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How to Compost and Worm Composting

Hi and welcome to my articles on how to compost – in bins, tumblers, a 5-gallon bucket, or using worm composting! If you’re worried that learning how to compost might be hard – don’t worry, it’s easier than you think. You’ll love turning your garden and food waste into beautiful plant nutrition!

Let’s start with the most popular articles. Then, we’ll look at what compost is, exactly, and how to make it yourself. You’ll find details on the best worms to use, and even how to start a worm farm business! Don’t miss the resource page with all my favorite composting tools. Happy composting!

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We’ll also clear up some common misunderstandings of the terminology. We will explain the differences and similarities between compost, mulch, and fertilizer. Then, we will give you a quick and easy guide on how to compost in a way that revitalizes lawn and garden soil.

What Is Compost?

Compost is the result of a process called aerobic decomposition of organic waste materials. “Aerobic” involves oxygen.

The bacteria at work in compost-making need oxygen to do their work. The organic materials they decompose include leaves, straw, animal manure, and food scraps. When composting bacteria have done their work, the finished product is a sweet-smelling, crumbling, nutrient-rich compost.

It helps to understand what compost isn’t. Compost isn’t humus—yet. Compost is a form of organic matter that improves texture, aeration, and water retention as is. However, it’s really microorganisms, especially fungi, that release nutrients in the chemical form that vegetables and flowers can use.

To get the full benefits of compost, you need to follow a two-step process.

First, you need to work the compost into the soil. This step is enough to change the texture of the soil to make it lighter (if you have clay soil), or more water-retentive (if you have sandy soil). It provides the raw materials for the nutrients your plants need.

The next step in using compost is encouraging the fungi that deliver nutrients from it to plants. Soil fungi develop long mycorrhizae that transport nutrients and water directly to the roots of your plant. You encourage the growth of these mycorrhizae by:

  • Not tromping on the ground around your plant,
  • Not dousing your plants with large amounts of chemical fertilizers, and
  • By keeping the soil moist, not soggy.

Why do we think it is important to tell you how to use compost as part of telling you what compost is?

Gardeners need to understand that composting is about more than just the process of breaking down visible organic matter, the carbon-rich “brown” ingredients like fall leaves and grass clippings with the “green” materials like aged cow manure and aged manures.

The decomposition process continues even after you apply compost to your garden, as the fungi in living soil make humus, humates, and humic acid.

The Difference Between Compost and Mulch

Many gardeners may wonder why they need to go through all the trouble of making compost when they could just put out an organic mulch that breaks down, too. Before we go into detail about the differences between compost and mulch, however, let’s back up and go over some basic definitions.

  • Soil is the earthy material in which you grow plants in your outdoor garden. There are also soilless hydroponic gardening systems, but they don’t allow you to use compost. It differs from dirt in that it contains living organisms, and it doesn’t have undesirable elements like rocks and large pieces of wood mixed in.
  • Compost is the decayed organic matter you work into the soil to improve its texture and to provide your plants with extra nutrients.
  • Mulch is anything you place on the ground. Mulch can be an organic material, like hay or leaves, or it can be something that has never been alive, like gravel or lava rocks. There are also plastic mulching materials that don’t break down, so you have to pull them up at the end of the growing season, and plastic mulches made from biodegradable materials that you turn back into the soil when the growing season is over, much like compost. 

There are two major differences between compost and mulch.

  • Compost is always made from organic, previously living matter. Mulch may be made from previously living matter, or not.
  • Compost is always broken down by bacteria with the release of heat that kills weed seeds, insects, and disease-causing microorganisms. Organic mulches may be broken down by bacteria, but there won’t be enough microbial activity to generate heat.

There is no reason you can’t use both compost and mulch. Add compost to improve the tilth and nutrient content of the soil. Spread out mulch to keep the soil cooler in the summer and warmer at the end of the growing season, and to retain soil moisture.

But keep in mind that compost provides available nitrogen, phosphorus, and trace minerals, while these nutrients will still be locked inside bits of organic matter in mulch.

Compost vs Fertilizer

organic fertilizers vs synthetic fertilizers. One feeds the soil, the other feeds only the plant.

