When I visit peoples’ gardens for in person consultations some of the most common questions I get revolve around soil health. Most gardeners are aware that soil is an important factor in growing a garden, but aren’t sure what they should be doing to help build healthy soil. Often I get asked, “What about compost for the vegetable garden? Should I be using it?”
The answer isn’t a straight yes or no. I do think if you have a yard it’s a good idea to start composting food and garden waste so you can use it on your vegetable garden. But, compost alone won’t solve all of the problems in your garden or create amazingly nutrient-rich soil by itself.
In this guide I’m breaking down (ha ha!) the composting process and sharing everything you need to know to do it simply and successfully.
What is compost?
Composting is a natural process of mixing together organic matter like food scraps, garden plants, leaves, and grass clippings, usually into a container or pile, and allowing them to break down into what eventually resembles garden soil (called humus).
When you set up a composting system in your yard you’re creating an environment that encourage bacteria, fungi, worms, and other insects that feed on decomposing materials and help break down the organic matter.
The finished product from this process is called compost.
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Should You Compost? The Benefits
If you’re a homeowner with a yard I would assert that yes, you should be composting. If you grow your own food, compost for the vegetable garden is even more important and valuable.
Why should you set up a composting system? Here are some of the major benefits:
Diverts waste from the landfill.
According the the EPA, food waste accounts for about 24% of the material being sent to landfills. Not only is this waste taking up space, but collecting, transporting, and managing it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and higher expenses for municipalities.
Keeps a valuable resource on your own property.
Many people buy bags of soil and compost to add to their gardens. This can be expensive, create plastic waste, and where the ingredients are coming from is often a mystery.
Close the loop.
One of the things I love about composting at home as a gardener is that it feels like a closed, complete loop. In the spring I add my homemade compost to my garden, it feeds my plants throughout the season, and then in the fall I clean out my garden and return those plants to the compost pile to begin the cycle again.
This feels like a healthy and responsible way to deal with the plant matter on my property. Instead of putting it on the curb to be taken away by a big gas guzzling truck to go to the yard waste site in my city I’m setting up a closed system where I’m using every part of the gardening process to build healthy soil.
Add organic matter to your soil.
Soil is made up of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms. Organic matter is decomposed material (plants, insects, food scraps) that exists in the soil in a relatively stable amount. Soil high in organic matter holds more water and air, releases nutrients to plants, erodes less, and houses lots of beneficial organisms.
What to Compost
There are two categories of materials you can add to your compost system – food waste and yard and garden debris. But, within those categories there are some things you should and shouldn’t be composting.
If you’re a homeowner with a yard, at the very least you should be composting your food scraps. One of the biggest benefits of separating food waste from your household trash is that you fill up your garbage bins so much more slowly. At our house we usually take one medium sized trash bag out per month. And it never really smells since we don’t have rotting food in the trashcan.
There’s isn’t total agreement about what food you can and should be putting in your compost pile. Some people don’t like composting eggshells, or avocado skins, or citrus. It’s all a matter of personal preference. I compost everything but meat and dairy.
Food to compost:
All uncooked or cooked vegetable and fruit scraps
Breads, crackers, pasta, etc.
Tea, coffee, teabags, paper filters
The occasional tissue or paper towel
Food Not to Compost:
Meat or Seafood
Oil, Lard, Grease
Yard & Garden Debris
It’s convenient to add at least some of your yard debris to your compost pile, especially anything that contains a lot of carbon, like fallen leaves. (We’ll talk more about this below.)
Ideally, you’d would have a big enough composting area so you could compost all of the plant debris you generate.
At my house, we have a separate, smaller compost bin for food scraps and then a large open pile for all of our garden waste, mostly vegetable and flower plants at the end of the season.
Yard Waste to Compost
Vegetable and Flower Plants
Hay and Straw
Used Potting Soil
Yard Waste Not to Compost
Grass or plants treated with herbicides or pesticides
Black Walnut leaves or nuts
Where to Compost
When deciding where to locate your compost bin there are several things to consider.
Close, but not too close.
Because compost bins are full of delectable food scraps there is sometimes insect and animal activity in and around the bin. Or stinky smells from rotten food. For these reasons you probably don’t want to locate your compost bin right next to your back door.
But, you also don’t want it so far away from your kitchen that it’s a drag to take out the compost. You’ll spend all of your time trying to bribe your partner or kids to take it out for you.
