The Essential Guide to Starting a Compost Pile

Is your garden looking a little down these days? Maybe the blossoms on your flowers are few and far between or your vegetables look thin and meager. It may be because your plants’ soil lacks the nutrients needed to grow big and strong.

Just like children need vitamins and minerals to grow up strong, so do plants. When the soil offers too few nutrients, it can be hard for them to thrive. While some store-bought soils can work wonders for gardens, there’s a way to help your garden without having to spend so much on soil. It’s called composting, and all things considered, it’s the best thing you can do for your garden that is almost completely free

At Natran, we’re committed to going green in every way possible. If you’re interested in starting a compost pile or bin in your backyard, here’s how it can benefit the earth and your garden and how to get started.

How composting benefits the planet

Soil depletion happens all over Houston, whether it happens gradually over time when so many plants have been growing in the same location or the soil was rocky and packed with clay to begin with. The result is still the same: You have poor soil that does not make for a habitable home for plants to grow.

So what exactly is composting and how does it fit in with soil depletion. Composting is the act of breaking down organic, nutrient-packed matter that can be added to soil in the garden. The plants growing will be able to suck up the nutrients over time, allowing them to grow bigger and thrive. Think of composting as conditioner for soil. In hair, conditioner provides nutrients to keep your hair strong and shiny. Composting works the same way.

But composting also helps the planet in other ways. The organic matter that breaks down usually comes mostly from kitchen waste — banana peels, apple cores, rotten produce. If it’s thrown away and put in a landfill, this organic matter won’t break down as easily because there’s no air to help it. Instead, the organic matter will release a harmful methane gas, which contributes to global warming and climate change. By composting, you can reduce what you throw away by as much as 30%, and that does a lot of good for the planet.

In the long run, composting reduces the amount of garbage we throw away in landfills. If everyone started composting, we’d see a drastic reduction in landfill waste — and our flowers would touch the sky.

What we especially love about composting here at Natran is that it keeps harmful chemicals out of the soil. Fertilizers and pesticides have chemicals in them that can be harmful to your family and pets, and if it rains, those chemicals can run off your lawn and into the water supply. Sure, we have water filtration systems, but wouldn’t it be better not to put those chemicals into the earth at all? As purveyors of green pest control, we say there are better ways.

Composting is one of those ways. When the organic matter breaks down, it aerates the soils and wards off plant diseases and pests. If your garden is prone to certain diseases, using compost to fertilize the soil can help you ward off diseases without having to use a store-bought fertilizer. 

So composting can help you save money in three different ways:

  • Less money spent on trash liners because you throw away less trash.
  • Less money spent on fertilizers and soil at the store.
  • Less money spent on chemical pesticides and other harmful sprays.
  • Less money spent on produce because your garden and grow enough for your family.

When you commit to starting a compost bin or pile (depending on your preference), you’re saving your wallet and the earth, and we can’t think of any other better reasons not to get started right away.

How to start a compost pile

So you’re ready to start making a difference in your garden and environment? Getting started with a compost pile or bin doesn’t take much — just a little effort and willingness to make good things grow. 

Here are the basics on how to start a compost pile in your backyard right now.

What should be added to a compost pile

What your compost pile needs to thrive will mostly depend on what kind of composter you have (we’ll get into that later), but for the most part, you need items that will create a working balance of carbon and nitrogen. When in balance, these two elements break down matter and release nutrients.

If it’s been a while since high school chemistry, here’s a quick primer:

  • Carbon: Carbon is one of the basic building blocks of life. In a compost pile, it gives it that light, almost fluffy body. In general, you want a lot more carbon than nitrogen in your pile, and you can find it in compostable materials such as twigs, stems, leaves, egg shells, sawdust, shredded brown paper bags, straw, conifer needles and wood ash. Most of these items can be found around your yard.
  • Nitrogen: Another common element, nitrogen provides protein for the compost pile. You can find it in food scraps, green lawn clippings, green leaves and manure.

Most gardeners follow an easy rule of thumb for their compost piles: You should have one-third green materials to two-thirds brown materials. The brown matter will allow air to circulate among the green materials (remember how landfills prevented this from happening?) and encourage organisms to grow there. If there’s too much nitrogen, you’ll have a nasty smell coming from your compost bin. When there’s enough carbon, you’ll have a fresh smell instead. It never hurts to add a little more carbon, so always add a little extra just in case.

But not everything should be thrown in your compost bin. Here are a few good examples.

