Everything You Need to Know about How to Make Compost

Composting provides your plants with vital nutrients required to grow. Children take vitamins to guarantee their proper development and health. Plants need the same thing, but you can’t give your plants vitamins.

Composting gives your plants an optimal chance for prolific growth and a bountiful harvest at the end of the growing season. Learning how to make compost requires a few steps and a basic understanding! Let’s get started.

What do you think is the hardest part about composting? Do you have any questions? Let us know in the comments. We love your input. 

What is Composting?

Compost is a collection of brown and green materials that break down over an extended period. Soon, all of those materials decompose, turning into something similar to soil. Then you can add that to your garden. Most gardeners add compost to their garden to increase and enrich the nutrients and microbes in our soil. All of those things will lead to your plants flourishing and producing a bountiful harvest.

Why is Compost Beneficial

           Gardeners must find ways to enrich their soil each year if they want their garden to grow. For years, I didn’t know that! I thought soil just naturally had what my plants needed to succeed. What I didn’t know is that plants remove the nutrients from the soil each year. Most plants also leave behind different excess nutrients, but new plants need a healthy balance of nutrients to grow properly.

           There are dozens of reasons why compost is beneficial for your garden. Let’s take a look at some of the top reasons! You will be surprised.

  • Creates a Healthier Soil: Compost adds dozens of nutrients to your soil from the materials broken down over time. Another great benefit is that compost allows the soil to retain moisture. Those with sandy soil benefit from adding compost to your garden because it will hold in the moisture. Compost is great for those areas that might experience extended dry periods; it will keep the moisture present for as long as possible.
  • Reduces Trash Output: Many of the items you can add to your compost might end up in the trash otherwise! Instead of tossing out all of your vegetable and fruit scraps, put them into the compost! You can reduce so much of your kitchen waste, along with yard waste. Leaves and grass clippings should go into your compost rather than trash bags!
  • Introduces Important Organisms to Your Soil: Not only does compost bring beneficial nutrients to your soil, but compost also introduces beneficial organisms. These simple organisms aerate the soil and break down materials. Organism can also reduce diseases that might kill your plants!
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    Great for the Environment: By reducing your waste, you stop more items from entering the landfills, which are growing each year. Believe it or not, over one-third of the items that end up in landfills could be put into compost instead. Composting also helps gardeners reduce their need for chemical fertilizers, which greatly help the environment.

Hot vs. Cold Composting

As you start learning about how to create your compost, you will notice the terms hot and cold composting. Both methods offer pros and cons. All compost piles require several elements to create the composting effect. The major differences between hot and cold composting depend on these elements. Moisture, aeration, temperature, material size and carbon to nitrogen ratio work together to create your compost pile.

Hot Composting

Hot composting allows you to create compost at a faster rate. It is a system where you have to increase the temperature to the correct point over an extended time. The temperature is crucial; it destroys all of the weed seeds and potential pathogens. Gardeners do have to take extra time and energy to ensure their hot composting is correct. You must work on layering materials, and, later, managing the temperature.

Hot composting requires more high-nitrogen materials than a cold compost. Gardeners recommend two parts carbon to one part nitrogen. Moisture is necessary. You want the mixture not to be sopping wet, but thoroughly damp. Adding different sized materials allows air to circulate easier.

The ideal temperature for a hot compost is between 141 to 155 degrees F. When properly created, it should only take 24 to 36 hours to bring the mixture to this temperature. A compost thermometer is necessary to monitor the temperature for the next week. If the temperature starts to drop or get hotter than 160 degrees F, you should turn it and add water.

PROS:
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    It only takes several weeks to several months to create a finished compost. Hot composting is ideal when you need it sooner rather than later.
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    The right system will work all year round, which is great because your kitchen scraps continue all year
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    You can add a wider variety of food waste.
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    The temperature tends to kill off odors, fly eggs and larvae.
CONS:
  • You have to plan to monitor the moisture of the content, continue to aerate it to keep oxygen microbes happy, and carefully balance brown and green materials. It takes more planning and work than cold composting.

