Every so often, our friends at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture send us a tip for tending our own gardens. Here, they share the basics for starting a kitchen compost pile in your backyard.
“Recycling bins have become commonplace in households from suburb to city. It’s become expected that we recycle our bottles, cans and paper. But what about recycling our food and yard waste? Our kitchen scraps and green cuttings can be used to make nutrient rich compost that can help your garden grow! Healthy soil is one of the most important building blocks of a resilient garden and compost is a valuable soil amendment tool. Terrain and the Stone Barns team invite you to bring composting to your own backyard. Compost helps restore soil to its natural state, ensures beneficial microbiology and increases plants’ water-retention capacity—meaning plants will thrive independently without the use of commercial fertilizers. With these steps and tips, anyone can compost—farmer’s honor.
Get the tools
These tools represent the basics. You can always get more involved in the composting process and purchase additional equipment, but all you really need to get your compost started are these three:
Shovel: to keep your pile together.
Turning Fork: to turn your pile once the desired composting heat is met.
Thermometer: to measure the composting heat.
Give your compost a home
Based on the size of your garden, and how much food and yard material you anticipate composting, designate an outdoor area for your compost pile and build your “bin.” It should be in a place with fairly even sun and shade for balanced moisture. You don’t need to cover your bin unless it’s in a location where it will be exposed to a lot of water—in that case you can cover it with a tarp.
* Tip: You can purchase compost bins or DIY! Use found wood scraps and put your pile on a platform or mark out the compost area with stone or bricks.
Pile it up
Fill up your bin with organic matter from your kitchen and yard. Here’s the Stone Barns scoop on what can and can’t be composted:
Toss it in!
You can compost any fruit, vegetable and grain food scraps, grass, leaves, flowers, newspaper (if printed with soy ink), seafood-shells, coffee grounds, paper napkins.
Leave it out!
Do NOT compost any meat products, dairy products, fish meat, bones, human waste, plastic, glass, hazardous waste, large tree limbs. Some people compost eggshells, but we don’t recommend it as they may have been exposed to pathogens.
*Tip: Keep food matter close to the center of your pile as it generates the most heat.
*Tip: Cover your compost pile with 2-3 inches of mulch to help with reduce moisture that can attract pests like mice and flies.
Know the cycle and turn your pile
When you’ve filled your compost bin and covered it with mulch, the matter begins to break down and grow healthy microorganisms. It undergoes a “thermophilic” process—it generates heat. Once your compost reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the “bad” bacteria dies and “good” nutrients and microorganisms flourish. Follow these steps to create homemade garden-ready compost.
• Fill your bin and cover with 2 to 3 inches of mulch.
• Once the pile reaches 140 degrees, turn it—the temperature should drop to about 10 to 30 degrees.
• Turn your compost each time it reaches 140 degrees—it should get that hot at least twice.
• Once the temperature hovers around 110 to 120 degrees, you can stop turning and allow it to rest for a minimum of 45 days—then it’s ready to use!
*Tip: You can begin your pile with some starter compost—like Stone Barns Garden Primer Premium Compost—to get a balanced system going.
*Tip: If your compost smells healthy—like soil and not too stinky—but hasn’t yet reached 140 degrees, add some water to the bin.
Get the right mix
The ideal compost is fluffy and smells like soil—this come from a balance of moisture and raw material. The best way to ensure a healthy compost batch is to incorporate equal parts food waste and material like grass, hay, or mulch. If your compost is very stinky, and is attracting lots of pests like mice or flies, turn it, then add grass or mulch to the mix, top with 2 to 3 inches of mulch and wait for it to reach 140 degrees before turning again.
*Tip:You may notice worms naturally appearing in your compost—this is a good thing!
Treat your soil
In the spring, before seeding your soil, add about ¼-inch of compost in your bed preparation. If you are transplanting seedlings into your soil, add ½ to 1-inch of compost. Follow up with a second treatment during the summer and fall, and enjoy your healthy garden!
*Tip: If your soil is severely lacking in organic material, you can add compost that is still generating 140-degree heat—this is called “sweet compost”—and can also be applied in the fall.
So, save those food scraps and morning coffee grounds, collect that yard waste and get your garden growing. Happy composting!”
Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is a non-profit farm and education center located just 25 miles north of Manhattan in Pocantico Hills, New York. Stone Barns operates an 80-acre four-season farm and is working on broader initiatives to create a healthy and sustainable food system. It is open to the public all year round from Wednesday through Sunday 10am-5pm. For more information about their work, and details on seeing the farm, visit their website at www.stonebarnscenter.org.