  • Meat or fish scraps and chicken bones: If you try to add meat to your compost bin, you’ll likely invite a whole host of pests into your garden. 
  • Pet manure: Do you really find Fido’s droppings on the soil that will grow your food?
  • Diseased plants and weeds: Avoid using any stems, leaves or petals that came from diseased trees. Those diseased parts will spread into your soil.
  • A lot of sawdust: Although sawdust is full of carbon, it needs to be used sparingly. For one thing, it can clump in moisture, which will decrease the amount of air to your nitrogen sources. It can also be tainted with grease and oil residue. Use it sparingly.
  • Perennial weeds and plants: Because these plants grow back every year — whether you want them to or not — they can spread weed seeds into your bin.
  • Orange rinds, banana and peach peels: These may have been treated with pesticides. You don’t want to introduce pesticides into your compost, so avoid them.

The materials mentioned above are just some of the matter than can be used to compost. Do a little research to find others. In most cases, you probably won’t have to look far to find compostable materials in your own life.

How to choose a composter

You can either use a compost bin or tumbler or a pile in your backyard to start composting. It will mostly depend on where you live and what you intend to compost.

  • Urban: If you live closer to downtown Houston, you can still start a compost pile even if you have no outdoor patio or balcony. You’ll mostly be using table scraps, so use a worm bin. If you have shared outdoor green space, you may be able to use a tumbler if you have yard waste.
  • Suburbs: For those in the burbs, a tumbler will work if you’re not sure how much you’ll really have to compost, and you can always upgrade to a larger compost bin. 
  • Rural: Rural homes with lots of space and yard waste can build their own compost open compost piles or use multiple bins. If you have an open pile, be mindful of what you should not put in it, like meat and fish scraps. It will be easier to attract pests with an open pile.

In the beginning, start small and work your way up. 

How to start composting

Now that you know what should go into a compost pile or bin and which container should best suit your needs, it’s time to start composting for real. Here’s how to get started.

  1. Clear a patch in your yard for your bin or pile. You want your compost pile to have direct access to the dirt and soil below. That’s how worms and other organisms needed for decomposition will reach your pile. Clear a section of turf so weeds don’t start growing in your pile.
  2. Set up your bin or pile. Add your carbon materials, such as twigs and straw first. You should have a few inches of carbon here. This will keep the air flowing down to the soil.
  3. Layer your materials. You don’t want to your compost to be either too moist or too dry. The best way to avoid this is to layer your materials. You should do a layer of moist, nitrogen-packed materials followed by a heavy layer of carbon material. Any time you do a layer of moist materials, immediately follow it with dry materials. If you let the moist materials sit on top, they’ll start to smell.
  4. Keep the pile moist: Not soaking, but moist. In most cases, rains during the week will be enough to keep your pile most, but if it’s dry, water your pile.
  5. Cover your pile. You can use just about anything to cover your compost pile, such as extra carpet pieces, plastic sheeting or even wood. This will prevent your compost pile from becoming too moist if you have a rainy week, and it will also keep heat inside, which is vital for composting.
  6. Turn your pile every few weeks. Once you have the basics layered, you need to turn your pile with a shovel or pitchfork to bring oxygen into the pile. Oxygen will help break down organic materials, so it needs to be introduced every few weeks to keep the decomposition process moving along.

Once you have a good base going, you can mix in new materials without layering. Just continue to follow the one-third nitrogen to two-thirds carbon rule. You can buy a compost tin for your kitchen, which will hold kitchen scraps until they’re ready to be added to the pile. Save and shred newspapers and paper, which are good sources of carbon and easily available.

Now these rules will vary depending on where you’re composting and how much space you have. Urban dwellers might not have access to soil to start, so a compost tumbler or worm bin should be the best route. Those in rural area or suburban ones with lots of space should put their compost bins farther from the house, but not too far, or else you might have difficulty watering it. Make sure the bin or pile is not near wooden structures like decks or fences. Those same materials breaking down in your compost bin will start breaking down your wood too.

Over time, your compost bin will provide you with nutrient-rich soil that can be transplanted around your garden. It can be used to help all your plants grow strong and healthy, benefitting your local ecosystem and the planet as a whole. Remember, plants are a vital part of the ecosystem, affecting everything from air quality to food sources. Healthy trees and plants clean our air, and blooming flowers provide food for pollinators such as bees and birds.

Good compost piles will benefit your garden for years to come. Tell us: What are your most burning questions when it comes to composting? Let us know in the comments and share with us how our green pest control can keep out garden pests and pesticides from your garden.

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