Get the Most from Your Compost

Composting is a great way to put organic waste to work for your soil. Rather than piling it into landfills, compost helps transform decaying organic matter into nutrients that boost your soil health. Whether you are looking to try composting for the first time, or jumpstart your current pile, we have everything you need to get the most out of your compost.

The Benefits of Composting

A healthy lawn ecosystem depends on soil health. Composting builds better soil. A strong compost will alter the pore structures of existing soil, stimulate microbial activity, and increase natural aeration, ultimately improving the ability of soil to support plant life.  

The second main benefit of composting is elevating the chemical composition of your soil. Not only does compost increase slow-release nutrients but it also increases water retention, both of which improve soil health.

Did you know that 35-45% of waste in landfills could’ve been composted instead? Compost is a great tool to help waste management. In particular, when food waste is broken down slowly, like in a landfill, it is converted into a very potent greenhouse gas called methane. However when it’s broken down in the composting process, the emissions are less toxic because more of the carbon remains in the soil rather than in the atmosphere.

The Two Types of Composting

Vermicomposting is where earthworms and various gut microbes eat the materials producing earthworm manure that has a very high concentration of nutrients. 

Thermophilic composts use heat to encourage microbes to decompose organic matter. Compost heaps must maintain 131°F+ for three or more days to kill pathogens, weed seed, and break down materials. It is important that they cool gradually so that beneficial microbes are not killed in the process. 

Both types of composts require proper aeration and can be built in a closed container, open pile, or anything in between. Composting vessels,  containers, piles or even a compost heap offers a range of composting options. For most home use, a container will make aeration, moisture management and composting generally the most easy.

5 Ingredients of a Healthy Compost

  1. Green materials add nitrogen and moisture to your compost. (ex. plant material, fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, etc.)
  2. Brown materials are carbon-rich and help soak up moisture. (ex. dry leaves, shredded brown paper, sawdust, woodchips etc.) 
  3. Microbial activity breaks down the green and brown material into compost that boosts soil health. 
  4. Moisture levels are best between 40-65%. If compost becomes too dry microbes won’t be able to do their job and if it’s too wet, there won’t be enough oxygen. Compost should feel damp like a sponge to the touch, not soaked.
  5. Oxygen is required for microbes to act, so piles should be aerated or rotated regularly.

5 Steps to Start Your Own Compost at Home

  1. The best place to start is with the right tools. You’ll want a pitchfork or shovel for regular mixing and either a bin or enclosed area to contain the compost material.
  2. The perfect compost location is dry, shady, and close to a water source so that moistening your compost is always easy.
  3. Start with a mix of green and brown materials. Remember to avoid adding meat, dairy, oil, salty or processed foods as they will attract pests and prevent proper composting. Continue to layer green and brown materials as they begin to compost. 
  4. Keep an eye on your compost. It’s a good sign that everything is working if the pile steams as it heats up. Be sure to hose your compost pile down if it gets too dry but avoid drenching it.
  5. Add in more materials and be sure to mix the pile occasionally to make sure that there is enough oxygen and microbial activity. Mixing and aerating the compost pile also helps prevent unwanted odors.

Compost piles can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months to be ready. Once your pile starts to get close, be sure to stop adding fresh material so that the microbes can complete the composting process.

How to Know if Your Compost is Ready for Use

  1. dark brown soil-like consistency
  2. free of large debris
  3. odor-free
  4. temperatures match outside environment

One great way to speed up your composting is to use existing compost to jumpstart a new pile. Adding some finished compost to a new pile, you can speed up the breakdown of new materials.

Checklist: Get the Most out of Your Compost

  1. How does it look? Your compost should have the color and consistency of dark top soil with no large debris.
  2. How does it smell? Your compost should have no offensive odor. Smells like ammonia or sulfur are a sign that your compost pile isn’t working properly.
  3. Are there weeds? Properly composted material generates enough heat to kill most plant and human pathogens, so plant growth is a sign that your pile hasn’t reached the proper temperatures.

From waste management to top soil regeneration, composting has a lot to offer your garden, yard and even your lawn. While compost is so nutrient rich that it is generally more useful in a vegetable garden bed than on a lawn, it can be used as part of a fertile topdressing mix. Topdressing your lawn does not affect all of the soil in your lawn, only the topmost layer. It is important to apply the right amount of topdressing because too much can smother grass and lead to excess run-off.

Ready to start your own fruit or veggie garden? Learn how to put your compost to good use growing food by Starting a Garden!

Cited Sources:
¹ United States Environmental Protection Agency, Composting At Home, US EPA.
² United States Environmental Protection Agency, Yard Trimmings: Material-Specific Data, US EPA.
³ Chalmers, D. R., & Booze-Daniels, J., Mowing To Recycle Grass Clippings: Let the Clips Fall Where They May!, VCE Publications | Virginia Tech.
⁴ United States Environmental Protection Agency, Types of Composting and Understanding the Process, US EPA.