material into a beautiful, dark, nutrient rich soil. And partly because I did not realise that there were some basic rules that I needed to follow

Like many others, to begin with, I simply tossed all our family vegetable peelings, grass clippings, and hedge clippings into a large plastic compost tub and waited for the composting magic to happen.

Several months later, the pile inside was slightly smaller, but looked very much the same, and nothing resembling soil had appeared at the little door at the bottom of the tub. 

Compost Ingredients

Many experiments and a lot of reading material later, I have come up with a system that actually works. And that’s what I’ve set out here.  

It isn’t labor free, and it isn’t labor intensive either. It’s not complicated, and you can have compost within weeks if you want to. 

The first step is to get the ingredients right. Compost heaps need equal proportions of green and brown materials. Plus air and water. 

Green plus brown – get your proportions right

The formula for composting is straightforward. You need the same amount of brown vs green ingredients. 

Brown simply means anything carbon rich. So straw, wood chippings, dead leaves, these are all brown ingredients. 

Green items are nitrogen rich. These include grass clippings, vegetable peelings, animal manure etc.

Many of my early experiments were too nitrogen rich. If your compost pile is mainly green then you need to add some more brown, you can use torn up plain cardboard for this purpose. My later experiments had the reverse problem. I had a lot of straw to dispose of and I struggled to get these piles to compost at all. 

If you have too much brown material, piles of dead leaves for example, stack it separately from your working compost pile and add it to the pile gradually, as you add more green stuff.  Just remember the 50/50 rule and you’ll be fine

Compost piles need oxygen

Bigger isn’t necessarily better with a compost heap. If you make the pile very big, the material at the bottom will be so compressed that the air will be squeezed out of it. And the wonderful bacteria that break down the organic matter in your compost pile will die. 

The size of my pile is probably as big as I could go and keep my bacteria well supplied with oxygen. Turning the compost regularly helps keep the lower levels oxygenated, let’s see how that works 

The hurdles across the front of my compost bays are not essential for most gardeners, but they stop my sheep from interfering with my compost piles!

What about water? And sunshine?

The weather does affect composting. The composting process needs moisture, so be careful with compost tubs that have lids. One of my early mistakes was letting my compost get too dry inside a plastic compost barrel with a lid.

So, you’ll need to remember to water your compost. 

The idea is to keep the contents damp but not soggy. Think of a wrung out cloth. That’s about how it should feel.  

If you have very wet weather, a small, open, compost pile may get over-saturated. You can lay a board across the top of your compost to help keep the worst of the rain off. 

A board is also helpful in very hot weather too, and reduces the chances of the heap drying out. In hot weather give the pile a good soaking with a hose or watering can, then put the board on top to reduce evaporation

Fast composting – your weekly workout

My compost pile is more than a nice soil production factory, it’s also my gym! About once a week I turn the compost on the right hand side to mix all the ingredients together, and get some air into the mix. 

This is a good workout for me, but I don’t need to do this and neither do you unless you are short on space.  I just like the idea of getting a result a bit faster. 

You also need an open pile, like mine, with room to turn the compost, rather than a tub that you can’t get a fork into. Alternatively you could invest in one of those rotating compost barrels that you turn each day with a handle. 

Incidentally, you don’t need to have gates across the front of your compost piles – those hurdles are there to stop my sheep interfering with my compost piles!

Slow composting – for patient gardeners

If you are very patient and happy to wait months for a result, you don’t need to run a fast composting system. You can slow compost instead. 

You’ll need several compost piles, and when the first one is full, you’ll leave that one and start a new one. Over time, if the ingredient proportions are correct and the pile is fairly well mixed (not all green on the bottom and all brown on the top) then you’ll have compost from your first heap. But it could take as long as a year for your pile to rot down completely.

As you can see, slow composting requires more space, as well as more time, because you’ll need several compost piles on the go, and in different stages of the composting life cycle, at the same time. 

The temperature inside your compost pile

As my composting skills have improved, I’ve become more interested in the temperature inside my compost pile. There’s potential for using this heat too. 

A properly working compost heap gets very warm inside. If you want to know just how warm, you can buy a compost probe that you push into the pile and it gives you a temperature reading. You may be surprised at just how hot it gets. 

You don’t need to know about temperatures to get started with composting but it’s something you may find you get into as your composting skills grow. 

What about worms?

In my early experiments in our previous home with a small back yard,  I used to buy tiger worms from Amazon and add them to my compost tubs.  

I don’t do this any more because the soil on our homestead is very rich in worms, and they soon find their way into the compost pile.  

It’s unlikely that you’ll need to buy worms, but they are not very expensive so you might want to experiment and see if they help break down your compost faster. 

Getting started

Here is a quick summary to get you started with composting in your yard. 

  • You don’t need a container
  • Keep your ingredients balanced
  • Turn regularly for fast results

You don’t need tubs, barrels or other containers to get started. You don’t even need  purpose made bays like the ones I have. All you need is enough space to build a pile. Containers help keep things together, but they make it harder to turn your compost.

If you want fast results, or you don’t have space for more than one pile,  you’ll need a sturdy long handled fork to turn your compost regularly. Remember to mix green and browns in even proportions. And to turn your compost regularly for faster results. 

Good luck with your composting and let me know how you get on in the comments below!

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