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Good composting isn't only about building a good bin and correctly mixing the compost. It's also about what you add to the compost. This article will provide a simple outline of what you can and can't compost. Follow the reduce, reuse and recycle way of life to reduce the amount of things you have to end up throwing away.
- Choose or construct a bin for your compost. While you can compost successfully in a pile on the ground, a bin will keep the process a bit neater and help to discourage animals if you are composting food scraps. Depending on the construction of the bin, it can also help to regulate moisture and temperature. A good minimum size for a pile is at least 1 cubic yard or 1 cubic meter, though a pile can go larger than this, and smaller-scale composting can be made to work.
- Fill your bin with a balanced mixture for best results:
- Green stuff (high in nitrogen) to activate the heat process in your compost. Perfect heat-generating materials include: young weeds (before they develop seeds); comfrey leaves; yarrow; chicken, rabbit or pigeon manure; grass cuttings; etc. Other green items that compost well include fruit and vegetables; fruit and vegetable scraps; coffee grounds and tea leaves (including tea bags - remove the staple if you wish); vegetable plant remains; plants.
- Brown stuff (high in carbon) to serve as the "fiber" for your compost. Brown stuff includes fall (autumn) leaves; dead plants and weeds; sawdust; cardboard & cardboard tubes (from foil wraps etc); old flowers (including dried floral displays, minus plastic/foam attachments); old straw and hay; and small animal bedding.
- 'Other items that can be composted but you may not have thought of before: paper towels; paper bags; cotton clothing (torn up); egg shells; hair (human, dog, cat etc.) Use all these items in moderation.
- Air. It is possible to compost without air (anaerobically), but the process employs different bacteria and an anaerobic compost pile will take on a sour smell like vinegar. It may also attract flies or take on a matted, slimy appearance. If you believe your compost pile needs more air, turn it, and try adding more dry or brown stuff to open up the structure.
- Water. Your pile should be about as damp as a sponge that has been wrung out. Depending on your climate, you can add water directly or rely on the moisture that comes in with "green" items. A lid on the compost bin will help to keep moisture in. If a pile gets too much water in it, it might not get enough air.
- Soil or starter compost. This is not strictly necessary, but a light sprinkling of garden soil or recently finished compost between layers can help to introduce the correct bacteria to start the compost cycle a little more quickly. If you are pulling weeds, the soil left on the roots may be sufficient to serve this purpose. Compost starters are available, but probably not necessary. 
- Layer or mix the different materials in your bin so that they come into contact with one another and so that you avoid any large clumps. Especially avoid compacting large quantities of green materials together, since they can rapidly become anaerobic.
- If possible, start with a layer of lightweight brown material, such as leaves, to help keep enough air near the bottom.
- Try for a mixture of anywhere from 3 parts brown to 1 part green to half and half, depending on what materials you have on hand.
- Sprinkle each layer lightly with water as you build the heap, if it requires additional moisture.
- Turn your pile regularly, once every week or two. Clear a patch next to the pile. Then use a pitchfork and move the entire pile to the clear spot. When it is time to turn the pile again, move it back to the original spot, or back into the bin. Mixing the pile in this way helps to keep air flowing inside the pile, which encourages aerobic decomposition. Anaerobic decomposition will smell very stinky (generally sour, like vinegar) and they decompose materials more slowly than aerobic bacteria. Turning the pile helps to encourage the growth of the right kind of bacteria and makes for a nice, sweet-smelling pile that will decompose faster.
- Try to move matter from inside to outside and from top to bottom. Break up anything that is clumpy or matted. Add water or wet, green materials if it seems too dry. Add dry, brown materials if the pile seems too wet. If you are still adding to the pile, take the opportunity while you turn it to introduce the new matter and mix it well with the older matter.
- Decide whether to add slow rotting items such as tough branches, twigs and hedge clippings; wood ash; wood shavings and wood pruning. They can be composted, but you may want to compost them separately because they will take longer to break down, especially in a cold climate with a shorter composting season. Shred heavy materials, if you can, for faster decomposition.
- Try to avoid composting bread, pasta, nuts, and cooked food. They don't break down very easily, become quite slimy, and can hold up the heating, rotting-down process. (Old nuts left in the garden will disappear quickly if you have squirrels or monkeys around!)
