Composting - ultimate guide

Making & Managing Compost in Any Kitchen, Yard, or Garden: Ultimate Guide

Experienced gardeners know the incredible power of good compost. They call it “black gold” for a reason. Compost is packed with nutrients that are readily accessible to plants to help them grow strong and fruitful. The organic additive breaks up compacted soil, making it easier to turn and an easier medium for plants to grow. Compost also disposes of waste around your house and garden without contributing to landfills. In fact, research has found that compost actually traps carbon in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Also, the anaerobic environment of landfills produces methane gas that is actually a bigger contributor to the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. Keeping as much organic matter out of the landfill as possible is a great idea.

There are two basic ways to compost:

1 — Container Composting

2 — Compost Piles

Container Composting vs Compost Piles

Container composting is exactly what it sounds like; you put all of the ingredients for your compost into a container and let it do its work. You can compost in something as small as a kitchen trash can or a five gallon bucket. You can also buy a compost container that contain as much as fifty gallons of compost. The different options are a matter of space and of desire.

A compost pile, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like. It is a pile of compost. There are two basic ways to do this as well. You could just pile up vegetable scraps, manure, and dry leaves somewhere in your yard. You should know that this will invite scavengers such as raccoons and squirrels. Also, it has the potential to spill over into your yard. Lastly, the heat produced from composting won’t be very contained. However, this is the easiest way to compost and largely how it’s done on a large scale. You could also choose to create a pile by basically buying or building box structures. The boxes are typically made of wood or plastic. They sit in your yard, and you fill them with your layers of compostable material. They take up a lot of space but they allow you to compost hundreds of gallons of materials.

So, which one should you choose? We’ll get into the specifics of different types of composting later in the article. The basic consideration is this, though.

  • Container composting is best for those who are composting in a confined space like an apartment balcony. It also helps to trap the heat and speed up the composting if you’re only composting a small amount. For example, one family’s worth of junk mail and cooking scraps will likely only fill up a 20-gallon trash can.
  • Composting in piles is best for those who have more space or have a lot more stuff to compost. If you have livestock or a family that eats a lot of vegetables, compost piles could be your best option. They tend to work faster if you have enough material to get them really cooking.

Container Composting

Let’s start with container composting. This ranges from small countertop containers to large ones in your backyard. Who composts in containers? Container composting is for anyone who does not have the space for an open compost pile or who doesn’t have enough food scraps to make it worthwhile. Someone living in an apartment or a multi-family home is a good example.

Apartment Composting

If you’re planning to compost in your apartment, you need to decide if you’re going to compost inside or outside. Composting outside is probably ideal because even the most well-maintained compost will attract some fruit flies. There are ways to avoid that even if you compost inside, though.

So, first, let’s start with those composting inside. To compost inside, you’ll need a container big enough to fit all of your green materials and your brown materials. Brown materials are those that are high in carbon. They’re dry and woody materials. Common examples of browns are dry leaves and paper. Since they are dry, they absorb moisture. They also are less likely to break down; therefore, you need to help them along by shredding them. That’s especially important for apartment composting because you need the process to start as quickly as possible. The longer you go without active compost, the more bugs it can attract.

So, your brown materials should be things like junk mail, paper packaging, and leaves. Do not compost any plastic or animal materials. Investing in a paper shredder would be smart at this point.

Your green materials are those that contain nitrogen. That’s basically anything wet, such as vegetables and fruits. As always, never compost any animal products except for eggshells. Wash eggshells thoroughly before putting them in the compost. Since you’re composting inside and on a small scale, you want to help the microbes out as much as possible by breaking down the materials. The simplest option is to chop them up as fine as you can before putting them into the compost. Some people even toss their fruits and vegetables into a blender before pouring them in the compost.

The ratio of browns to greens is especially important for container composting in an apartment. If you get the ratio wrong, you could have some uncomfortable results. If there are too many browns, it won’t compost. If there are too many greens, it will make a soggy mess and will decay anaerobically. Anaerobic decay is decay without the presence of oxygen, which is what happens in swamps and landfills; that’s why they smell that way. A properly maintained compost shouldn’t smell very bad.