And if you live in a cold weather climate where it snows you don’t want to have to trudge too far in a snowdrift to dump out your food scraps.
My compost area is in what we jokingly refer to as our back 40. Basically, it’s the back corner of our yard that isn’t used for anything besides the compost bins. But, we can see it from the kitchen window and it’s a straight shot across the yard from the kitchen door.
If your compost bin is going to touch the ground make sure it’s not in a low lying or boggy area of your yard. Compost piles need moisture, but they don’t break down properly if they’re constantly wet.
Sun or shade
I’ve had compost bins and piles in full sun, partial sun, and in the shade. They all broke down into a rich, dark humus eventually. A bin in full sun will heat up nicely throughout the year, except in extremely cold weather. But, it will dry out more quickly, so you might have to water it occasionally.
A compost pile in deep shade will remain cooler, so the material might break down more slowly than a pile in full sun. But, it will retain moisture better, so you won’t have to worry as much about it drying out.
Basically, compost wants to happen! It’s a natural process that’s going to occur no matter where your pile is situated, so don’t over think it. Put the pile or bin in the location that makes the most sense to you.
What Kind of Bin or Pile to Use
You can keep your composting very simple by just doing it in a pile. But, I’ve found that it is convenient to have some kind of bin or enclosure.
There are lots of different compost bin designs out there, with thousands of reviews. So, I’m going to talk about the bins I have experience with and the pros and cons of each.
This bin is very similar to the one I used for many years at various houses and apartment. This model is better than the style I used to have because it’s one continuous piece. One of the frustrations of one I had is that it consisted of several pieces that clicked together which over time became bent or broken. As the years progressed it became more and more difficult to get the bin back together again after emptying it.
Even so, we used for many years and even added a second one to our composting operation. Having two bins allows you to fill one up and let it sit and break down while using the second bin for fresh food waste. Having only one bin is sometimes a pain because you always have unfinished compost on the top and finished compost on the bottom. But, this model has a door at the bottom which does allow you to access the finished compost.
Easy to assemble and use
Made out of recycled plastic
Body is made out of one piece of plastic
Plastic can break down in the sun and crack over time
Can be difficult to remove finished compost from bottom door
This is very similar to the second compost bin I owned and was my favorite! We were living in an apartment at the time and our neighbors were worried that we were attracting rats with the black plastic compost bin above.
We weren’t willing to stop composting (there actually wasn’t any evidence of rats) and decided to compromise by using a more rodent-proof compost bin. I was able to get my hands on this barrel style bin which was donated to my workplace and wasn’t being used.
If you’re worried about rats or other creatures getting into your compost bin, this would be a good choice. It’s divided in half with two separate chambers so you can stop using one side and let it break down while putting new food waste into the second compartment. This was one of my favorite features!
It also has a handle that allows you to rotate the bin which helps the material compost more quickly.
More rodent-proof than other models
Easy to rotate
Made of galvanized steel
When we moved into our current house we decided to up our composting game. My husband built a three-bin system out of scrap wood and pallets. You can see the whole set up in the photo above.
On the left we have two wire bins where we compost only food scraps. The middle bin is usually an inactive bin that holds material that’s still composting. The right hand bin mostly holds new vegetable and flower garden debris.
As you can see above, your compost bin can be as simple as a wire ring in which you pile your food scraps and brown matter. This kind of pile has a higher risk of attracting animals. Last winter my husband found a rabbit family living in one of our warm piles and feeding on the scraps.
If you have extra wire fencing laying around this would be the perfect use for it. Or you can buy something like the below enclosure online, although I personally would stick to metal since it lasts longer than plastic.
Easy to build
Open style can attract rodents
You an easily build a bin like the one above from scrap wood and pallets. That’s what my husband did in our yard. The red boards are even from a picnic table we picked up off the street one summer. I like this style because you can add more boards in the front to hold the material in as you pile it higher. It keeps it neater and more contained.
Can be inexpensive to build
Holds a large amount of debris
Has slats on front you can add as the bin fills up
Take time, materials, and tools to build
Open style can attract rodents if you’re composting kitchen scraps
The third bin in our system is an open area backed by a double long pallet across the back and two shorter pallets on the sides. Everything we cut down and remove from the flower and vegetable gardens gets thrown in this pile. It’s huge at the end of the fall, but by spring it has always shrunk considerably.