Compost has a number of advantages over chemical fertilizers.

  • Compost doesn’t just provide nutrients for plants. It nourishes earthworms, which aerate the soil and fertilize it with their own waste. It also provides nutrients for fungi, which deliver nutrients directly to plant roots. 
  • Compost helps garden soils hold water. There is less runoff to wash away soluble nutrients. Compost retains soil moisture during droughts.
  • Compost suppresses microorganisms that can attack plants at the root level. It isn’t really an antibiotic for the soil, but it absolutely is both a prebiotic and a probiotic for healthy plants.

There are a few situations in which additives are a good choice for gardeners. When you have sent your soil sample off to the lab and the results tell you that pH is a problem, you can add sulfur to make your soil more acidic or limestone to make it more alkaline.

If you have an extreme deficiency in one of the macronutrients your plants need – in nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium – chemical fertilizers can give your plants a quick shot of nutrition.

There are also foliar sprays that provide trace minerals and micronutrients, such as calcium, copper, zinc, iron, and iodine. These can be useful just before harvest and for helping your plants resist disease.

For the long-term health of your plants, however, compost is a superior source of the nutrition your plants need, as well as a source of nutrition for the earthworms that aerate the soil and provide their own fertilizer.

The nutrients in compost don’t get washed away by overhead watering or rainfall, and they never burn plants or cause scalding.

How to Compost Like a Pro

How to compost infographic with step by step instructions

There are several rules to remember for making compost. We will start with the most basic principle of compost making.

Choose the Right Materials for Making Compost

Compost is made from previously living plant matter (leaves, straw, and small wood chips) and aged animal wastes. Aged manure from cows, horses, goats, and sheep contains healthy bacteria that keep potentially harmful bacteria in check. Waste from cats and dogs doesn’t, and shouldn’t be added to your compost pile.

Kitchen waste makes excellent compost. You can compost fruit and vegetable peelings, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea bags you have cut or ripped open, coffee filters, shredded paper towels, and fruits and veggies that have gone bad.

Gardening waste also makes great composting material. You can compost grass clippings, trimmings from shrubs and trees, hay, straw, leaves, dead houseplants, dead garden plants, hair, fur, and fireplace ashes.

There are also some things you should not try to compost:

  • Meat scraps attract animals and release odors as they decay.
  • Dairy products also create a sour odor as they break down.
  • Wild animal scat, especially from raccoons, can contain parasites that make it unsafe to handle without gloves. The parasites can survive the composting process if the compost is not turned regularly, so it is best just to leave them out. The same is true of feces from pets, except for pets like chickens and ducks.
  • Used kitty litter releases an offensive odor and attracts other cats from the neighborhood.
  • Fats, grease, and lard smell bad as they break down.

It is also important not to add any trimmings or cuttings from plants you have treated with herbicides like RoundUp. The herbicide won’t break down during composting, and the resulting product can kill your plants.

What to compost infographic with brown and green materials

Make Sure Your Compost Heats Up as It Breaks Down

Bacterial action will make your compost pile hot enough to release steam if you follow two rules.

  1. Make sure you aim for a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (brown-to-green) of around 30:1. Your greens can be green leaves from plants, aged animal manures, and legumes. 
  2. Keep your compost pile moist but not soggy. Moisten any new, dry organic matter before you add it to your compost pile.

You don’t need a container for making compost. Piling up organic matter in a corner of your garden and covering it with a canvas tarp to keep it moist will work. (Don’t use plastic. Sunlight will cook your compost before it has a chance to break down.)

In some circumstances, you may get better results by using a compost bin like the Geobin, which is amazingly cost-effective.

Use a Compost Bin for the Best Results

A compost bin is just a container for making compost. You don’t necessarily have to spend money to make a compost bin. You can create a bin for your compost from cinder blocks, stone, or brick you haven’t used for another project, or make an open container from spare lumber, pallets, or fencing mesh.

The only restriction on a do-it-yourself compost bin is making sure there are gaps and holes for aeration and drainage.

Many gardeners will prefer to use plastic compost bins. You can find a plastic barrel mounted on an axle for easy turning. The barrel will be off the ground, so there is no worry about pets or wildlife getting into your compost as it “cooks.”

