How to Compost

Oh, composting. I’ve been composting for two years now. We have a septic system, so can’t put food down the drain. We also have a great need for compost due to our extensive gardening, and it’s really been amazing to use in the garden. So, what have I learned about composting?

First, compost is rarely as beautiful as the shot above – which was our compost bin after we ate a bunch of dyed Easter eggs last spring.

Overall, my process is very easy. We have a compost bin in our kitchen that we dump into a compost tumbler, which we spin each time we put kitchen scraps in it (about every three days). Each time we dump a kitchen bin, we dump in dead leaves or old pine shavings (from our chicken coop) as well. Then about every three months we dump 90% of our tumbler into a pile of leaves or grass clippings, and mix well. Compost sits there for two weeks to several months (during winter) until done. It’s a pretty minimal amount of work for the results we get gardening.

To make your compost useful, productive and with the least ick-factor possible you need to know about a few things:

#1: Supplies.

The kitchen bin: We use this compost bin which we keep under the kitchen sink. It is small, which means we take it out about every third day (since we cook a lot, we have a lot of scraps), but I don’t want anything larger because by the time this little guy is full, it is stinky when you open it and I’m happy to get it out of the kitchen.  It does get stinky after you empty it and before you fill the bottom again so I hose it out regularly outside.  I’m considering getting a stainless version.

The outdoor bin: There are infinite ways of keeping your compost outside. We use this compost tumbler. It is very simple to use – open, dump kitchen compost and leaves/pine shavings, close and use the handle to spin it. Lots of folks prefer to dump compost directly into a leaf pile and mix, but since we have chickens around and don’t want them picking at rotting food, it’s nice to have it contained in a tumbler. Plus, the tumbler increases heat (and therefore decay).  It also minimizes flies and predators being attracted, since they can’t access the food inside.

#2: Know what to add to your compost.

The rule of thumb is to add 2/3 carbon-heavy materials (‘brown’ items such as yard waste), and 1/3 nitrogen-heavy materials (‘green’ items like kitchen scraps).

Kitchen scraps: Avoid citrus, ALL meats (the occasional egg hasn’t been a problem), corn cobs, avocado pits, oil and dairy. Pretty much anything that can get rancid or that will take forever to break down, just avoid. I find that crushing eggshells or cutting avocado peels greatly speeds up their decomposition. If you don’t cut up avocado peels, leave them out. Otherwise I haven’t found any food scraps that are problematic. And don’t forget that the compost pile loves coffee grounds!

Paper and cardboard: You can shred cardboard or paper and add it to your compost. It’s a way to immediately ‘recycle,’ but I tend to not use it because I hate having to shred everything. My laziness notwithstanding, as long as you don’t use glossy or colored paper you don’t have to worry about chemicals, and these materials add carbon, which is very helpful.

Fall is your friend/yard waste is your friend: We largely use our compost tumbler for kitchen scraps, but with each emptying of the kitchen bucket, I fill the bucket with leaves, grass clippings, or old pine shavings discarded from our chicken coop and dump them in the tumbler, too. Food scraps create very nitrogen-heavy material, and adding yard waste ups your carbon. It also makes the generally overly-wet kitchen compost a little more aerated and damp rather than all-out soggy which helps in decay.

#3: Know your process.

When to start: It’s best to get your compost going in summer when it’s warm out. This speeds up the composting. Our tumbler gets the material incredibly hot – as it decays it creates heat, and being enclosed in the tumbler also heats it.

Remember to aerate: If you have a tumbler, aerating is easy. Just rotate the tumbler each time you dump your kitchen bin and it aerates and mixes. If you have an open bin, you can use a pitchfork to rotate the material.

Combine with other material: You can’t keep adding kitchen scraps into a bin or tumbler indefinitely. At some point, you need to ‘call it’, empty most of your bin, and re-start the process. When the tumbler gets heavy enough that rotating it isn’t a ‘good workout’ kind of experience but a ‘Ben-Hur rowing scene’ experience, I like to dump about 90% of the tumbler into our large plastic garden cart [], and dump that into a three feet by three feet pile of leaves and grass clippings from our lawn. I don’t sweat this too much – if there’s extra lawn detritus that is just fine – you just don’t want to have more than 30% kitchen scraps (remember that you only want about 1/3 nitrogen-heavy material). Then I pitchfork that pile to blend and let it decay together. This creates a nice balance between the nitrogen-heavy kitchen compost and the carbon-heavy leaves, and allows me to continue dumping ‘new’ material into the tumbler from the kitchen. The drier the leaves are when you do this the easier and more effective it will be.

#4: Art and Science.

There are an infinite number of approaches to composting. Layering ‘brown’ (carbon-heavy) material and “green” (nitrogen-heavy) material is popular, but I just don’t see how creating ‘layers’ in a large bin is logistically realistic, and effectively it’s no different than my “dump the kitchen bin, then dump a bunch of leaves in the tumbler” method.

Folks also suggest keeping an open pile and covering it with a tarp to keep out predators. I don’t know what kind of raccoons, bunnies, foxes and coyotes these people have on their properties, but mine would LAUGH at a tarp. I think this might work in the ’burbs, but in the country, no way.

The only thing I’ve had a tough time with is knowing when my compost is “done.” I like to dump it out in fall into the three foot by three foot leaf pile because then it has lots of time to decay fully before I need it come spring. Generally you know it’s ready when it is black, looks like clump-y dirt, crumbles in your hand and doesn’t smell.

Remember, the ultimate ingredient in compost is yard waste. If you make a good leaf/grass pile you can blend it with dirt and have some great results. This is truly the only way to create a large amount of compost. You’ll be stunned at how quickly your gallon of kitchen scraps decays down to a cup in a tumbler, and therefore how easy it is to limit your nitrogen content to 1/3 of the final product (not to mention how necessary your leaves/grass/other carbon material is to get a decent amount of compost). Use caution with blending in cut grass, though. I find it knits really close together, retains a lot of moisture and takes forever to decay unless it’s very well-mixed with other materials. Same with soggy wet leaves!

#5: How to use compost.

Be sure to blend your compost in with dirt when you’re planting. You don’t want to overwhelm your garden bed, but mixing in compost helps add to the value of your soil. I generally loosen the soil about four inches deep, add compost and mix until it looks as though the area is about 30% compost. It’s worked so far!

#6: Beware the bear.

If you live in an area that has bears, don’t compost. They will crack a tumbler like a soda can. They will roll in a compost pile like it’s a field of flowers. Just say no.

#7: Chickens and composting.

You don’t want ‘raw’ chicken poop on your plants because it can carry diseases like salmonella. But adding some to your compost is fine, so long as your compost gets sufficiently hot to kill bacteria (which, in a tumbler, it should). Even so, I don’t use much in our compost. This is mainly because we have plenty of nitrogen-rich material from the kitchen scraps, but also because when I add the old pine shavings from the coop to our tumbler to get some ‘carbon’ into the mix, there’s a certain amount of poop in there, and to me that small amount is plenty. Why take the risk of diseases in your compost when you already have plentiful nitrogen-rich material that’s a known quantity? If I were to really try to maximize the usefulness of our chickens I would get a compost thermometer and be more vigilant about monitoring temperature and turning of the compost. Not there yet!

Anything that has made composting easier for you?