Cold Composting

For years, my husband and I dumped our kitchen and yard waste in a pile on the edge of our property. Sometimes, we would mix it up so critters didn’t find the scraps. After several months, we realized what we added months ago now looked like soil. We created our own cold composting pile without realizing what it truly was!

Cold composting is when organic waste decomposes in a pile at a slower rate. The gardener doesn’t spend much time or energy on the compost. All it takes is patience because it does take extra time for everything to decompose. Despite the name, the temperature of the compost does rise, typically to 90 degrees F, but doesn’t require careful management.

Creating cold compost is simple. Put all of your organic waste into a pile and wait. If you are looking for a simple method, you can’t beat cold composting. The time that it takes to generate compost will depend on what you added. Smaller items decompose faster. However, it is important that you never add weeds that have gone to seeds or diseased plants. The temperature inside of the compost is not able to kill off seeds and pathogens.

PROS:
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    It can be as simple as you want. You can use a pile somewhere or create a three-bin method.
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    You don’t have to take much time to manage the pile. It is the perfect choice for the lazy gardener.
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    The temperature of a hot compost often kills off beneficial fungi and bacteria that will help your garden. A cold compost leaves these microbes intact.
CONS:
  • Cold composting takes a long time to create finished compost. If you need it by a certain time, this is not the right method for you. It may take a year or longer to produce compost!
  • Pathogens can grow, so you have to be careful with what you add! You don’t want to add too many scraps.
  • It stops in the winter. Whatever you add during the winter won’t start decomposing until spring.

As you can see, the largest difference between cold and hot composting is the temperature of the pile. However, cold composting doesn’t require as much aeration and moisture as hot composting. The material size needs to be smaller in hot composting to make them break down faster. Also, hot composting requires more nitrogen (green) materials to keep the moisture and temperature higher.

Composting Methods with Pros and Cons

           Now that you know the basics about composting and have picked whether you want to use cold or hot composting, the time has come to determine the method. There are six general methods that gardeners use. Each choice has pros and cons. You have to decide which method works best for your particular garden and needs.

Closed Bins

           A closed bin is often called a composting bin. You can select a variety of containers for this method; shape doesn’t play a part in the decomposition. Urban and suburban dwellers often select the closed bin method because the composting is out of sight and mind, perfect for nearby neighbors. Getting started with a closed bin composter is easy!

1. Select the Compost Bin: There are dozens of closed bins available for purchase. Your local sanitation service might even offer compost bins! They range in size, design, and cost. The best ones have dense walls that will prevent any type of critter from entering.

2. Getting Started: All stationary closed bins have a lid, an open bottom and are enclosed on all sides. To begin, you have to find a flat location with the soil exposed. Add a few layers of brown materials, such as leaves, shredded newspapers or even woodchips. Then, put in a layer of green materials, such as the fruit and vegetable scraps for the day.

3. Managing Your Closed Bin Compost: Continue to alternate layers, brown then green materials. Every week, you should use a tool, such as a shovel or pitchfork, to turn the materials. Aerating the material adds oxygen and aids the decomposition process.

4. Wait for Results: Several months later, you will have finished compost that resembles soil. To harvest the compost, you can either scoop from the lid or lift up the entire composter. Some also have a latch door at the bottom, allowing you to harvest the compost.

Closed bins are great for urbanites who desire to make their own compost. There are several negatives to consider. First, you can’t use it for hot composting, so the finished product takes time. Turning the materials each week can become quite a chore. Also, you are limited by the amount of compost you can create, unless you buy more than one closed bin.

We used a closed bin for a long time! While I loved the convenience of being able to store it close to my home, I didn’t like feeling limited by the volume. We have a large garden and the closed bins didn’t create enough compost. However, if you have a smaller garden, the volume limitation might not be an issue!  