Aerobic or Anaerobic?

Most gardeners will turn their compost occasionally to give the aerobic bacteria that are breaking it down fresh oxygen. Just stick a shovel into your pile and bring material from the bottom up to the top, or crank your rotating compost bin.

In my permaculture course, we focused on moving the outside of the pile to the inside. I turn my pile in stages. Every few days, I fork the outside of the pile to the back. Then, I start piling some of the older stuff on top. With a cider (or two), this is my preferred way to exercise. Beats the gym!

It is also possible to make fermented compost. No turning is necessary, since the bacteria that ferment the carbohydrates don’t need oxygen. This method of making compost is sometimes referred to as Bokashi composting. Some ceramic kitchen counter composers use this method.

Be forewarned that anaerobic compost making is similar to making kimchi or pickles, and pungent odors will be released when you lift the lid.

How Long Does Compost Take?

A moist, protected compost pile will produce compost in about a month. Under ideal conditions, a compost bin will be faster, but it may not produce compost at all if the air around it is too cold.

There are a number of ways to accelerate the decomposition of organic matter into compost.

  • Make sure the aerobic bacteria at work in your compost pile get all the air they need. Turn your pile regularly.
  • Shred input materials into tiny pieces. Bacteria can act on paper and wood faster if it is shredded.
  • Keep your compost moist but not soggy. Moisten any materials you add to the pile.
  • Keep the pH of your compost acidic. Don’t add a lot of wood ashes.

For even more ways to accelerate compost production, see our article on fast composting.

How to Use Compost

Use compost to condition the soil and nourish your plants. Place compost over your garden bed and turn it into the soil with a spade or rototiller, but don’t bury it deep into the soil. Compost in the top six inches (15 cm) of the soil interacts with plant roots better than compost you dug in deep.

Compost Pile vs Bin

Compost piles and compost bins have both pros and cons.

Compost piles are the better choice when you are starting with a large amount of compostable materials – for example, when you want to compost the leaves you rake up in autumn. You can start with a large layer of leaves at the base of the pile, and then add food waste at the top as your nitrogen source.

It’s easy to add an activator to a compost pile. And it’s easy to turn your compost pile so it decomposes faster.

Compost bins are the better choice for gardeners who have small yards. If you keep the lid closed, there will be no odor at all. Rats and wildlife can’t get in, and some models compost automatically, in mere hours.

On the downside, compost piles just don’t work without the addition of high-nitrogen material, such as aged animal manure. They are easily disturbed by pets and wildlife, and odor can be an issue.

Compost bins can create a smelly mess if they don’t have drainage holes. If they are elevated off the ground, they may never heat up enough to sterilize weed seeds and pathogens, at least during the cooler months of the year. Not all compost bins are weather-proof.

Both methods take up the same amount of space, but you can move a compost bin, while you can’t move a compost pile without interrupting the composting process.

Compost piles have a bigger capacity than compost bins, but you will have to turn your compost pile with a pitchfork for all of the material to decompose.

Compost Piles

Pros:

  • Best for large amounts of compost
  • Easy to add materials
  • Easy access for turning
  • It’s free!

Cons:

  • Easily disturbed by pets and wildlife
  • Can be smelly if it’s not composting well
  • Turning can be physically demanding
  • Can be hard to keep the pile neat – it tends to ‘slide’ off the pile.

Compost Bins

Pros:

  • Best for small yards
  • Less risk of odor
  • Tumblers are easy to turn

Cons:

  • Can become a smelly mess if they don’t have drainage holes
  • Only suitable for small amounts of compost
  • Harder to heat up so not as efficient at killing weeds, seeds, and pathogens
  • Not all are weatherproof

Insect In Your Compost

The following article has incredible information about insects in your compost – maggots, in particular. Are maggots in your compost as bad as you think? Find out below!

What Is Vermiculture? (or Worm Farming)

Vermiculture is “worm-iculture.” Vermiculture breeds, grows, and uses worms for aerating the soil, producing worm castings, or other practices. For more details on the types of worms in your garden, and the best worms for your worm farm, don’t miss this amazing article by our very own Katarina – bug specialist!

