Vibrant blooms and edible bounties are the gardener’s reward, but it’s what happens before seed reaches soil that makes this magic possible. Less glamorous but equally vital, compost is the secret ingredient.

When organic matter decomposes, it’s called compost. Decomposition is the job of microscopic organisms, and depending on your method, worms and insects. The transformation turns what would be waste into a useful, nutrient-dense soil conditioner. Even after compost is laid, it continues to decompose, depositing its benefits.

Related: Eartheasy’s Complete Guide to Composting

In this article, we’ll share 10 composting tips from gardening authors, soil farmers, a garden club leader, and a community compost operator with expert advice for beginning or improving your home compost.

Why is composting important?

“An investment in the soil is an investment not only in your plants, but also in the earth,” says Melinda Cordell, author of Stay Grounded: Soil Building for Sustainable Gardens. She’s referring to carbon sequestration —soil’s ability to act as a carbon sink or reservoir, trapping it and keeping it out of the atmosphere. “One way to create a carbon sink is simple: through making and using compost,” explains Cordell. The USGS acknowledges carbon sequestration as a way to fight climate change.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 94% of the food thrown away is combusted or sent to landfills, both of which release methane and harm the environment.

Todd Heft, the gardener behind Big Blog of Gardening and the book Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-by-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes in Your Garden knows the contribution we can all make by composting. “Every gardener needs to be composting. It’s a great way to use the debris from your yard trimmings, grass clippings, and food scraps from your table without sending them to a landfill,” he says.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 94% of the food thrown away is combusted or sent to landfills, both of which release methane and harm the environment.

Composting has more immediate benefits that you can see in your own garden and bank account. Store bought alternatives to homemade compost are costly, which can make gardening feel out of reach. Heft points out “…compost feeds the soil better than any commercial fertilizer, organic or synthetic.”

Related: Is Healthy Vibrant Soil a Solution to Climate Change?

The following compost tips will help you feed your soil with the best of nature’s fertilizer.

1. Start by choosing the best compost method for you.

Heft recommends considering the size of your garden and what level of maintenance you’ll be able to perform when starting a new compost pile.

“If your garden is small, or if you have mobility problems, a compost tumbler should be sufficient. If your garden is large, you’ll need to make a large bin or buy a wire-type bin. You can also do it the cold compost pile way: just throw everything into one pile in an out of the way place and pull the compost from the bottom of the pile when you need it.”

Related: Best Compost Bins and Tumblers of 2019: Reviews

By putting some thought into what your compost operation should look like, you can find a system that works for your lifestyle and garden’s needs.

2. Plan your food scrap collection system.

“If you don’t have a place to put food scraps when you’re in the middle of chopping fruits and veg, they’ll probably end up in the trash,” says Lauresa Larson, co-founder and owner of the Black Thumb Garden Club.

“Pick your container and have it sitting somewhere you’ll see and use it. A compost collecting bin is great because it has filtered air flow, which keeps flies out, but also prevents your fruit from fermenting. Fermentation won’t start immediately though, so if you use a container with a tight lid, just make sure you empty your scraps every few days. Another option is collecting food scraps in your freezer.”

odor free compost pail

A compost collector with filtered air flow keeps flies out and prevents fruit from fermenting.

The freezer method is popular for those who live in the city or need to transport their compost.

Related: How to Compost in an Apartment

3. Start two batches of compost.

“One for collecting new stuff, and one for mixing the final compost.”

This pointer from Larson means you can work in smaller batches to yield faster results, plus avoid the labor of a large pile. Having piles side-by-side or a tumbler with two compartments makes maintenance a breeze.

Jora JK 125 composter

A compost tumbler with side-by-side compartments yields faster results.

4. Balance your browns and greens.

Minding the ratio of nitrogen (greens) and carbon (browns) is preached by experienced composters, which Heft reinforces.

“If you add too many food scraps or ‘green’ material vs. ‘brown’ material, it will smell bad. The opposite is true as well. If your pile isn’t decomposing, add more food scraps or ‘green’ material.”

Compost is all about balance. If you’re dealing with flies and odor, the nitrogen in the green material is producing too many enzymes. If it’s moving too slowly, there aren’t enough greens. Aim for a ratio of one-third greens to two-thirds browns.

