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Steamboat - Ski Town, USA

Backyard Composting

Written By: Steve Weisman,

Go green! This two-word phrase is certainly catching on around the country. Whether it’s because it saves money, helps protect and save the environment or makes us feel as if we are doing our part, recycling is becoming more and more popular. One of the recycling concepts that is becoming more common is backyard composting, turning household and yard wastes into valuable fertilizer and humus or soil organic matter. It’s a great way to manage organic wastes of the home, and it is a user-friendly concept that will adapt to the lifestyle of each homeowner. It really depends on two things: how elaborate and involved do you want to become and how ambitious are you?

What’s really great about composting is that you can simply place the waste materials in an open pile, bury them in a pit or trench, enclose the materials in a fence, or even go as elaborate as a bin or drum.

So, where do you start? There are lots of articles, pamphlets and websites that cover this topic. However, some of the most useful information I have found comes from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture. When I decided I wanted to try composting, I went to my local NRCS office for a visit. In discussing the topic, I learned that they, along with the National Association of Conservation Districts and the Wildlife Habitat Council are actually spearheading a program called “Bringing Conservation from the Countryside to Your Backyard.” The premise is this. Farmers and ranchers use conservation plans to help them apply practices that meet their production objectives and protect the soil, water, air, plant and animal resources. So, why not homeowners?

One of these backyard projects is backyard composting. I found their publication to very informative and also found that it can be found on their website (

The goal of composting is to help organic matter decompose more quickly and to come away with a final product that works great in the garden by providing vital nutrients that will help the plants, shrubs and flowers grow extremely healthy. It is a great conditioner for the soil, helps to improve aeration and helps keep the soil moist. At the same time, when it is mixed with clay soils, drainage will improve, while in sandy soils, it will help the soil retain water. Of course, I think we all know the importance of garden worms and nightcrawlers. They only frequent good soil, and composted soil will attract them. The key to getting things to compost the best is to make sure that the decomposing matter has an ample supply of nitrogen, carbon, moisture and oxygen. So, where do you find these elements?

Nitrogen comes from materials such as fresh grass clippings, while dried leaves and twigs provide the carbon, water provides the moisture (could be rain or hand watering and turning the compost pile provides the opportunity for oxygen to access the pile. Be careful of too much water and too little water. The key is to keep the compost pile damp but not saturated and “water mushy.” Some liken the texture to that of a wet dishrag that has been rung out. To help control the dampness, a lot of people will cover the pile with a lid orsomething like a tarp to keep off too much water or to keep it from drying out. It is important that the compost pile can drain excess water, so that it doesn’t become soggy and sloppy. If it does get dry, water should be added. To add water, it’s best to put the hose into the middle of the pile, so that water spreads outward rather than just wetting the top surface. You can also turn the pile as you add water. The more you turn the pile, the faster the pile will decompose.

I’ve done this type of composting for several years in the back corner of my yard (away from the public’s eye). I simply took chicken wire and small electrical fence posts to make the enclosure and then put in my leaves and grass clippings. Pretty simple, and pretty easy, but it can take a year or more, depending on the conditions and the amount of cold winter weather you might have before you will see results. This process is called cold composting, because nothing is done to enhance the procedure. One thing you can do is mulch the leaves or bag mowed leaves, which gets the leaves shredded. Cold composting provides a compost that helps minimize diseases in plants. The problem is the length of time it takes to get your usable compost.

The other option is what is called hot composting. I’ve never tried this approach, so I turned to the NRCS for information, which noted that hot compost piles work the best when high-carbon and high-nitrogen materials are mixed in a 1:1 ratio. They suggest a pile with a minimum dimension of 3’x3’x3’ with a pile of 4’ to 5’. They’re called hot piles for a reason. When they reach 110 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, most weed seeds and plant diseases are destroyed, but a the same time these temperatures may kill some of the beneficial bacteria found in cold composts that help suppress disease.

Here are the suggested steps in producing a hot compost:

Choose a level, well-drained site, preferably near your garden.

There are numerous styles of compost bins available depending on your needs. These may be as simple as a moveable bin formed by wire mesh or a more substantial structure consisting of several compartments. There are many commercially available bins. While a bin will help contain the pile, it is not absolutely necessary. You can build your pile directly on the ground. To help with aeration, you may want to place some woody material on the ground where you will build your pile.