Easy to build
Hold a lot of plant material
Without a front this bin can look very messy
Hard to contain plant material
Open style can attract rodents if you’re composting kitchen scraps
If you don’t want to build a bin here’s an example of an easy to assemble one you can purchase.
One additional option I found while looking around at compost bins is this metal can. It reminded me of a time when we made our own bin by drilling holes in a 55 gallon plastic barrel. It was very similar to this one, but I like that this is made out of metal instead of plastic by a Midwest company.
How to Compost Correctly
My first piece of advice when you’re getting started with composting is – don’t overthink it! I’ve read so many articles that made it seem harder and more involved than it really is.
Composting is a very simple natural process. You can get super scientific about it if that’s fun for you, but you can also take the same tactic as me – set it and forget it.
There are just a few simple factors you need to keep in mind.
There are four things that every compost pile needs: nitrogen, carbon, air, and water.
The nitrogen is all of the “green” material you’ll be placing into the compost area – food scraps, fresh grass clippings, plants you’ve just cleared out of your garden.
The carbon is the “brown” material – dead leaves, hay or straw, woodchips, sawdust, etc.
The ideal compost pile has a mix of brown and green material, about three parts brown to one part green. To keep it simple, every time you empty in some food scraps from your kitchen (green) put a layer of brown on top of it.
We rake our leaves into big piles by the compost area every fall and draw on those piles throughout the year for our brown material.
But, honestly, there’s no way our compost pile is three parts brown to one part green. I’d guess it’s more like 1:1. And it’s fine. It breaks down and turns into rich humus we can add to our garden each year. Remember – compost happens!
As for water, if you live in a dry area or haven’t gotten much rain in the summer you can periodically add water to your pile to keep it moist. A very dry pile doesn’t break down as quickly without some moisture.
Air is naturally occurring, so you don’t have to worry too much about adding air. The best way to aerate your compost is to turn it periodically. This helps speed up the process of it breaking down.
And guess what? If you don’t get around to turning or aerating it, it will still break down.
How to Use Compost
When you finally have some finished compost you can celebrate! It does take awhile to build up a decent amount to use in your garden. But, when you do, you can simply spread it on any part of the garden you’d like – around trees and shrubs, in perennial flower beds, or in vegetable garden beds.
Sometimes your finished compost isn’t quite finished and still has avocado pits, egg shells, paper, and more. This is when it might be a good idea to sift it before spreading it on your garden.
In the past we’ve used a piece of hardware cloth spread over a wheelbarrow as a sifter. Anything that doesn’t make it through gets thrown back into the bin to keep composting.
Compost will add nutrients to your garden, but I’ve found that it’s not enough to grow vegetables in. So, if you’re building new raised beds, you shouldn’t fill them only with compost. The plants won’t have all of the nutrients they need. You can read more about garden soil in this article about easy raised garden beds.
Should You Buy Compost?
When shopping at your local nursery you may notice the stacks of bagged soil and compost in the parking lot. Because I try to avoid plastic as much as possible I’ve never bought compost in bags.
I’d be leery of it unless you’re familiar with the company and know it’s high quality compost. There’s not a ton of regulation about what goes in those bags, so you really have no idea if what’s in the bag is something you want in your garden.
The only time I’ve bought compost is when I’ve ordered a pile to be delivered by a local company. It was mixed with topsoil and I used it to build new garden beds. And in all honesty, the mix was poor quality and needed a lot of work to make it healthy and nutrient rich enough to grow food.
So, although I think adding compost is a great idea to add nutrients to your soil, it’s not going to solve all of your problems.
If you have rock hard soil, or sandy soil, and you want to add organic matter, I think compost is a fine choice. If your plants are struggling and you think your garden needs more nutrients, I would recommend purchasing and adding an organic garden fertilizer instead.
Compost is Great, But It’s Not the Final Answer
By now I hope you’re convinced that you should be composting in your yard, that it doesn’t have to be difficult, and that it’s worth your time and effort.
But, adding compost to your vegetable garden isn’t going to miraculously make all of your plants flourish or solve all of your garden woes.
Compost should be one aspect of a multi-pronged approach to building and maintaining the health of your soil. You should be getting regular soil tests to educate yourself about what’s in your soil, growing cover crops, using mulch, adding organic garden fertilizer, and incorporating manure from chickens or other animals if you have access to it.