Related: 7 Signs Your Compost is Struggling (and What You Can Do About It)

5. Don’t forget to remove produce stickers.

“Produce stickers are made of plastic. That means they do not break down in the compost.”

This advice is brought to you by the “Worm Queen” Melissa Corichi, founder and owner of Let it Rot, a curbside community compost collection program. She instructs her community to put produce stickers on their compost buckets.

let it rot instagram post

Another way to deal with produce stickers is to take the advice of zero waste guru Bea Johnson and avoid them in the first place. When shopping, choose fruits without stickers—there are usually some in the pile.

6. Don’t compost bioplastics at home.

Right along with the plastic produce tags, Worm Queen Corichi’s compost operation does not accept biodegradable or compostable plastic. “Just like rocks break down into smaller rocks (sand), biodegradable plastics just break down into smaller plastics (plastic sand),” she explains.

Biodegradable and compostable plastics do technically decompose, but they usually need to be composted by industrial systems. Check in your area to see if there’s a compost facility that accepts these. If there isn’t, choose reusable bags wherever possible.

7. Monitor your compost for excess fungus.

You shouldn’t be alarmed to see fungal growth in your compost pile. In fact, fungi are essential to the process. But Stephanie Koeser, soil specialist at Florida Organic Solutions Inc, an organic compost and topsoil farm, explains why you should be aware of their presence and what to do if you suspect they’re taking over.

“Mushrooms and other fungi will grow in a compost pile if the cellulose [browns] levels are higher. Mushrooms will not harm the compost, but some mushrooms can be toxic. You can manage the fungal growth by aerating the compost pile and maintaining a balance of nitrogen and cellulose materials. Be sure to monitor the temperature and moisture levels as well.”

florida organic solutions instagram post

The reason for excess fungi comes back to balancing browns and greens. Browns cool the compost by promoting airflow. When combined with too much moisture, your compost pile can become fungal dominant. This type of compost is good for wooded areas and trees, while bacterial dominant is best for most home gardening.

8. Use compost liberally in your garden.

Once you’ve made your compost, Heft encourages you not to by shy about using it.

“Unlike fertilizers, you can’t put too much compost on your garden. Apply it 2-3 inches deep, but keep it about 1″ from the stems of plants to avoid injury.”

While you have to be careful about measuring commercial fertilizers because they can burn your plants due to the high concentration of nitrogen, compost is safe and balanced.

9. Look beyond your kitchen and yard for compostables.

“I was adding chicken feathers, [plastic-free] Q-tips, [paper] wrappers, my old jeans, just to see what would break down.”

This is Cordell’s experience of getting creative with composting, and it’s a good reminder to consider other compostables such as natural fabrics and wood and bamboo products.

A “hot” compost pile is one that’s turned and kept moist, which helps the organisms break down material faster.

“Obviously this kind of composting requires a hot pile, and it’s a good idea to screen your compost before you put it in the garden so you don’t get the seams from your old jeans wound up in the tiller,” she adds.

A “hot” compost pile is one that’s turned and kept moist, which helps the organisms break down material faster (versus leaving it unattended). You can get these results with a compost pile, tumbler or bin.

Related: Compost Bins vs. Compost Tumblers: Pros and Cons

10. Keep a compost log.

Writing things down isn’t just for authors like Cordell, and you may even run into some compost stories worth sharing.

“Things will go wrong now and then. So when you come out and find that Ms. Opossum has taken up residence in your compost heap, or the composting process has gone anaerobic and the smell hits you between the eyes—it happens. Lure [her] out with a can of wet cat food, or add more ‘brown’ materials to your pile and aerate. And write the story down to share and chuckle about later.”

With so many things going on in your garden and home, it’s easy to lose track of details. Make life easy and entertaining by jotting down notes about what does and doesn’t work on your compost journey to avoid repeating mistakes.

Be a fearless composter

Cordell lends sage advice for composters of all levels.

“Whether you’re just starting out with composting, or you’re an old pro…you’re always learning. Don’t be afraid to try new techniques and composting styles. If something doesn’t work, then try something else. However you make it, your plants and soil will bless you for your work.”

There are many ways you can reduce your waste and feed your garden, but composting is the all-in-one, natural solution everyone can take advantage of.

Are you ready to make the leap into composting? Visit our product page for a huge selection of composting systems and supplies.

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