To build your pile, either use alternating layers of high-carbon and high-nitrogen material or mix the two together and then heap into a pile. If you alternate layers, make each layer 2 to 4 inches thick. Some composters find that mixing the two together is more effective than layering. Use approximately equal amounts of each. If you are low on high-nitrogen material, you can add a small amount of commercial fertilizer containing nitrogen. Apply at a rate 1/2 cup of fertilizer for each 10-inch layer of material. Adding a few shovels of soil will also help get the pile off to a good start; soil adds commonly found decomposing organisms.

Water periodically. The pile should be moist but not saturated. If conditions are too wet, anaerobic microorganisms (those that can live without oxygen) will continue the process. These are not as effective or as desirable as the aerobic organisms. Bad odors also are more likely if the pile is saturated.

Punch holes in the sides of the pile for aeration.

The pile will heat up and then begin to cool. Start turning when the pile’s internal temperature peaks at about 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. You can track this with a compost thermometer, or reach into the pile to determine if it is uncomfortably hot to the touch.

During the composting season, check your bin regularly to assure optimum moisture and aeration are present in the material being composted.

Move materials from the center to the outside and vice versa. Turn every day or two and you should get compost in less than 4 weeks. Turning every other week will make compost in 1 to 3 months. Finished compost will smell sweet and be cool and crumbly to the touch.

Composting Options
As mentioned earlier, compost structures can be something as simple as a chicken wire fence, an old garbage can with holes punched in the sides and bottom or as elaborate as a manufactured composting bin that is actually a rotating unit that help “turn” the compost. In some areas of the country, at times county waste management commissions in an effort to decrease the amount of waste going into their landfills will offer compost bins at a reduced price or offer free backyard composting workshops. It really comes down to determining your needs. At the same time, I also found that local greenhouses often have composting bins on hand and can special order a specific kind. Finally, websites abound on composting options. One that I researched ( has a wide range of bins and tumblers. Their most popular and best selling composter is the Compost Wizard 90 Gallon Compost Wizard Recycled Plastic Compost Tumbler. It has been given very positive consumer reviews. Whatever way you go, I would suggest starting simply on a small scale before you jump in “full compost.”

Think about the neighbors
Now, we know that there are lots of other waste materials that can be added to a compost pile, including garbage wastes from the kitchen table, such as vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds and other table scraps. However, this is where issues can arise. Once you begin to add these table scraps, you begin dealing with the smells of decaying foods. That can be trouble if…

A friend of mine had a neighbor that built a compost pile. However, the pile was not enclosed by a fence; it was just left open. The usual yard wastes were included, and that was no problem. However, then came the kitchen/food wastes. This included leftover scraps of meat and fat, the bones and carcasses of poultry. All combined this made a pretty smelly area-especially with the right wind. This also brought the neighborhood cats and dogs to the site, plus the area wildlife (raccoons) and you can imagine what happened next. Neighbor to neighbor relations became very strained.

Yes, these wastes will work well for composting, but in this situation, build or buy a compost bin that can be covered/enclosed. This keeps the smell down and the chance on animals getting into the pile pretty much eliminated. Another trick is to bury those “smelly” table scraps in the middle of the pile.

Using Compost
So when does this waste material become usable compost? Look for the decomposed material to become a somewhat uniform, dark brown crumbly material. Plus, the “smells” will have turned to that of moist dirt. Compost can be used for all your planting needs. Compost is an excellent source of organic matter to add to your garden or potted plants. It helps improve soil structure, which contributes to good aeration and moisture-holding capacity. Compost is also a source of plant nutrients. Compost can also be used as a mulch material. Studies have shown that compost used as mulch, or mixed with the top one-inch layer of soil, can help prevent some plant diseases, including some of those that cause damping of seedlings.

Composting can be as simple or as involved as you would like it to be. Whatever level you decide, you will be beginning your own recycling process right in your own backyard!


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11 Responses

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  1. Thembi says

    I found a few things oninle that might help:Will composting attract rodents?Composting will not attract rodents as long you keep meat, dairy, grease, grains and pet waste out, and be sure to use a rodent resistant bin (with a lid, a floor and no holes or gaps larger than bc inch). Composting in this way can actually reduce rodent problems, because your garbage will contain fewer fruits and vegetables, and those materials will break down without odor in your compost.Will compost attract insects or rodents?Compost piles have a bad reputation for inviting dogs and other pests, housing mice, rats, and snakes, and providing a breeding den for flies, mosquitoes, and other undesirable insects. If kitchen wastes are not covered or turned under, there could be a pest problem. But because the ComposT-Twin rests above the ground and keeps everything enclosed, you should not have a problem with pests.

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