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DIY Composting

By Salt Lake Valley Landfill Compost Marketer & Recycling Specialist, Zak Breckenridge

As we mentioned in our last post, compost is awesome! And when you put yard trimmings, leaves, vegetable and fruit scraps, and more in your curbside brown compost container, you’re engaging in one of the best forms of local recycling: Composting.

Municipal composting saves landfill space, reduces landfill greenhouse gas emissions, and maintains the local nutrient cycle.

About 30% of what we put in the trash could be turned into compost, which has a big impact on our community carbon emissions and our landfill space.

But what do you do if you don’t have access to curbside yard waste disposal?

Or, perhaps you prefer to skip the brown bin and make your own nutrient-rich compost for your vegetable, flower gardens, and lawn.

Whatever the case may be, today we’re focusing on at-home composting, which gives you the convenience of fresh compost right at home, plus all of the environmental benefits of putting your kitchen and yard waste to good use.

Of course, there isn’t only one right way to compost. While composting methods share the same basic principles, there are many factors to keep in mind. Read on to learn about the main composting techniques so you can decide what method will work best for you.

Compost bin

Composting 101

Compost is made from a recipe with three basic ingredients: air, water, and organic matter.

The less visible fourth ingredient is made up of the millions of bacteria and fungi that work around the clock to transform the waste into useful compost.

In general, a compost heap should have alternating layers of “browns” (branches, leaves, wood shavings, paper, and cardboard) that provide carbon, and “greens” (fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, fresh garden and grass trimmings) that add nitrogen. A balance of green and brown ingredients provides a balanced diet for the microbes that turn organic waste into compost.

To get more consistent compost, shred the feedstock before adding it to the pile. Compost needs to be aerated and moist, so turning and watering the pile gives the microbes the resources they need to thrive as they make compost for you.

The compost pile should be about as wet as a wrung-out sponge—too moist and it may begin to stink, too dry and it may not create usable compost. A well-managed compost pile can reach temperatures up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, so steam and heat coming off the pile is normal.

Steam rising from compost pile at Salt Lake Valley Landfill.
Steam from compost pile.

Outdoor Composting

The first step of starting to compost is choosing the right spot for your compost pile. The site should be shady with some sun exposure, and the ground should be dry with good drainage. You may want the site to be a bit out-of-the-way and it should have easy access to a water source.

Once you’ve chosen a site, you can build your compost pile. There are many ways to build an outdoor compost pile.

Basic Heap:

  • One way is to simply make a heap. This requires no construction. And if you are patient and don’t want to devote too much effort to your compost pile — it doesn’t even need to be turned! The heap should be about a cubic yard in size. If your pile is smaller it may not retain heat well enough to produce good compost, but if it gets too much bigger the inner material may not get enough air. A heap is a slow, cheap, low-maintenance option for creating compost.

Enclosed Compost Pile:

  • You can also enclose a compost pile with hoop of chicken wire or four pallets lashed together, or some other simple container. Some people build a three-sided structure of cinderblocks with an easily removable board as the fourth wall. Such simple enclosures are cheap, easy ways to create a tidier compost pile than an uncontained heap. Make sure to leave holes in the enclosure to allow airflow. These piles are also easy to cover during times of heavy rain or incessant sunshine. Additionally, wire and simple wooden enclosures are easy to move when you turn them. Like a heap, a simply enclosed compost pile should be about a cubic yard to maintain an appropriate heat and moisture balance.

55-gallon Drum:

  • Finally, if you have limited space and want a tidy, easily moved compost pile, you can punch air holes in a 55-gallon drum and create compost in there. This technique can be especially good for households that don’t produce too much organic waste. You can set the barrel on a stand and turn it with a handle, but rolling the barrel around the yard achieves the same effect. Add a bit of dirt to the barrel because compost piles need soil microbes to work.

Indoor Composting

Even if you don’t have the yard space for a compost pile, you can still make your own compost at home!

Vermicomposting:

  • The cheapest way to create your own indoor composting system is to build a vermicomposting (worm-composting) bin. For this, get two plastic bins, one taller and narrower than the other. Punch some air and drainage holes in the taller bin and add organic waste and worms. You can use red wrigglers or regular earthworms. Worms reproduce rapidly in a compost bin, so you may be able to get them from another worm bin owner. Otherwise, you can buy them from your local USDA extension office. Do not get Asian Jumping Worms, which are an invasive species.
  • The worm bin may give off a slight odor, so it’s best to build it in a basement or lightly trafficked part of the house. But bins should not be built outdoors because the worms will freeze to death in the winter.

Buy an Indoor Bin:

  • A more expensive but potentially tidier option is to buy an indoor compost bin. Compost bins can cost $40-$300 and follow the same basic principles as DIY bins. Simply research the product, find what will work best for you, and follow the manufacturer’s directions.
Sprout growing in compost
Keep soil nutrient rich with your compost.

Putting Your Compost to Use

You’ve picked a spot, built your pile, and taken good care of it. Your compost is dark and earthy, and doesn’t give off an ammonia smell. Now what?

Compost strengthens soil against erosion, helps protect plants from disease, and contributes to long-term soil health.

To use compost properly, spread about 2 inches on top of your garden beds around planting time. Different types of plants benefit most from different types of compost use. Research the best compost application methods for the plants you want to grow!

But Wait — Doesn’t Compost Stink?

You may hesitate to start your own compost pile because you worry that leaving a bunch of decaying food around will stink and attract animals. But fear not! A well-tended compost pile should give off a rich, earthy smell, but if it starts to smell really foul something’s gone wrong.

Turning, mixing, and watering your compost pile right, and keeping meat, dairy, and grease out, will keep it smelling fresh.

Ready for At-Home Composting!

There are so many ways to make compost! All of them benefit the environment and the plants in your garden. Different people and different homes will want to compost differently, but learning to compost saves landfill space, reduces your carbon footprint, and helps take Salt Lake City closer to zero waste.

For more information, look at the Home Composting Resources on Salt Lake County website, and the U.S. Composting Council’s education resources.

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