You’ll likely read that you need a 4:1 ratio of greens to browns; that’s typically by weight. So, if you have four pounds of old vegetable scraps, you need one pound of shredded paper. You might also read that you need a 20:1 ratio of browns to greens; that’s typically by volume. So, one cup of vegetables requires basically a gallon of shredded leaves. If you don’t intend to do math and measuring when you’re putting together your compost, use the reliable eye test. Your compost pile should be layers of browns and greens. It should be damp but not soggy. It shouldn’t smell like a swamp. If it’s damp but not actually soggy, you’re probably doing fine.

Now, how do you keep it from smelling up your apartment? If your ratio of browns to greens is perfect, you won’t have to worry about that. However, nobody is perfect. So, in the real world, that depends on your composter.

You can buy a dedicated indoor composter. They’re typically watertight containers that have holes throughout the lid. They have a charcoal filter that filters out any smells while allowing air to escape. Air is essential to quality composting. Also, filtering out the smells will prevent bugs. You can also make your own indoor composter. It’s fairly simple.

Make an Apartment Composter

The process for making an apartment composter is basically the same whether you’re making one for indoors or out. Pick a container that is big enough to hold about a month’s worth of old vegetables and shredded junk mail.

What You Need:

  • Watertight Container
  • Charcoal Filters
  • Drill or a knife
  • Glue or duct tape

It needs to be watertight and have a lid. A 5-gallon bucket from a hardware store is ideal. They’re sturdy and come with a handle. If you’re making it for indoors, drill several ½ inch holes around the top. If you don’t have a drill, very carefully cut holes in the top of the container. Then, tape charcoal filters over the holes from the underside of the lid. Charcoal filters can typically be found at hardware stores. You can also find them in pet stores where they keep cat litter and litter boxes; they’re used to trap smells from domed litter boxes.

If you’re making your apartment composter for outside, you can do the exact same thing. However, you might not worry as much about smells or bugs since it’s outside. In that case, you can skip the charcoal filters. You can also speed up the process by drilling ½ inch holes around the sides of the container too. That will introduce more air and speed up the composting; however, you’ll need to be careful not to let the compost dry out.

So, once you’ve got your composter set up and full of layers of material, what do you do?

How to Compost in an Apartment

There are two methods of composting, whether you do it indoors or out: hot and cold. Most people choose cold composting. That means that you layer your compost materials and let it go. It will take about six to twelve months for it to compost everything. If you turn it from time to time, that will introduce oxygen and better distribute the microbes. That can speed up the process somewhat. An apartment composter generally isn’t big enough to get really hot; so, if you put weeds in the composter, those weed seeds will likely survive the composting process.

You can heat up your apartment compost somewhat and speed up the process. That involves mulching, blending, and grinding everything down as fine as possible. Introduce all of them into the composter at the same time. If you’re by yourself or have a small family, you can save up shredded paper in a garbage bag and store vegetable scraps in the freezer until you have enough to fill your composter. Alternately, you could ask your neighbors for their scraps, though they might look at you strangely.

Grind or mulch everything as fine as possible and add them to the composter at once. The composter should be about four feet by four feet at least. Leave it for four days to heat up. A radar thermometer is a great investment. Once the compost heats up, turn it with a shovel or a garden fork. Flip the bottom to the top. If you have a compost tumbler or if you can seal the top on the composter, you can just flip it onto its side and roll it back and forth. Just make sure you get everything mixed up. Do this every two days. You should have finished compost in about a month.

Finished compost smells earthy and crumbles in your hand. What if you live in a house or have a lot of space? How would you compost then?

Outdoor Composting

If you’ve got the space or if you’re just ready to step up your composting, outdoor composting will definitely produce more usable compost.

Outdoor composting

Example of an outdoor compost heap.

As stated earlier, there are two basic ways to compost outdoors: bin or pile. Let’s start with the compost pile. It’s the more traditional method. If you’re just going to pile up your compostable materials and let them do their work, you don’t need much. You might need a shovel or a garden fork if you intend to turn it. However, you could just layer everything in roughly the ratios described and wait. It will take six to twelve months, and it might smell along the way. Pick a well-drained spot in the yard so that it won’t stay too soggy when it rains.

Most people choose to build a contained compost pile directly on the ground. Pick out a good spot for your compost. It should be out of the way; you don’t want the kids’ football flying into the compost pile. It should also be in a spot that drains well.

