Composting is a natural, biological process that breaks down plant waste from the kitchen, lawn and garden into a soil-like material called humus. It’s done by microorganisms that consume the organic material to produce compost.
By composting in your backyard, you can turn your yard waste and food scraps into a valuable soil enhancement that offers many long-term benefits. Compost keeps soil loose, helps soil retain water, maintains soil pH and provides your plants with nutrients.
To learn how to start and maintain a compost pile or bin, read on!
Backyard Composting vs. Vermicomposting
Choosing the type of composting that is best suited for your situation depends on a number of factors:
- Do you have a large yard and produce a lot of landscaping or green waste?
- Do you live in an apartment and generate food scraps?
- How often do you need or use compost for your plants or garden?
In general if you have a large yard and generate a lot of yard waste, a backyard compost bin or pile will work best. Depending on how active you are with maintaining it, this system can take longer for the material to break down and create finished compost (6-12 months). If you live in an apartment or don’t have a yard, then vermicomposting (i.e. worm composting) is your best option. Worm composting will generate a finished product in less than a few months. Or maybe it’s a combination of backyard composting and worm composting that will work best for you. Whatever option or combination you select, make sure to maintain your piles or bins for maximum results!
Composting can be done in an open pile or in containers. Containers confine the compost pile and make it more manageable and visually attractive. They can also provide weather protection, aid in heat retention and help keep animals out.
You can build your own backyard compost bin or buy a Garden Gourmet Backyard composter or Worm Bin from SVR for $49.95 each. See Backyard and worm composting Bins Specifications letter size for compost bin details. You can also buy compost bins from local hardware stores like Orchard Supply Hardware or Home Depot.
What can be Composted?
Chopped, woody prunings
Sawdust from clean wood
Weeds without seed heads
Fruit and vegetable trimmings
Coffee grounds and filters
Meat, bones, fish
Grains, beans or bread
Dairy products (cheese, eggs, etc.)
Sawdust from plywood or treated/painted wood
Dog, cat or bird feces
Backyard Composting – Getting Started
- To start a compost pile, choose a convenient, level, well-drained and sunny area in your yard.
- Put down a layer of finished compost or topsoil. This will provide the microorganisms needed to break down the organic material. There is no need for a chemical compost starter or activator.
- Alternate layers of dried out “brown” material such as dry leaves, twigs, straw and wood chips with moist “green” material such as grass clippings, plant trimmings and kitchen scraps. Add another thin layer of dirt every so often.
- The pile should be roughly one cubic yard in volume
Vermicomposting – Getting Started
- To start a worm bin, choose a convenient, shaded area on your patio, deck or yard.
- Purchase a worm bin or create your own using plastic storage bin and lid with holes drilled in the side and bottom.
- Put down a layer of moist bedding (shredded newspaper and sawdust) and worms (red wigglers) and start feeding them your food scraps!
Maintaining the Compost Pile or Bin
Make sure your pile/bin gets enough air. This is necessary for the survival of the aerobic bacteria that break down the material without generating odors. To aerate the pile, mix in coarse material like leaves or green twigs to create air voids or periodically turn the pile with a pitchfork or shovel or compost turner. Turn the pile only once a week or every other week to not disrupt the composting process.
The pile should be as wet as a wrung out sponge. When you squeeze a handful, drops of water should come out and the compost should form a ball. If your compost is too dry, add water to prevent that the microorganisms die and decomposition slow down or stops. However, be careful not to over-water.
For live advice call the Garden Hotline at 831-763-8007 or visit Monterey Bay Master Gardeners
Harvesting the Compost
If you add fresh material to the pile or into the bin from the top, the more finished material will end up at the bottom. Finished compost is dark brown in color, crumbly, lightweight and has an earthy odor. Harvest the finished compost with a shovel, sift out any coarse, unfinished materials, then apply the compost to your garden as a mulch or top dressing, or dig it into the soil.
Additional Informational Videos
To learn more about composting on a national scale, visit the US Composting Council