Beginners Guide to Composting in the Suburbs

Composting has gained a lot of ground in recent years.  Here in the West Suburbs of Chicago, Joelle recently attended a free composting seminar and we’ve even heard of community composting initiatives.  In it’s infancy of stardom, composting still comes in well behind more popular gardening trends like fertilizer, whether organic or chemical.  Few use compost and fewer yet have an idea of what it is or how it is made.  Until a couple years ago, I would be the lowest up the totem pole in that category!  


Joelle recently asked me what the difference was between fertilizer and compost.  Never having given much thought to the matter, I pondered for a moment and a familiar analogy came to mind.  I likened fertilizer to that of a supplement.  Often times we take vitamins, minerals, herbs, etc. to supplement our regular diet.  Fertilizer, likewise, is a supplement to the health and vitality of the soil.  Compost, on the other hand I likened to a complete, well balanced, fully fortified and nutritious meal.  Compost, from my experience, offers the full support system for any living plant to grow in and thrive.


So why is it that we as a culture so rarely go for the banquet feast and instead settle for the side dish at best?  There is an old saying that man cannot live on bread alone.  The timeless principle in this thought is that our bodies are complex and therefore need a complex balance of nutrients to thrive on.  Anything less leaves us lacking, and too much of any one thing might just kill you.  The same goes for soil, and the plant life that lives in it.  Plants require a delicate balance of nutrients, bacteria, insects, and other complex compositions to grow strong and have good production.  I believe composting might be the best, most natural, and sustainable ways to take us there!


Let’s take a deeper look at what is composting, how to compost, and why I think everyone should add it to their gardening repertoire!


What is composting?


I am not going to be able to provide a very scientific answer here, but as far as I can tell composting is the process of natural materials biodegrading or breaking down into a soil like material called humus.  As air and moisture interact with any number of foliage type materials over time, this causes the foliage to degrade and become the very thing that once sustained its own life.  It is nature completing it’s cycle.  What was once living dies, then becomes the support for future plant life.  This rich, biodegraded matter we call compost is mega packed with nutrients that allows the compost to become a super food for your yard.  


The list of items you can compost is almost endless and most are readily available both inside and outside your home.  The most common things to come across are leaves, grasses, yard trimmings, and any discarded or dead plants.  Then you can move inside the house and pretty much toss in most any of your food scraps.  It would be worth your while to do a quick internet search of items you should and shouldn’t compost.  Beyond just scraps from veggies, some common things we compost are coffee grounds, egg shells, cardboard, brown napkins, and sawdust.  If you have animals, manure is one the best items you can add!


Greater diversity means greater nutrients.  You will also find that over time your compost will become a Shangri-La for many insects including worms.  Worms and other insects will aid the process by both breaking down your compostable items into organic matter more quickly while also aerating the compost as they tunnel and dig.  Bugs are a good and healthy sign that your compost is doing all the right things and your plants love everything about what they produce!


How to compost?


The basics of composting are air, water, and an assortment of compostable materials.  Composting can easily get technical when the topic of carbon to nitrogen ratios get’s brought up, but a simple way to think about it is Green and Brown.  Green would be your grass clippings and such.  Brown would be your leaves and such.  There are many things that fit each category, but shooting for a 2:1 Green/Brown ratio, or maybe even 1:1 should get you in the ballpark.


In order for compost to begin it’s magical process you need to introduce both water and air.  A pile of compost should stay moist.  Not completely drenched which may cause it to grow moldy or mildewy, but a nice consistent moisture does the trick.  We take either a hose or watering can and water it like we would a plant if it hasn’t rained in a few days.  To keep your compost from getting stagnant you need to churn up your compost on a regular basis, which introduces air to the mix.  You don’t want to do this too often, because the biological processes of compost needs some time to establish and take effect.  And you don’t want to wait too long either as the compost will stop biodegrading and risk the onset of mold.  Compost that is doing its thing properly will maintain a good warmth at the core.  We churn our compost once a month with a pitchfork.  Depending on the size of your pile it’s a bit of a process.  Just keep at it, turn over small areas a time, and you’ll get through it in no time!


