Backyard Composting – Make Your Own Organic Fertilizer

Organic Compost
Source: wikimedia Photo: Kessner Photography

Many beginning gardeners trying to build an organic garden are often discouraged by the cost and availability of organic fertilizers. Making your own organic fertilizer by composting yard waste and food scraps in your backyard is an excellent way to get inexpensive organic fertilizer for your garden. Backyard composting is easy to do and anyone with some available space can do it.

Why Compost for Fertilizer?

If you have decided to go organic in your garden, especially if you are growing vegetables for your own family’s consumption, you are already aware of the dangers of using chemicals in your garden. Composting is one way you can make your own fertilizer that is organic and chemical free. But it provides many other benefits that are hard to get from commercial inorganic products and can also save a lot of money in the long run.

Improves soil structure: Compost used as mulch or mixed in with soil as an amendment adds structure (for sandy soil) and porosity (for clay) to the soil that helps soil to retain moisture longer. The micro-organisms in the compost are invaluable to the plants as they continue to work to release nitrogen and other valuable nutrients that the plants need.

Recycle waste and reduce landfills: Recycling kitchen organic scraps and yard waste back into your garden via compost can drastically cut down on the trash that needs to be sent to the landfills. If you pay for your trash to be picked up, the savings will be immediate. Even if you don’t, consider this as one of the greenest action you can take to help the environment out. Not only you are avoiding chemicals that may leech into ground water, you are also directly helping  avoid more greenhouse gas production by cutting down on the waste that goes into landfills (landfills produce methane). Chemical fertilizers also use petroleum or natural gas or other fossil fuels in their production (and transportation) which can be avoided.

Easy to do: Composting is a natural process and requires very little effort from us. Consider this, the lush vegetation in natural forests and tropical forests is the result of nature’s own composting process whereby the fallen leaves and other organic debris on the forest floor is broken down and composted over time with no intervention from humans. Actively managing the composting process can help the process go faster. If left alone, a compost pile will eventually decompose and become compost. Any once living organic matter can be composted. No special ingredients are required, although composting vegetable and plant scraps and waste only is advised for a home composter (dairy, meat and fat scraps may attract pests and home composting may not be intense enough to kill off all the harmful germs that I am sure we do not want going into our gardens)

How to Compost?

Composting occurs naturally with microbes in the mix actively working to breakdown the organic matter. There are four basic ingredients needed for compost: Carbon (browns), Nitrogen (greens), Air and Water. Greens, including grass clippings, kitchen vegetable scrap, coffee/tea grounds, horse/cow manure (herbivorous animal manure to avoid harmful germs from passing on) etc are high in nitrogen. Some sites advise throwing in a handful of urea to supply the needed nitrogen to kick start the composting process, but it is not necessary. When I mow my lawn, I normally leave the clippings on the grass to be recycled back into the soil but have been spiriting away a bag of clippings every mow to put it in the compost pile. You can also add weeds from your garden to the mix but take care to avoid any weeds that have gone to seed as these may comeback to your garden with seeds intact. Carbon forms the fuel for the bacteria to feed on and can be supplied by dry leaves (when you rack up the leaves in the fall, be sure to save them for use in the compost pile), dry wood trimmings, shredded newspaper (avoid the colored parts), shredded cardboard, saw dust, straw, etc. Make sure that the pile is moist (not wet) and is regularly turned or fluffed up to supply oxygen to all parts of the pile.

Composting process can be speed up considerably by using ingredients that provide Carbon to Nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio) of about 30:1. At this ratio, the compost pile create the optimum conditions for the microbes to grow and multiply. Although this ratio is ideal, good compost can be had at any ratio close enough to 30:1 and frankly, in practice, the ideal conditions are difficult to achieve for a home composter who is most likely going to indulge in ‘add as you go’ composting. A good article explaining the C:N ratio is at Home Composting Made Easy website.

When the conditions are ideal, the compost pile will heat up with internal temperatures reaching 140 F/60 C. You can further aid this process by keeping the pile moist and aerating it frequently by turning or fluffing it up. At ideal mix, very little nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere in form of ammonia therefore it will not smell. In fact, if your pile starts smelling, it is an indication that you have too much green and need to add more browns to the mix.

Adding two parts green material to 1 part packed brown material (shredded and packed with little fluff for measurement) by volume will get very close to the ideal C:N ratio. Although since different ingredients vary in their C:N composition, your ideal mix of greens and browns will only become apparent after a bit of experimentation.

Be sure to throw in a shovelful of garden soil or compost from the previous batch into the new compost pile to supply hungry microbes ready to work on your new pile.

How to build a compost bin?

There are many commercial bins available for backyard composting and can be bought from garden stores or Costco. Commercial bins come in many shapes and sizes. I prefer the tumbler bins that can be turned frequently as this avoids having to take the pile out to turn it. For those on a budget, a large garbage can can be converted into a compost bin.

If you have a large backyard and do not need to worry about neighbors complaining, you can build an uncovered compost bin. Just fence off a 3 ft x 3 ft or larger area using old shipping pallets or chicken wire and start dumping compost material into it. An ideal size of a compost pile is 1 cubic yard or larger. Open piles need to be protected against heavy rains and wind. Do not be alarmed if you see steam coming out of your pile when it gets too hot.

There are many other resources available on the web to help you with your questions on Composting

Be sure to share your experiences with composting in the comments and let us know if this article inspired you to consider composting this year.

8 Responses to Backyard Composting – Make Your Own Organic Fertilizer

  1. I’ve been adding coffee grounds to the soil around my rose bushes and I think it’s definitely helped them grow! Once we have our own house I’d love to try composting.

  2. @FFB addin used coffe grounds to your garden is excellent. Coffee grounds are high in nitrogen which helps in plant growth. You may also want to sprinkle some crushed egg shells (empty ones 🙂 ) which have added pest control benefits.

  3. Good info.. I find it pretty easy to compost once you are in the mindset that a lot of the fruit and vegetables you discard could easily be added to a compost box.

    I created my compost bin from discarded 3×3 pallets. They worked out pretty well.

    If anyone is interested, I added the steps and pictures of the process.

    Happy Composting! ?

  4. I am really interested. Would you please added the steps and pictures of the process. Thank you so much.

  5. Great post! Every week, I buy lots of organic fruits and vegetables, wash them carefully and then I prepare them for cooking. I pull off the ugly leaves, I remove the flesh from the rind, I cut off the ends, I remove the outer layers, etc. I use only the most tender and tastiest parts of the vegetables for my clients.

    This leaves a large pile of organic kitchen scraps that is perfect for composting, I’ve been saying I need to compost, for a long time. This year, I’ve joined a CSA with Sang Lee Farms and I expect to get large quantities of fruits and vegetables that will create piles of kitchen scraps for composting. Well this year, I’ve taken another step to be greener by purchasing a composter and setting it up behind my shed.
    Thanks for making it look so easy.
    Chef Vanda
    The Organic Personal Chef

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