The many benefits of using finished backyard compost include improving the structure and health of your soil, helping soil retain moisture and nutrients, attracting beneficial organisms to the soil and reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizers.

Arlington resident and avid composter and gardener Jeremy Marin shares his advice on how to start home composting. 

Despite the hype and myth that surrounds making compost, it boils down to a very simple equation.

Food Scraps

The first part of that equation I like to make even simpler by saying that for every one container of food scraps, add two containers of “tree scraps.” 

Tree Scraps

Tree scraps (aka green and brown materials) obviously include leaves but also items made from trees such as used tissues, napkins, paper towels, corrugated cardboard, paper shopping bags and more. 

So for every container of food scraps you add, no matter what container you use, add the equivalent of that container filled twice with “tree scraps” to your compost. Don’t worry about being precise. The bacteria are forgiving.

Air

Air will be added to the compost by mixing or turning it. Don’t be frightened by the idea of “turning” your compost – it really is just doing what you can to mix the ingredients once every week or two to get air in there. Depending on the style bin you have, using a bulb auger in a drill (set to the slower speed) will do a fantastic job with minimal effort!

Water

Water is needed by all living things, including the bacteria you want to thrive in your compost. Many of the organisms in your compost live in the thin film of moisture that surrounds the material they’re decomposing. Too much water will breed the organisms that can make a compost smell like a sewer, so keep your compost slightly wet, but not soggy. Keep your compost wet enough that if you squeeze some in your hand, only a single drop of water will come out. 

Time

Time is the ingredient that requires only patience. Once you’ve been adding material for several weeks and your bin is full, you’ll still need to add air (turning) and possibly water, and to wait for the organisms to do their work. This can be as quick as three months or as long as three years, depending on how carefully you follow the recipe above, but either way it will all decompose eventually.

The set up

Setting up a bin isn’t complicated, but take the time to do it right to prevent critters from getting in there. If you have a “tumbler” style bin that is raised above the ground and fully enclosed, you don’t need to do anything. Tumblers are more expensive and hold less material than other styles but if it works for you then you’re all set. 

If you want a larger, less expensive unit then I recommend the Bin 24 New Age Composter that the town offers for just $25. They’re solid, well designed and will last many, many years, but I do recommend making some modifications.

  • Place some pavers or hardware cloth beneath the bin. Creating a mostly flat surface first helps. This will prevent critters from getting into the bin from below.
  • Cut a tarp or plastic sheeting large enough to fit over the top of the bin. Then, wrap a bungee cord around the bin to hold the tarp in place. While animals can obviously chew through a tarp or plastic sheet, they choose not to, probably because they’re afraid to fall in.

Keep your bin vegetarian

Remember, your bin should be vegetarian! Here’s a convenient “Can I compost it?” flow chart to put on the fridge. While it is possible to compost an entire herd of cattle, you really don’t want your backyard to smell like you’re doing that!

Composting Services and FiDO

Finally, and arguably most importantly, having someone else compost for you is perfectly fine. In Arlington we have several excellent monthly-fee companies operating as well as the free FiDO option sponsored by the town. Any of those are better than sending heavy, wet food scraps in a 3 mpg dump truck to an incinerator where gas is needed first to burn off the moisture before actually incinerating the nutrient valuable food scraps that could feed your soil!

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