The first thing many people associate with homesteading is growing your own food i.e. gardening. Something you can start before you even have a garden is composting. Like most things, this subject is a bit of a rabbit hole that you can fall into with no sign of light at the end of the tunnel. However, it doesn’t need to be that complicated, especially for a beginner. I’ve tried to research the gaps in my knowledge to present you with the most important things you need to know. All sources are included at the end.
First of all, what is compost? In short, compost is decomposed organic matter. Many people refer to it as a “natural fertilizer”, but technically it’s not the same thing. There are people who use both compost and fertilizer in conjunction and others who choose one or the other, but that’s a can of worms that we can address in the future. What they have in common is they help keep a garden healthy and growing strong, which is what we’re working towards. You can either layer it on top or mix it with your soil and it’ll help your plants retain water and nutrients.
It can take months or even years for your compost to decompose. Location, size, the contents inside, aeration, and moisture all play a role in how a compost behaves. If all these elements are balanced, it shouldn’t smell or attract too many pests. Composts are not typically high maintenance, but by taking the time in the beginning to create a proper set up you will see results sooner. That being said, part of a self-sufficient lifestyle is using what you have. Waste not, want not after all.
What I have is an old chain link dog kennel left by the previous owners. It had been placed on the side of a small shed in our backyard, so it only had three sides. (What happened to the fourth side? Did they only buy three sides from the start and assemble it from scratch? Did they have a complete kennel but tore it apart so they could sell one side on the black market? Did they do it to make it seemingly unusable to future owners out of some unprovoked malice? We can only ponder.)
Anyway, my father (who has been a helping hand for a lot of these projects) and I took a quick trip to Menards to get the fourth wall and clamps we needed to make it complete. We’ve moved it from the concrete slab it was on and placed it in an open space directly on the grass behind the shed. We still need to attach the fourth side and then we will decide on where our compost will thrive best.
The holes in the fencing will assist in air flow (although the pile will still need to be turned sometimes with a pitchfork) and being directly on the ground will help with drainage to prevent it from getting too soggy. Whether you place your compost in a sunny or shady spot is really a matter of preference. In the sun the pile will decompose faster, but it will also dry out faster which will require more moisture to be added to it. Take into consideration what type of climate you live in when deciding where it would thrive the best.
Good things to compost: leaves, grass clippings, vegetable/fruit scraps (uncooked), tea bags, coffee grounds, egg cartons (if that’s your thing), crushed up paper, and small pieces of cardboard. You want a balance between things that are wet and dry, materials that will decompose very quickly and things that will take just a little longer, etc.
What should not go in a compost: materials that aren’t going to break down like plastic or glass, dog/cat poop, perennial weeds, diseased plants, meat or dairy products, and cooked foods. Some things are not problematic for the compost itself, but for the smell and pests that they attract. Remember whatever you compost will be coming into contact with food that you’re growing in the future, so you don’t want to introduce anything with chemicals or toxins (like sawdust from wood that had varnish on it, etc.)!
Be aware that there are different opinions on some of the subjects touched on in this post. As I’m able to start filling up my compost I will update with it’s progress and share what I’ve learned through hands on experience. What I do know for sure is a compost probably won’t be the centerpiece of a lavish garden wonderland, but if you take good care of it, it’ll serve you well.
Note: Most composting involves worms which can make it a controversial subject for some vegans. However, having an outside compost means worms will naturally be drawn to it unless you have a completely contained bin. If you choose the more traditional method you can be careful when you turn the pile as to not harm the worms and avoid composting things that can kill them, such as citrus and other acidic foods. If you want to try to compost without worms I’ve provided a link with additional information below, but I have not tried it myself so I can’t speak to it’s effectiveness. For myself, I am not purchasing or relocating any worms, but I will allow the natural relationship between worms and the compost to take place.
Composting without worms- https://homeguides.sfgate.com/compost-outdoors-worms-78293.html
Vegan compost you can purchase- https://www.vegansociety.com/whats-new/blog/potted-history-vegan-friendly-compost