If you have enough space for a compost bin or a compost pile, you have room for starting a worm farm. It’s easy to get started.

How to Start a Worm Farm

We have detailed instructions on how to start a profitable worm farm on our site. Worms feed on the same materials you use to make compost.

Gather compostable biomass, create a warm, well-drained but moist, protected wormery to give your worms a home, add the right worms to their wormery, and you’re started!

What Are Worm Castings?

Even if you don’t sell worms, you get a tremendous boost to your lawn and garden in the form of their castings. Castings are earthworm poop.

You will recognize it when you see little holes in the ground surrounded by gray cylindrical pellets that are a mixture of earthworm feces, undigested organic matter that feeds soil fungi and bacteria, and dirt. 

If you have your own worm composter, you’ll get plenty of nutrient-rich worm castings. If you don’t, you can purchase worm castings online to add to your soil and reap the benefits.

Worm Castings vs Compost

Worm castings contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K) in their ionic form. This N-P-K is readily available to plants. Just add water, and these elements are available to roots. They are easily leached away from plant roots by overwatering, however.

Compost contains N-P-K in a slow-release form. Fungi break down the compounds that bind to these nutrients slowly, giving your plants steady nutrition.

Both worm castings and compost are great fertilizers. Give plants worm castings to stimulate early growth, and compost to help them through the summer heat to harvest time.

Compost Worms

The best worms for vermiculture are red wigglers, also known as tiger worms, brandling worms, manure worms, panfish worms, and trout worms. Chances are that you already have them on your property. Our site has more information about the best worms for your vegetable garden.

Keep one thing in mind in choosing food for your earthworms:

Scientists tell us that earthworms grow faster when they have straw as part of their diet.

The Best Composting Tools

Composting is super rewarding but it can be labor-intensive and hard work. Make composting easier with our articles on the best composting tools!

Best Worm Composters and Farms

Worm farming is huge fun! My daughters adore their worms – they make great pets for kids. Worms are surprisingly easy to look after and raise. It’s even easier with a great worm composter – although you can make simple worm farms out of just about anything – an old bath tub, a plastic bucket

This article list some great worm composting kits that’ll get you started in a heartbeat. Take a look at our favorite worm composters and tools, too!

The Best Compost for Garden Improvement

So, is there a single best compost for garden improvement?

That’s a tricky question. The greater the variety of input you put into your garden, the greater the range of nutrients it provides. 

Scientists tell us that adding too much compost actually increases the leaching of nutrients from the soil by overhead watering. You need more soil than compost!

Success with compost for garden improvement depends more on where you put it than what it is made from. Turn your compost into garden soil evenly throughout the top six inches of soil for the best results.

Here are some of our favorite premade composts and soil improvers!

FAQ

Can you compost bread?

Yes, you can compost bread. Bread will break down nicely in your compost pile or bin, or your kitchen composter. However, adding bread may attract wildlife and vermin to your compost. If your compost bin isn’t completely sealed, or you have a compost pile outdoors, bread will make a tasty treat for them.

What is compost?

Compost results from the aerobic decomposition of organic materials (anything that once was alive). The word ‘aerobic’ means that it includes oxygen. Anaerobic is a different process, and it means ‘without oxygen’. In simple words, compost is what you get when living things break down.

Compost is rich in bacteria, which help to break down just about anything – from straw to manure to food scraps. Compost is incredibly useful in your garden as it improves your soil and makes nutrients available to your plants – resulting in an awesome harvest!

What is compost used for?

Compost is used in the garden to improve soil quality and to make nutrients available to plants. Compost is also used in heating – you can heat water for your shower, or warm your whole house with a compost pile! Starting a compost pile or bin in your greenhouse can help your plants stay warmer in winter.

Full List of All Our Composting Articles

Author

  • Elle

    Jack of all trades, master of some. Wild garden grower. Loves creating stuff. From food forests and survival gardens to soap and yoghurt. A girl on a farm with two kids and one husband (yep, just one - although another one would be handy). Weirdly enjoys fixing fences and digging holes. Qualified permaculture teacher and garden go-to.