- Never compost the following items for reasons of health, hygiene and inability to break down: meat and meat scraps; bones; fish and fish bones; plastic or synthetic fibers; oil or fat; pet or human feces (except for manure of herbivorous creatures such as rabbits and horses); weeds that have gone to seed; diseased plants; disposable diapers (nappies); glossy paper or magazines; coal and coke ash; and cat litter. Place these items in the normal garbage collection.
- Harvest your compost. If all goes well, you will eventually find that you have a layer of good compost at the bottom of your bin. Remove this and spread it on or dig it into your garden beds.
- You may wish to sift it through a coarse mesh screen or use your hands or pitchfork to remove any larger chunks that haven't yet broken down.
- Very fresh compost can grow plants, but it can also rob the soil of nitrogen as it continues to break down. If you think you are not all the way done, either leave the compost in the bin for a while longer or spread it in your garden and let it sit there for a few weeks before planting anything in it.
- Composting works almost magically and FAST if you begin with a cubic yard of proper materials (3 parts "brown" stuff and 1 part "green" stuff), keep it moist, and turn it weekly. It's possible to get two large batches of compost each year if you stick to these points. If you vary, it will just take a bit longer, but it will still compost.
- The fastest way to get compost is to mix 1 part grass clippings and 3 parts dead leaves (chopped with a mower), place in a three-sided bin with no top or bottom, keep it moist, and turn it with a cultivating fork every 2 weeks.
- Locate your compost bin somewhere that is easy to access, so that you and family members will be encouraged to use it.
- Share a composting facility if you live in an apartment complex.
- Have a mini compost bin indoors that you keep near your meal preparation area. It should be something that is easy to fill up, transport daily to the compost bin, and keep clean. You could consider a small plastic container (there are fun tiny garbage cans with lids) or use something as simple as a glazed terracotta plant saucer - it looks nice, is easy to clean and transports easily.
- To aid the decomposing, add some red worms, which can be bought online. If you use a compost bin with an open bottom, the worms will probably come into your compost pile on their own.
- Cut around the top of a plastic milk jug leaving it attached at the handle. Keep it under the kitchen sink to collect your compost.
- For faster break-down, shred leaves, clippings; and crush egg shells.
- At some point, you may need to start a new compost pile, and stop adding to the old compost pile to let it "finish up."
- Layering is very effective if possible - one layer brown stuff, one layer green stuff, one layer composting worms (as long as the temperature of your compost does not exceed 25ºC).
- Contact your local municipality if you can't compost for whatever reason, to see if they will collect garden waste for composting. Many municipalities will collect Christmas trees and chip them for compost in January.
- In dry weather, fill your bucket with water each time you dump in the compost pile. This will help add needed moisture.
- If you mow your yard, collect your grass trimmings! It's free, and it's a great way to get more compost, unless you have a mulching mower. A mulching mower will add the grass back to your yard as mulch (not thatch), which will provide your lawn with 40% of its fertilizatin needs. Also, never compost grass that's been mowed within a few days of adding chemical peticides or fertilizers.
- Bury food scraps under a layer of general yard waste if you wish to include them. It will help to discourage animals and flies. So will having a contained, covered bin.
- While it's not strictly necessary, a compost pile that's working at its fastest will heat up. If you have created a good mix, you may notice that it's very warm inside, even steaming on a cold morning. This is a good sign.
- Don't add the things to the compost that are marked above as "never compost" - they will absolutely ruin the compost for one reason or another and some are downright unhealthy.
- While it is slowly becoming possible to compost dog feces, this must only be attempted under very special conditions in municipally sanctioned compost bins; usually these are located in local parks. Do not use this compost in or near vegetable and fruit gardens. Check with your local municipality for more information. Encourage your municipality to supply these bins in parks and on dog-walking routes.
- If you are going to compost weeds, dry them out before adding them to the pile. If you don't, they might start to grow.
Things You'll Need
- A location for your compost pile
- Vegetable scraps, yard waste, and other compost materials
- A pitchfork or other tool to turn the compost
- How to Build a Compost Bin
- How to Build a Tumbling Composter
- How to Find Free Compost Ingredients
- How to Apply Mulch
- How to Make Your Own Worm Compost System
- How to Use Your Home Built Tumble Composter to Create Rich Compost
- How to Make a Compost Tea
- How to Create Urban Rainforests