Grow Your Own Food. Start with the DIRT!

Grow Your Own Food. Start with the DIRT!

New Homesteader Allysia lives in Idaho and shares her journey from city girl to homesteader on her blog Pure Living For Life
I appreciate that she is willing to share her journey that so many of us dream about. 

She writes:

The first year living on our off grid property we didn’t plan on having a garden because we simply had too many other more important projects. That said, because we do want a garden in the near future, we figured that we should start composting now! In this post we want to go over composting 101 which is how to start a compost pile… you know, the simple way!

Starting a compost pile is so simple yet for me, it was a little intimidating because there is simply too much information on the subject! In the end, I decided to not even try to aim for perfection but to simply get started, and I’m happy I did.

Six months later, and we already have a lovely heap of compost, although small, and this fall we spent some time gathering even more organic matter for our pile. As with anything, it seems to get easier and more obvious over time, which I’m extremely happy to report.

Here are the basics of what our composting experience looks like so far.

Decide on a Compost Bin

In all honesty, Mother Nature doesn’t use any type of compost bin… organic matter simply falls on the ground to deteriorate, and it all works out!

That said, we chose to have some sort of bin to keep things feeling contained, and also to be able to build the pile up fairly deep.

We chose to go with a diy compost bin out of reclaimed pallets. This was extremely low-tech… it doesn’t even have a fourth side! This is because we wanted to be able to get in to turn the pile on occasion. So far, this approach is working for us.

There are a number of compost bin plans out there, but if you want to buy one, many like to go the route of the tumbling compost bin. In all honesty, this type of bin is probably a bit small for our property since we want to compost in large quantities, but it’d be perfect for the urban homesteader that really wants to keep things tidy and doesn’t predict having a ton of yard waste!

how to make a compost pile and bin

How to Start a Compost Pile – Add Organic Material

This is the hard part… you ready? All you need to do is add material to the compost pile! In a nutshell, you need to add carbon and nitrogen in somewhat equal amounts or in other words, “brown” stuff and “green” stuff.

Add Carbon

Carbon is stuff that’s typically dry, which is why it’s referred to as brown material. This may be the easiest material to come by in bulk, especially if have property or live in a rural area.

Brown stuff includes dead leaves, paper, cardboard, straw, hay, pine needles and even sawdust. If you don’t have this on your own property, it should be fairly easy to come by. Leaves are easy to collect in fall, if you’re lucky you can pick up as many bags as you can handle curbside, and people are trying to get rid of things like rotting hay or straw all of the time. Pick it up!

Many of these things can also make a great garden mulch.

cabon for adding to compost pile

Add Nitrogen

Nitrogen is stuff that’s moist for the most part, which is why it’s referred to as green material. This seems to be harder for us to come by, but it may be different for you.

Green stuff includes lawn clippings (try to get these pesticide and herbicide free if you can), food waste, coffee grounds, plant trimmings and even manure. Manure if a great way to get a pile hot but it’s not something we’ve experimented with yet.

In the end, don’t stress too much! Just add what you have! If the pile seems too dry then add some green stuff. If the pile seems too wet and it starting to get slimy or smelly, try to find some brown stuff to add. Easy peasy.

adding nitrogen to make compost pile

Compost Pile Maintenance

Maintaining a compost pile is ridiculously easy. In fact, you really don’t need to do much to it at all as all things decompose with time, but there are a few things you can do if you want to speed up the composting process.

Keep the Pile Moist

If you want your composting process to happen as quickly as possible, it would be wise to keep the pile moist. If you live in an area with rain, you might be set!

For us, because we’re off grid and have limited access to water, we didn’t do a very good job keeping our pile moist. We did try to dump our sink water on the pile when we remembered or weren’t feeling lazy which helped, but some suggest giving the pile a good hose down on occasion to keep it moist.

composting 101 - how to start a compost pile

Rotate or Churn the Pile

A compost pile does need oxygen to compost and churning the pile every once in a while will stir things up and add in oxygen to the mix.

We chose to turn ours over with a shovel once a month or so but you can do it as frequently as every couple of weeks.

A popular method is to take a compost aerator and stick it deep into the pile to do the churning for you. Some swear by this and claim that it’s a lot less work than going through the entire pile with a shovel… but we have yet to try it.

The other option is to buy a compost tumbler where you can turn the pile by simply turning a handle. Again, this is a great option for someone who only wants to compost on a small scale or is in an urban setting!

how to maintain a compost pile

Keep the Pile Hot

Have you ever driven by a field with a heap of cow manure in it on a cold day and seen the pile steaming? This is because the microbial activity in the decomposition process puts off a lot of heat… and manure especially can really heat up a compost pile!

One way to build heat in a compost pile is to make the pile big enough. A cubic yard is a good size to aim for. Ours was tiny this year so every time I’d stick my hand in the middle of it, it felt cool, but like I said, we still had finished compost in six months.

If you’re curious as to what the temperature is in your compost pile, you can try using a compost thermometer. We don’t feel the need for one yet, but you may want one if you’re uber scientifically-curious!

When is the compost finished?

The compost is finished when it looks a lot like dirt. Our small pile took about six months to fully compost and that was with taking poor care of the pile.

At that time, it’s best to add it to your garden soil.

