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Composting Basics: What Do I Need to Start?

As spring approaches, you may consider creating your own compost to make sure that your flowers, fruits, or vegetables are vibrant and healthy this year.  Beginning a compost bin is an excellent idea for any gardener, regardless of experience—once installed, your compost bin or composter won’t require a ton of attention, as nature has been recycling waste this way without help for quite a while.  Making your own compost will benefit the environment, convert your food and yard waste into saved money on fertilizers, and it will turn your hard work outdoors into higher and better yields from your plants.

Composting is a huge hobby.  There are a ton of tools and products on the market to help you get the most out of your composter or compost bin.  If you are just getting acquainted, searching the internet for equipment and accessories might be overwhelming, so here is a list of equipment you might consider as you set out to begin composting:

File:Plastic garden compost.JPGComposters

In reality, there are only two things that you need to start composting: a spot in the yard and time.  The compost pile method (picking an inconspicuous corner of your yard, enclosing it in chicken wire, and heaping all of your grass clippings, dead leaves, and uneaten salads in it) does work, but isn't optimal.  Organic waste simply left to rot in a pile, on top of smelling awful and attracting pests, takes an extremely long time to decompose due to lack of aeration.  Even if a gardener is committed to turning a pile for aeration, it may still take several months before usable compost is produced.  

For these reasons, it is highly recommended that you purchase a compost bin or composter.  These have been designed to succeed where the traditional compost pile fails, specifically in insulation and aeration.  Heat and oxygen are essential to the composting process; aerobic microbes require good airflow to survive, and heat attracts bacteria that breaks down waste.  These microbes will move much faster, producing more nutrients and limiting potentially harmful gas byproducts.  By using a composter, usable compost can be produced in several weeks instead of several months, some models allowing you to produce compost continuously throughout the growing season. 

There are a variety of different composters and bins available.  You may want a simple upright bin to neatly store and cover your compost, keeping it warm and venting air through the material.  These composters can range from very simplistic canisters to more elaborate tiered bins designed to separate your compost as it matures.  Another popular type of composter is a tumbler, an insulated drum usually sitting on some kind of frame.  A crank or rotation mechanism allows you to turn the drum and tumble the contents inside, keeping them aerated and mixing.  If you are really interested in organic gardening or seeing nature at work, you might want to compost with worms.  Worm composters use a system of shelves through which worms can pass as you add food and yard waste to be composted.  Worms travel up through the composter to access the waste and break it down.  All of these methods are effective at reducing composting time, odor, and pest interest—which one you pick depends on you and your requirements.  Luckily, there are composters of each type available in varying sizes, even for the smallest yard or garden.

File:Composting in the Escuela Barreales.jpgMixing Tools

If you have chosen an upright compost bin, you will need a tool or possibly a variety of tools to make sure that your compost is well-mixed and aerated.  Rakes, pitchforks, shovels, and augers could all be useful tools for breaking up, aerating, and transporting compost, particularly in a large bin or composter.  If you would like the ease and effectiveness of a more specialized tool, there are aerator tools designed to make mixing and pulling and twisting a lot easier on your body.  These have handles, and usually some sort of blades or wings on the end that will agitate your compost and save your back from a lot of bending and lifting.

Activators and Accelerators

Should you ever find that your compost just isn’t coming together, there are additives you might consider purchasing to give your compost a jumpstart or to get the decomposition process to move a little faster.  Compost activators and accelerators can be liquids, powders, or pellets, and can be made of any number of ingredients.  Commonly, they are made of bone meal, blood, fish, manure, or alfalfa—the common thread is that the ingredients are high in nitrogen.  Compost requires maintenance of a good nitrogen to carbon ratio, and should either of these be too high or too low, decomposition can slow.  Typically, nitrogen is the lacking ingredient, and most additives seek to remedy that problem.  They can also contain excess microorganisms to add to those already at work in your compost bin.  These products are supposed to boost the activity and population of your microbes, heat up your compost, and get things moving much more quickly. 

Thermometers

As was mentioned, the temperature of your compost is extremely important to the decomposition process.  In order for the microorganisms in your compost to break down waste fast, they need heat.  The generation of this heat occurs in stages with different microorganisms active in each stage.  If your compost is monitored with a thermometer, you will know exactly when to turn your composting material, as it will inform you of drops in temperature indicative of diminished oxygen.  A thermometer will allow you to assess the effectiveness of additives on your compost.  It can also simply tell you whether your composter is keeping your material at the desired temperature at all.  When it comes to making an extremely hot and fast compost bin, a thermometer is a great guide to perfecting your composting.  Compost-specific thermometers are long enough to penetrate the center of the compost and made of weather-resistant materials.

Moisture meters

Maintaining a good level of moisture in your composter or bin is also very important to speedily producing good compost.  Like oxygen, your microorganisms require a good deal of moisture to do their job.  Too much moisture can cause your compost to become heavy and soggy, blocking off oxygen access and slowing decomposition.  It can also make your compost stink, attracting unwanted rodents and flies.  Too little moisture will dry your compost waste up and prevent your microorganisms from breaking it down quickly or at all.  It is suggested that you try and keep your compost between 40-60% moisture to achieve best results, and purchasing a moisture meter can help you ensure that it stays in that range.  Moisture meters, similar to thermometers, have long probes that are inserted into the compost to take moisture readings.  While this may seem like a pretty specialized tool, picking up a moisture meter may be a good move for your garden in general.  Moisture meters can be used to check the soil in your garden and flowerbeds, letting you know when your plants need more water or if your hose or sprinkler system may have sprung a leak.

These are only a few of the basic tools available to you to start your home composting setup.  Kitchen caddies, canisters, and storage containers with filters or liners help you reduce odor and trips to your outdoor composter.  Food and yard waste shredders will perform part of the decomposition work for your microorganisms, breaking down compostable materials into smaller pieces and increasing compost speed even more.  A spreader might help you distribute your finished compost on your lawn or garden, particularly if it is large.  Though these are all handy, different gardens have different needs, and not all of the tools and accessories may appeal to you.  If you are just starting out, there is a lot of information about composting and composting tools online.  Feel free to peruse several of these products and others at MasterGardening.com, and let us help you and your compost make your garden healthy and beautiful.

Read part three, Composting Basics: What (and What Not) to Compost