PROS:
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    Ideal for urban or suburban gardens.
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    Deters animals and keeps the compost attractive for neighbors.
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    Great for small spaces
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    Easy with minimal effort.
CONS:
  • Harvesting requires extra steps.
  • Turning the compost can be hard.
  • Cannot use it for hot composting.
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    Limited volume

Pit or Trench Composting

           Gardeners who like to keep it simple appreciate pit, or trench, composting. All you have to do is dig a trench for your compost. The pile does the work itself, breaking the material down over an extended period. Trench composting keeps everything out of sight. Plus, its free! All you need is some physical labor to dig the trench.

1. Dig the Trench: The first step is to dig a trench for your compost. On average, the size is 12 inches deep and as wide and long as you want. You want to consider the location; most people pick trench composting to better the soil in one particular location rather than using it to harvest finished composted.

2. Add Material: You want to add four to six inches of kitchen scraps. Remember to check the list for items not allowed! Kitchen scraps can be potato peels, celery stalks, banana peels, coffee ground, eggshells and tea leaves! There are dozens of options. You can also add some brown materials like shredded leaves and grass clippings.

3. Cover the Trench: Next, cover the compost with soil. Now, the real process to create your compost begins.

4. Pick a New Location Next Year: Harvesting finished compost is hard from trench composts. It is a good idea to stagger where you put your trench compost because it spreads the nutrients out.

Pit composting is one of the oldest styles! The Native Americans buried fish scraps to better their crops. While it is a valid composting method, you can’t harvest the finished materials to use elsewhere. It is best to reserve it for when you plan to start a new garden bed. Pit composting will create an amazing first start for your garden beds.  

PROS:
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    Totally free!
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    Enriches soil for garden beds ahead of time.
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    No turning or maintenance required.
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    No limitation for amount of added organic waste.
CONS:
  • Only useable for cold composting.
  • Finished product takes months.
  • Cannot harvest finished compost.

Open Bins

           The method most gardeners pick is an open bin because you can use it for hot and cold composting. You can create multiple open bins, typically a three-bin system. Also, building your own open bin is rather easy. Most people build a square with pallets or scrap lumber. The costs are low or free, which everyone loves!  

1. Create Your Bin: First, you have to build a bin! You will need wood, nails and some wire. The size of the bin is up to you; think about how much compost you want to make. You don’t need a lid, hence why it is called an open bin. Finding plans for your new open bin composter is easy!

2. Start with a Base: Most people start their compost directly on the soil, allowing earthworms to enter. Next, you want to add some twigs or straw, which will increase the air flow and drainage.

3. Work with Layers: You should create a layer system when adding materials to your compost bin. First, add a layer of wet (green materials). These might be your leftover fruit and veggie scraps from lunch and dinner. Alternating dry and wet materials is essential to avoid excess moisture.

4. Add Water and Turn: Add water at times, if it seems as if your compost pile is dry. You don’t want the materials soggy, but dampness is an essential element for composting. When the forecast says there are several days of rain ahead, consider covering your compost bin to avoid excessive moisture. Turn the materials every two to three weeks using a shovel or pitchfork. Make sure to really get to the bottom to rotate the materials.

5. Cover: Despite the name open bin, these bins do better if you put a tarp or some material overtop. You want to leave the sides open, but covering the top with plastic or other materials keeps in moisture and also helps to prevent critters from entering.

6. Harvest the Materials: The last step is to harvest the materials. The length of time it will take depends on if you select cold or hot composting. An open bin is much easier to harvest. You can either scoop out with a shovel or remove a board and let the compost pour out.

Open bins are my favorite pick. I can create it any size I need for the size garden I have. While I generally don’t use hot composting, I do have the option. Maintenance and upkeep is easy, plus harvesting is a breeze compared to other methods.  

PROS:
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    Maintenance is very easy.
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    Can use for hot and cold composting.
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    No limitation for volume created.
CONS:
  • Might be cost prohibitive if you need to purchase all materials.
  • Neighbors might not like the sight.
  • Need space for the bins; not ideal for urban dwellers.

