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How to Start & Maintain a Backyard Compost

Have you ever wondered how to start and maintain a backyard compost?

My composting adventures all started 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 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, 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 a sight.

Composting Basics

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 eggshells, 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 as 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 to 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 neighbor’s 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 throughout 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 the 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 as their own personal buffet.

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