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How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps to Get Started

Don't waste those kitchen scraps! Learn how to compost them to improve your soil and give your garden a boost.

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What is compost?

Packed with vital nutrients, compost is made by decomposing usable wastes in a pile or bin and then incorporating the finished product into the soil to improve its organic content. Fold the crumbly, sweet-smelling compost directly into the garden soil. Use as a mulch around trees and shrubs or to enrich houseplants. Or sift compost through a screen onto the lawn.

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iStock/Janine Lamontagne

Build your own compost bin

Use new or salvaged building materials, chicken wire, wooden pallets, cement blocks, or plastic. A garbage can makes a compact, manageable container. Even old refrigerator or oven racks can be put into service as sturdy compost walls. Whatever materials you use, be sure to build open slats or punch air holes to allow oxygen to enter and speed up the decomposition.

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Repurpose wooden pallets

The wooden pallets used for carting make ideal organic building materials for your composter. Assemble them like cubes without tops or bottoms. Place the structure in an unobtrusive corner of your garden. Plan at least two compartments: one for new wastes, the other for churning rotted compost and for use. A luxury composter has a third bin to separate semiaged material from finished compost. Add boards to the front as the heap grows higher.

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Improvise a lightweight compost container

Use large, plastic potting-soil or garbage bags. Poke about twenty holes in the bag with scissors, fill with material, and tie off at the top. Leave the bag in the sun to allow heat to facilitate decomposition. Shake or turn the bag occasionally to mix. Bring the finished compost to the garden in a wheelbarrow and use right out of the bag.

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Shred or chop materials

They will decompose faster than bulky ones. Before you put materials into the compost bin, help the process along by chopping broccoli ends, apple cores, corncobs, citrus rinds, and other tough kitchen scraps with a sharp knife. Or use an old-fashioned meat grinder. Grind up branches, stems, and hedge prunings in a wood chipper, which can usually be rented from hardware or garden-supply stores. Or burn the wood and save the ashes to add to the heap.

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Avoid all animal products except eggshells

But many other throwaways work fine. Among the materials you might try are shellfish shells, wine corks, used matches, chewing gum, nutshells, and the cotton balls from medicine bottles. Pour vegetable cooking water, pickle and olive juice, water from cut-flower arrangements, and leftover coffee, tea, or broth into the compost heap instead of down the drain. Store kitchen scraps on their way to the compost heap in the freezer. In many cases (with lettuce and tomatoes, for example), freezing will even help speed up the decomposition process.

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iStock/Bart Coenders

Layer the compost heap with a mix of materials to ensure rapid decomposition

Alternate layers of high-carbon matter like dead leaves, straw, hay, or wood chips with layers of high-nitrogen grass clippings, trimmings, manure, and meatless kitchen scraps. Add new matter to the hot center of the pile to speed breakdown and hide it from flies. And never put a large quantity of any one material in the bin.

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If your compost doesn’t heat up or is too dry, hose it down

Your goal: to achieve a damp consistency similar to that of a wrung-out sponge. Insert a few thin layers of an absorbent material; sawdust, peat, or cut hay all do the job well. To prevent the heap from getting too wet in rainy weather, place a layer of hay, dried grass, or a piece of old carpet atop the pile.

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Turn compost materials regularly

This provides oxygen for the organisms that induce decomposition. A pitchfork makes a perfect turning tool. If you’re adding a big load to the composter, use a broom or rake handle to poke airholes in the pile.

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Piles should smell sweet and fresh

A bad-smelling pile is your clue that compost is not getting enough air. To remedy the problem, incorporate dry, carbon-rich materials like dead leaves and sawdust, turning them into the pile thoroughly.

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Reader's Digest

Want more gardening tips?

This A-Z guide covers everything from acid soil to zucchini, with hints and tips culled from leading horticulturists and accomplished home gardeners from all over the country. Learn more about the Reader’s Digest Quintessential Guide to Gardening and buy the book here.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Quintessential Guide to Gardening