Tumblers

           Tumblers are just like the closed bins listed before, except they are on a support structure. The bin never touches the ground. Most have handles on the side that allows you turn the tumbler with ease. Many gardeners love tumblers; it makes turning the material easy! If you are looking for a method that requires less physical labor, a tumbler might be the choice for you.

1. Select a Tumbler: Most home improvement stores have tumblers available for purchase, although you can make your own if you are handy! The cost will depend on the materials, sturdiness and size. A larger tumbler will cost more than a smaller size. Think about how much compost you want to make each year.

2. Get Started:  Getting started with your tumbler is easy! First, add a few shovels of soil to start the decomposition process. Then, add brown and green materials to the bin throughout your week.

3. Turning: Unlike other choices, you have to turn a tumbler more frequently. You should turn it two to four times per week. Make sure you give it good turns each time to mix all of the materials together.

4. Harvest Soon: One of the great benefits is that the finished compost only takes about a month, depending on how much materials you add. Keeping the tumbler in a sunny spot increases the decomposition process. However, if you fill a tumbler up all the way with materials, it will still take time to create compost because it is a cold composter.

Tumblers are another great way to hide your composting efforts from nosy neighbors. They are totally enclosed, hiding all of the materials from sight and from pests. The negatives to tumblers are very similar to closed bins. You are limited with how much compost you can make each time and you can only use it for cold composting. Urban and suburbanite dwellers love tumblers!

PROS:
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    Easiest to turn materials.
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    Nice appearance and decreases pests
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    Perfect for small spaces
CONS:
  • Cannot use for hot composting.
  • Some tumblers cost around $200.
  • Volume of created compost is limited.
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    Can be hard to harvest finished product.

Piling Method

           The easiest composting method is a pile; it really is the simplest choice. You designate an area for your compost and add compostable materials over time. Ideally, you will use a pitchfork or shovel to turn the materials. Because it is an open pile, turning isn’t laborious or strenuous.

1. Pick a Location: You want to have a location that is out of sight, perhaps behind a shed. It should be where your kids or animals won’t disturb it.

2. Lay Down Materials: Now, you are going to add some materials! Most of the time, we start with brown materials such as shredded leaves or grass clippings.

3. Continue the Pile: Add kitchen scraps and any materials you have! Make sure to add brown and green materials. Turn every few weeks.

4. Stop Adding and Harvest: Once your pile is a few feet tall (three or four),  stop adding materials and allow the decomposing to continue. Piling is cold composting, so it will take several months to have a harvest. Once ready, you can easily harvest with a shovel.

Piling is so simple; anyone can do it. You can use it for hot and cold composting. I’ve always had a pile compost going, even if I have a bin somewhere on the property too. My grandmother taught me how to start one years ago. While maintenance is easy, keeping it out of sight is important! Best of all, a pile is totally free!

PROS:
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    Free and no construction.
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    Ideal for hot and cold composting.
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    Maintenance is easy, along with harvesting.
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    You can make as much compost as you want.
CONS:
  • Neighbors may not like a pile.
  • Not good for small spaces

Vermicomposting

           The last option is perhaps the most interesting. Vermicomposting is when you allow worms to do the heavy work for you. If you happen to live in an apartment or only have a patio garden, vermicomposting is ideal. You can even use vermicomposting in your basement or under the kitchen sink!

1. Pick a Worm Bin: You can buy specifically made for vermicomposting or make your own with a plastic storage bin. You need a bin that goes along with how much food waste you create.

2. Get Your Worms: While you could dig up earthworms, it is better to order worms for vermicomposting. Redworms, known as red wigglers, are the most successful choice.

3.  Lay Bedding Materials: Now that you have the right worms, you need bedding. Most people use newspaper, but you could also use cardboard or peat. Shred the newspaper into very thin strips, usually an inch wide. Make sure to moisture the material because worms cannot live in a dry environment. The worms should be able to move easily through the bedding. If possible, add some garden soil or finished compost.

4. Add the Worms: Put the worms into the bin. Don’t add food yet. Let them get situated. Within a few days, it is time to add food! Put your fruit and veggie scraps into the bin.