What You’ll Need:

  • Material for the siding — wood or plastic
  • Shovel or garden fork
  • Drill or hammer and nails

The basic idea is pretty similar to the apartment composters. It will be open at the bottom and top though. You’ll build a four walls to contain the compost. By far, the simplest method is to find four wooden pallets. Hammer them together in a square and set that square somewhere in your yard. Fill it up with browns and greens; then just wait. Pallets are great because they’re already square. Also, they have slats so air can get to the sides of the compost.

If you don’t have pallets or want to use something different, any kind of wooden board or plastic board will work. You want to leave some space between boards so the sides can breathe. Pressure-treated wood will last longer in the elements than standard wood. The boards used for outdoor fences are a great option. You’ll need four wooden posts, one for each corner. Drive them into the ground, leaving at least three feet of space above ground. Nail or screw the siding to the posts to form a corral. Then you’re ready to add compost.

Since compost can take so long, many people choose a two-step compost pile. Instead of one corral, you’ll build two. In the first corral, you’ll incrementally add greens and browns until it’s full. Once it’s full, you’ll stop adding things to it; you’re going to let it compost fully. When you do that, you’ll start adding greens and browns to the second pile. By the time that one is full, hopefully the first pile will have composted completely. You’re ready to use that compost and then start over filling it up with greens and browns.

From time to time, you can turn the compost to aerate the pile and help it break down more quickly. There are several ways to do this. A shovel is good if you have the strength to do that. Digging deep into three or four feet of compost and lifting it up is somewhat difficult. A garden fork is a little easier to manage. The simplest method is to use a compost aerator. They’re long devices with tines at the bottom and a perpendicular handle. You stick them into the compost and turn the handle; they’ll mix up the compost without the labor of a shovel. You could also choose a compost tumbler.

Tumbling Your Compost

It’s not necessary to turn your compost; organic materials decomposing is completely natural and will happen whether you want it to or not. However, turning the compost can speed up the process and keep it from smelling. Earlier, compost aerators and shovels were discussed. For bin composting outside, those aren’t necessary though. That’s because a compost tumbler is an incredibly popular option.

These are compost bins that you can seal. Once you seal them, you can spin them around to thoroughly mix the compost. Some of them are build with frames so that you can turn them like the tumbler that turns lottery numbers. Others are just cylindrical so you can roll them around on your lawn. Whichever kind you choose, it’s the most thorough mixing you can achieve of your compost. It’s also relatively easy to do.

They’re not the least expensive option, but they’re one of the most effective. What do you do if you’ve turned your compost and you feel like your ratios are good but you’ve still got whole banana peels that aren’t going anywhere? Well, that sounds like stuck compost.

How to Restart Stuck Compost

If your compost is sitting at room temperature and there are whole apple cores in it, you’ve got stuck compost. The first thing to do is check the moisture. The compost should be damp enough that you can squeeze out some water but not so damp that’s dripping. If the moisture level is correct, try turning it and breaking up any clumps. Oftentimes, shredded paper will clump up and rob the compost of oxygen. If none of that works, you need more drastic measures.

To restart your compost, you need to figure out why it stalled. If you have a lot of leaves and branches, the compost will have a high level of lignin, which is a plant fiber. However, most bacteria in compost cannot break down the lignin. You’ll need to introduce active fungi to break that down. The easiest way to do that is by looking around for a fallen tree branch. It should have some fungus growing on it. Toss that on the compost pile and mix it in. Wait a few days to see what happens.

If the compost is not heavy on dried leaves, your ratio could be off. You might need something high in nitrogen to get it kick-started. Most coffee shops offer bags of coffee grounds for free. They’re damp, high in nitrogen, and already granular. If you dump a few pounds of used coffee grounds on your compost and mix them in, they can definitely get your compost started. Manure is also a great option. It’s high in nitrogen and composts quickly; it’s also high in useful microbes.

Lastly, you shouldn’t forget about doses of readily accessible sugars. Dumping just sugar on your compost pile is a waste; however, cornmeal and flour are pretty simple sugars when compared to other compostable materials. If you bake, don’t throw out the cornmeal and flour you sweep up off the floor. Mix them with a little warm water and add them to your compost. Stale beer would fall into the same category of sugars that can readily be composted.

Any of those might restart a compost. If none of that works, you can buy a commercial compost starter.

Check out my beginner guide to DIY composting step by step.

Ultimate Guide To Composting

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