After looking into a few different articles on composting and seeing that there are several different methods to contain and facilitate the process of composting, I decided to start very basic.  Although they make fancy contraptions that keep things well contained and have hand cranks for churning your compost, I decided having something that sat directly on the ground to facilitate bug activity would be best.  I picked up 5 good sized pallets that made 2 separate compost bins, and used some leftover old fencing material to make removable front panels for each bin.  There are a couple wood cleats I screwed on the front paired with metal clasps at the outside corners of the front panels that hold them in place.  The removable front panels makes getting materials in and out a breeze and allows for easier churning.  The slatted makeup of pallets is perfect for an airy yet defined structure for your compost to reside in.  You can also cover your bins with a tarp in wet seasons or regions to prevent your compost from getting over-saturated.



The two bin design has worked out fantastic!  I started adding all my leaves, yard clippings, and chicken manure on one side.  Then, once I had an adequate amount to work with on that side, I stopped adding to it, churned and added water to it regularly, and waited for it turn to compost.  While that process was happening I have been able to start filling up the other side.  This spring, the first side was a beautiful, deep, rich humus material that we used for our garden.  Meanwhile the other side has begun the process.  I am hopeful that over the years I can continually switch back and forth to have a constant supply of compost for all our backyard farming adventures!


Why we (all of us!) should compost?


Here are 4 reasons why we would encourage everyone to start composting!


  1. It reduces waste.  Think of all the food related items sitting in your trash can right now:  apple cores, egg shells, leftovers, potato skins, that bag of spinach you forgot about!  Multiply this by a year or a lifetime and that’s a lot of waste!  The landfill certainly doesn’t need more of it and you can instead use it productively to become a super food for your own yard!
  2. Getting rid of your yard waste just doesn’t make sense.  Nature functions how it does for a reason, and there’s a reason trees lose their leaves every fall and plants die and then regrow in the spring.  This is nature’s way of replenishing itself year after year.  We interrupt this process by stripping the land of its own self-sustaining inputs.  To build soil up we need at least one part “in” for every one part “out”.  If we continually have no parts in and all parts out, like hauling off all our leaves and grass clippings for example, soil will quickly diminish and lose it’s life and fertility over time.
  3. Healthy soil means a healthier you.  Soil and health are two things we don’t often associate but it’s impossible to separate the two.  Humans gain nutrients from the food we eat.  This food gains its nutrients from the soil it grows in.  Even the animals we eat gain their nutrients from grasses and what they forage in the field (or at least they should!).  Depleted soil may grow things, but whatever grows in it will likely be just as depleted as the soil that grew it.  Compost builds soil nutrition which in turn becomes one of the best investments you can make in your own health.
  4. Composting keeps it local.  I once bought bag of composted chicken poop from a big box store.  I got home exuberant about my purchase only to be met with, “Jim, we have chickens in our back yard!  Go get their poop!”  Joelle was right!  We had poop up the wazoo and I just imported poop into our yard from who know’s where, from unknown chickens, kept in unknown conditions, being fed unknown things, and pooping it out to be packaged and shipped to my yard.  I’m willing to bet your own yard and household scraps are already producing some of the finest materials you need to begin composting.  Don’t buy what you’ve already got right in front of you!


If you have read this and are excited about composting but feel intimidated, the best thing you can do is just start.  We have done it a couple years now, and really just through failure and trying new or different things are finally reaping the benefits!  There are tons of resources available to help you get started or troubleshoot along the way.  Many may be right in your own community as we’ve found!  Help reverse the process of stripping our lands of its nutrients and sending it to landfills.  Join the movement of people who are dedicated to fortifying soil, regenerating our lands, and joining nature in fulfilling its natural lifecycle through composting.  


James Madison, our fourth President, may have said it best back in 1818…


“Nothing is more certain than that the continual cropping without manure deprives the soil of its fertility.  It is equally certain that fertility may be preserved or restored by giving to the earth animal or vegetable manure equivalent to the matter taken from it.”

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