5. Store it Right: You need to keep your bin somewhere between 55 and 80 degrees F. Most people like convenient locations such as under the kitchen cabinet or basements.

6. Harvest Later: Once your compost is finished, you can dig out the worms yourself or buy a new set of worms. Start the cycle over again!

Vermicomposting is great for those who need something for indoors. It is a very clean choice and convenient. However, you are limited by how much compost you create. It is ideal for urban or suburban dwellers with small gardens. I used to think that vermicomposting was uncleanly until my friend showed me her great set up. You’d never know she had bins of worms under her sink, happily at wok creating her fertile compost!

PROS:
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    Perfect for indoors or small spaces.
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    You can compost in the winter!
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    Yields fertile soil.
CONS:
  • Harvesting the finished compost can be tricky.
  • Must keep the bedding moist and bury the scraps to avoid odors.
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    Must use the correct worms.

Materials that ​​​​You Can Compost

           Most green and brown material can be composted. Compost requires a balance of brown and green materials. It is important to understand the differences to create a healthy compost!

Brown materials typically consist of wood or plant materials. Many times, the materials themselves are brown. Examples include dry leaves, newspapers and wood chips. Brown materials are important because they increase the bulk of your compost while adding a source of carbon and creating better air flow. Carbon creates a light, fluffy body of compost.

Here is a list of Brown Materials you might be able to add to your compost.

Green materials, on the other hand, are wet materials or those that were growing recently. Some are green in color, but not all. Examples include food scraps, grass clippings, and coffee ground. Green materials are essential for a healthy compost. Their purpose is to bring most of the nutrients to the compost, as well as to add additional nitrogen. Nitrogen also helps to encourage the production of enzymes!

Here is a list of Green Material you might be able to add to your compost.

What Not to Compost

Most items are compostable, but there are several you should avoid.

Avoid These Materials

Details

Bones

Slow to decompose and will attract critters

Cat Litter

Might contain harmful pathogens, chemicals and perfumes

Charcoal

Contains sulfur oxide that is toxic to soil and plants

Dairy Products

Attracts pests

Dishwater

Could contain grease and fats

Fats or Greasy Foods

Slow to decompose, will cause bad odors and attract pests

Fish Scraps

Attracts pests and might smell bad

Meat

Attracts pests and creates odors

Glossy, colored paper

Will contain inks with toxins

Peanut Butter

Slow to decompose and could attract pests

Pet and Human Waste

Contain dangerous pathogens, bacteria and parasites that aren’t easily destroyed

Diseased Yard or Plant Waste

Avoid plants infected with diseases or insects

Yard Trimmings with Chemicals

Don’t use yard trimmings sprayed with toxic chemicals

Aluminum foil, glass, plastic and metals

Will not break down and decompose

How to Safely Compost Livestock Manure

           Most livestock manures need to be composted to kill off weed seeds and reduce the extremely high nitrogen levels. If you apply manure directly to your garden, you risk burning seedlings or stopping germination. There are several ways to compost livestock manure safely.

           The best method is to create a hot compost because it will kill any weed seeds and decrease pathogens. By doing so, you also create the compost sooner rather than later. You want to mix your manure with other compostable items, such as brown and green materials. Heating any fresh manure to temperatures of 140 degrees F or above for at least several days will create a safe and healthy manure for your garden, free of diseases.

           Chicken manures can use time rather than heat on their side. Four to six months in a cool compost will create a safe finished product for your garden. Some chicken owners use the deep litter method, where they add deep bedding and turn it, dropping the finished compost to the bottom. The bedding is turned by the chickens scratching.

Composting Through the Winter

           Hot composting can easily continue throughout the winter, so long as you maintain the proper temperature and balance of moisture. Cold composting, on the other hand, becomes a bit trickier during the winter. You might consider letting the compost stop for the year, but you still produce kitchen scraps all winter. You are wasting valuable materials! Preparing for winter will allow you to compost all year. Here are some tips!