For us, the garden isn’t ready yet, so I read that it can be good to tarp it or even store it in a garbage can as excess water can wash away some of the nutrients. I may do this before winter sets in.

finished compost

Taking it Further With Worm Composting

Another way to compost, or a way to simply enhance your exist compost, is to use worms. Here is a worm composting kit that can be good to start with… you only need to add worms to get going!

When we were buying our water tank from a guy off Craigslist, we discovered that he had a large worm composting farm and he offered up a bucket of red wigglers to us! Of course, we said yes!

worm compost bin

We keep these in a double bucket system… one bucket (holes in the bottom) with worms and organic matter in it and another bin to catch any moisture or liquid from the worm bin. This is also known as “worm tea“. This tea is great to pour into the garden. Worm poo, also known as worm castings, are also a great organic addition to the soil.

The guy that gave us the worms told us that red wigglers double their population in 90 days. At this point, we should have A LOT more worms than we started with, but it’s hard to tell for sure as the bucket seems to be filling up with castings very slowly.

Putting the worms into the compost can help speed up the composting process – that’s what my sister does in Southern California! I would think that tossing them on a dry pile though may not be their favorite thing, so I’d personally wait until the pile is decomposing and is somewhat dirt-like.

composting with worms

Having a Kitchen Compost Bin

Another thing you can do to help grow your pile is to have a small kitchen compost bin on your counter. This isn’t where you want the composting to take place, but you do want a non-smelly way to toss your fruit and veggie scraps until you’re ready to take them to the compost pile.

Kitchen compost bins have an air tight lid and carbon filters to control odor. We don’t have one of these because we don’t have a single inch of counter space (or even cupboard space) in our travel trailer… but we’ll be getting one for the house! Right now, I actually throw a decent amount of food scraps away because it’s time consuming to go out to the compost pile with tiny batches.

composting kitchen scraps

That said, we’ve scored some ways to get free compost materials with a little ingenuity… we’re happy to share what those are!

  • Check public places & parks for leaves: This is what we did this year, and it worked wonderfully! We found a local park with HEAPS and HEAPS of dead leaves. We simply made a few trips with a trailer, a rake and bags, and gathered about 25 bags or so. It was a great use of time, great exercise, and helped us grow an entire pile.
  • Ask neighbors for grass clippings: Many people consider lawn clippings a nuisance. Chances are, many neighbors are putting them in their yard waste garbage bin or maybe dumping them over a hillside as our neighbors do. Ask if you can have them – simple!
  • Ask nearby farms for manure: If you live in a rural area like we do, there are gobs of farm animals around. While some may compost their manure, I’m sure others would let you have access to a manure pile, or to simply go out in a field and pick up manure. Make sure this is from healthy, herbivore animals.
  • Ask around in your local Facebook yard sale group: There is a trend on Facebook of city-wide yard sale groups. People post things for sale and things they’re looking for. Create a post letting folks know you’re looking for compost materials such as leaves, manure, weeds and things like that. You may be surprised who will message you… you might even be able to make someone’s day by raking their yard in exchange for the leaves – a win win! Think of an elderly person who isn’t quite up to the task but it would make their day if you gave them a hand.
  • Ask local coffee shops for their coffee grounds: Word has it that even McDonald’s is jumping on the coffee ground composting bandwagon, but I haven’t confirmed this. Coffee shops go through LOTS of coffee grounds over the course of a day or week, and some will happily save them for people that want them. This can be a great source of nitrogen.
  • Post an ad on Craigslist: Many people post ads on Craigslist stating that they are willing to pick up yard waste. This can be another win-win.
  • Ask farmers for expired hay or straw: Many times, hay or straw that is going bad isn’t really marketable, so they are willing to give away bales for free or potentially at a really, really low cost. We actually scored some rotting hay on the side of the road and it helped our first compost pile immensely. We also used it as mulch.
  • Go to the beach and collect seaweed: This isn’t an option for us, or for many folks, but if you live on the coast you’re in luck! Seaweed makes a great addition to a compost pile!
  • Ask lumberyards or home improvement stores for leftover sawdust: This is considered a waste product by many and you just may be able to pick up bags and bags full!
  • Go by the post office to collect newspaper: Our post office has a bin where people throw their unwanted newspaper, and it’s often filled to the top. You can shred this and add it to your compost pile. Bonus if you have access to a shredder.
  • Collect wood ash from campgrounds: If you go camping, or just have a campground near you, collect wood ash out of the fire pits! Wood ash is very alkaline so it’s recommended to only add it in small quantities.
  • Visit a breakfast diner or restaurant: Some of these types of places may have tons of compos-table food scraps. Stay away from meat and other animals products, but egg shells, potato peels and veggie scraps are all good! The opportunity may vary on a restaurant by restaurant basis.
  • Holiday & fall festivals: Many people use thinks like pumpkins and hay bales to decorate for fall-like festivals. After the festival or holiday, these are likely up for grabs, so talk to whoever is in charge ahead of time to see if you can get in on the gold!
  • Talk to landscaping companies: Many landscaping companies have waste as well, and many may be happy to drop it off right in your yard, especially if you’re on a path they frequently travel! This is also a great way to get wood chips which many like to use as a garden mulch.
  • Ask local gas stations for coffee grounds: One guy we talked to picks up 10 bags of coffee grounds per week from a local gas station that serves coffee. It would be impossible for even a small family to drink that much coffee in a year!

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