These days we all want to cut down on what we send to the junk heap, and what better way is there than to start composting? Not only is it a great way to recycle your food and yard scraps, the compost you create can be added right back into your garden – helping build a better, less-erosive soil that retains moisture and nutrients and releases them slowly over time.

Compost Queen

Pharr Adams, the Compost Queen, mixes up her compost pile.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Compost bin

This simple compost bin doesn’t take up a lot of space, and it can be used over and over for years.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Composting may sound difficult, but once you learn a little about it, you’ll find the compost does most of the work. The first step is to pick a sunny location away from your house to start your compost pile or bin. It should be fenced off from scavengers or pets, as well as near a convenient source of water. (This nearby water source becomes more important if you live in a dry climate.) If you live in a cold climate, you might need a larger space to compost so you can accommodate a larger volume of material, because your compost needs to be able to generate enough heat for the materials to break down.

The next step is to decide whether you want a compost bin or a pile. If your municipality allows compost piles, it’s a great way to go: You don’t have to plan much, and it takes little effort and money. The drawback to a compost pile is safety – piles can be easily scavenged, and the bacteria can actually be fatal. The downside to bins is that they take a little more effort to build or buy, but the upside is that they can speed up the composting process.

Once you’ve got the first two steps down, you’ll have to consider your compost ingredients. Here’s where a little bit of chemistry comes in, but don’t get nervous. The key is just to get a good balance of the four ingredients: nitrogen, carbon, water and air. Mixed together correctly, your compost will “cook” just right and give you a great addition to your garden.

How do you get the right mix? By adding the right ingredients. Nitrogen comes from your green materials, like grass clippings, landscape trimmings, and vegetable and fruit scraps. Carbon comes from the dry or brown materials you mix in, like dry leaves, twigs, sawdust, wood or hay. These materials should be chipped or shredded to break down effectively so that chemical interaction can occur.

Water comes from, well, any moisture that’s added – whether by rainfall or garden hose. Your compost needs moisture. Experts recommend that compost should consistently be as moist as a slightly damp sponge. To achieve this, be sure to get any water you add throughout your compost – don’t just add it to the top of the pile.

The last key ingredient is air – or actually oxygen, a key component to air. Air can’t circulate in a pile that’s too dense or wet, so materials won’t decompose. Then you’ll wind up with a big, bad, stinky compost and slow “cooking.” So if you’ve got a compost pile going now, get in there and turn it with a pitchfork to aerate it. If you’ve got a bin, you’ll need to turn the compost, too. Some store-bought bins are actually compost tumblers with a big crank on the side so you can easily mix air throughout.

A well-managed compost pile – where all the ingredients are in correct proportions and it’s tilled assiduously – will cook at a temperature of 120-140 degrees F. The high temperature kills most weed seeds as the mixture decomposes, and it creates a good compost within weeks. If monitoring your compost that closely is too much work for your lifestyle, there’s nothing wrong with just tossing your ingredients into a pile, watering, mixing and waiting. But it’ll take longer to get usable compost – maybe even several months.

Please resist the urge to try to harvest compost before all the material is decayed. You’ll likely just be inviting pests and diseases to visit your plants. You’ll know your material is ready to work into your garden when you get a very crumbly, dark, earthy-smelling product.

Just remember: Successful composting isn’t magic – it’s chemistry. But it’s not complex. Just get the right mix of ingredients in the right conditions, and the compost will do most of the work. (And your garden will thank you for it!)