Composting is a great way to help reduce food waste and give back to the earth and support plant growth. However, composting isn’t exactly as easy as just throwing scraps into a pile. To compost successfully, you’ll need a compost starter. A compost starter helps get your compost pile balanced quickly so that you can create finished compost faster, but it may not always be necessary.
As someone who loves composting, I’ve done tons of research to figure out the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of composting practices. Compost is full of microorganisms and bacteria, but the good kind that breaks down organic waste, reduces pathogens, and eliminates weed seeds. Having a compost starter or compost activator will help start the decomposition process, so you have a successful compost bin almost immediately.
While a compost pile may seem like you can add anything to it, you need to avoid certain things. We’ll talk about these materials and how to distinguish when you should or shouldn’t add something to your composter. We’ll also discuss:
- What a compost starter is
- If you need a compost starter
- If compost starters actually work
- What you can use as a compost starter
- The best way to start a compost pile
What Is a Compost Starter?
As mentioned, a compost starter speeds up the process of getting a compost pile to decompose correctly. Compost starters are full of beneficial bacteria that help your compost pile start the natural decomposition process quicker than expected.
Compost starters are what sourdough starters are to bread makers. You get a little bit of something someone else has already made, and it helps you make the same thing with a little less effort and hassle. Compost starters aren’t always necessary, but they can make your life easier.
If you’re content waiting for your compost pile to decompose on its own, you could wait for the organic material to break down. However, not having the proper mix of green materials, brown materials, oxygen, and water will prevent decomposition from happening as quickly as possible.
If you’re starting a compost heap, it’s advisable to layer the green and brown materials so that all the beneficial microbes work together to begin decomposition. Green materials are things like food waste or yard waste like grass clippings. Food scraps should only include things that aren’t dairy, meat, oils, and butter, or things cooked with any of these items. Food waste also means:
- Fruits and vegetables, both what you don’t eat and the scraps
- Rice and grains
- Coffee grounds
- Food cooked without dairy, meat, oils, and butter
Green material is “wet,” so you need something to combat the wetness and nitrogen. That’s where brown materials come in because they’re “dry.” Brown materials need to be layered in with green materials to make sure decomposition starts correctly. Brown materials include:
- Dried grass
- Twigs and sticks
- Brown egg cartons
- Old leaves
- Hay and straw
- Dried pine needles
Do You Need a Compost Starter?
When it comes to compost starters, you don’t always need one. When starting a compost pile, it’s crucial to have the right balance of browns and greens—carbon and nitrogen, respectively—as well as water and oxygen. If you don’t have this balance, a compost starter will help add nutrients to the compost.
That’s where a compost starter comes in. Compost accelerators add the beneficial bacteria and microbes needed to get the composting process into action. It helps you get a rich compost faster because the required microorganisms get added from the starter, rather than waiting for them to develop on their own.
Do Compost Starters Work?
Long story short, yes, compost starters do actually work. Again, they aren’t necessary if you have a proper balance of materials, but adding some compost starter can help you get good compost quicker. That means richer fertilizer for your garden soil. You can buy a compost starter or make your own.
Where to Buy Compost Starter
You can find compost starters in lots of different stores, so it’s not difficult to track down at all. You can visit your local chain store, and odds are you’ll be able to find a packaged compost accelerator in the garden section. Hardware stores also typically carry compost starters like Ringer Compost Plus, or you could find some online if you can’t make the trip in person.
How to Make a Compost Starter
If you don’t want to spend the money on buying packaged compost starter, you can always DIY it and make your own compost tea starter. To make your own compost tea, you’ll need:
- A sealable container
- One bottle of beer
- One can of regular soda (not diet!)
- Half a cup of ammonia
- Two gallons of warm water
Combine half of the beer, the whole can of soda, and the half cup of ammonia in the container, like a sealable bucket, and then add the two gallons of water. The yeast from the beer and added boost of ammonia will help speed up the decomposition process, while the soda will provide extra sugars for the microbes.
Once you’ve made the mixture, you can transfer some of it to a watering can and sprinkle it on top of your beginning compost pile. It’s essential to use a sealable container because you won’t use all of the mixture at once. You can sprinkle the mixture once every few days.
The Best Way to Set Up and Maintain a Compost Pile
While it may be tempting to throw together all your yard waste, kitchen scraps, and other organic matter and watch it decompose, a compost pile does need to be a bit more planned than that. You need to know the best way to set up your compost pile, so it remains stable and usable.
The Layers of Composting
You should start your compost pile on the bare earth, then lay down the brown materials like twigs and straw. These will help with drainage and keep the pile aerated.
Next, pile in some green materials, also known as the “wet” waste. This includes kitchen waste or yard waste like fresh leaves. Afterward, you’ll add brown materials onto the green. Sawdust, straw, dry leaves, etc., are all brown materials. Continue to layer green, brown, etc., until you run out of materials.
Then you can add manure (not fresh, though) or green waste, like clover or grass clippings, to help activate the compost pile. This is also where you could add your compost starter, whether it is homemade or store-bought. Once you’ve built your compost pile, you’ll want to water it every so often. You can leave this to the rain or water it on your own.
To maintain your compost pile, you’ll need to keep it covered. This can be with a tarp, wood, or a plastic sheet. The last step in cultivating a compost pile is to turn it every few weeks with a shovel or pitchfork. This helps get the compost the oxygen it needs via aeration.
So, Do You Really Need a Compost Starter?
Compost starters are very beneficial when establishing a new compost pile, but they aren’t mandatory. While they can speed up the process, ultimately, nature will do what it needs to as long as you’ve correctly layered the compost pile during setup.