  • Bag up fall leaves throughout autumn, allowing you to add them all winter long. They are an ideal carbon source but do try other carbon sources. The compost needs the right balance of green and brown materials all year long.
  • Move your compost bin to a warmer location. Microbes can die when temperatures are too low. A location in the sun keeps the temperature higher.
  • Moisture control maintains an active compost. Make sure to keep it covered, so snow and rain don't seep inside, adding too much moisture. A tarp can keep away rain and hold in the heat.
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    Don’t turn the compost often. Doing so allows more heat to escape, so reduce the turning throughout the winter.
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    The cold weather slows down the decomposition of the added waste. To help the process, make sure the pieces you add are smaller. Dice up your food scraps or shred the leaves first.
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    As spring gets closer, you may notice your compost seems soggy. Add more brown material to absorb the moisture.

Tips for Successful Composting

Create a Proper Blend of Brown and Green Materials:

You can throw whatever you have on hand into your compost, but creating the proper blend makes it work better. A solid mix of brown and green materials is essential. Balance is necessary to create the right temperature, which must be created to decompose the waste. Smells can develop over time with imbalanced compost.

The right balance can be a heated topic at times. Some people use the simple rule of thumb: two parts brown to one part green. Others abide by the four parts brown to one part green. Ultimately, you want more brown materials than green, which contain higher levels of nitrogen. The brown materials introduce necessary carbon and increase the air circulation throughout the compost.

Flying Insects Enjoying Your Compost

Fruit flies are a common complaint about composters. They are naturally attracted to piles. One of the best ways to discourage their visits is by covering up any exposed fruits and vegetable scraps. You can turn them with a shovel into the compost. Another idea is to keep a supply of grass clippings, adding handfuls to the compost each time you dump in more scraps. You need at least one to two inches of grass clippings to reduce flying insects. Another great choice is to add lime or calcium, both of which discourage flies.

Bad Odors

Does your compost pile have a nasty smell? That’s the last thing you want. One of the main culprits for a stinky compost is an improper blend of materials. Consider what you are adding. You want more brown materials than green. If you notice a smell developing, immediately add more brown materials to increase the carbon count and air circulation.

Remember never to add bones, meat or dairy products to your compost. Those create odors quickly. You can also add grass clippings, which decreases smells just like they do flies! Any mulch will reduce odors.

Materials Clumped Together

Sometimes, the materials you put into a composter clump together, slowing the decomposition process. Clumps also stop the aeration process. You can either move those materials to the side and add them with other things. Another choice is to break up the clumps with a shovel or pitchfork simply. Try to add leaves and grass clippings each time you add other materials to reduce clumps.

Raccoons or Other Critters Attracted

Raccoons and other critters might find your compost pile and think it is a delicious treat. You can try a variety of methods to remove them, but the best choice is to stop them from getting into the compost to start. Create a lid on a hinge. Make sure that you add a latch because raccoons are crafty and intelligent. If you want an open style lid, create it with wood and wiring.

Fixing a Soggy Compost

Gardeners often find their early spring comport a soggy mess. Soggy compost comes from poor aeration, additional moisture and an imbalance balance of materials. Make sure that you cover your compost throughout the spring to avoid all those extra showers. Next, add carbon-rich materials to absorb extra moisture. Some good choices are lawn thatch, sawdust, peat moss, straw, and leaves. Make sure that you turn your compost frequently as you try to remedy the soggy compost.

Summary

           Composting seems complicated, but that changes once you begin. Quickly, you’ll learn what is and isn’t compostable. The hardest part is deciding what method works for you. That might require a trial and error; we tried several methods before picking the right one. You might also have several working composts working at one time!

           Compost will give your garden plants the nutrients required to grow and prosper. While you can buy bags of compost in the stores, making your own at home is much cheaper. It also allows you to decide what goes into the compost, ensuring there are no pesticides and herbicides. Your vegetable plants will thank you this year for your effort by giving you a magnificent harvest.

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