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Composting FAQs Answered

Different Types of Composters

Clockwise from top left: a 5-gallon bucket composter, a tumbling composter, a leaf-mold composting bin made from chicken wire, a worm composting system, or vermicompost, an uncontained heap on the ground piling the material together and finally a pallet composter. 

I often get asked questions like "How easy is it to compost stuff?" and "How can I do it?” The answer is that composting is easy, it just takes time, and yes, you can compost, too.

There are many types of composting methods available for the urban homesteader or gardening enthusiast — from fermentation bins called Bokashi systems that allow you to compost cooked foods, fish, dairy and meat, to vermicomposting, or worm composting systems, and everything in between.

How Easy Can Composting Be Incorporated into My Family's Routine?

What works for my family is having a lidded bucket in the kitchen that the compostable waste goes into. We used to have a large bowl, but we go through a lot of vegetable scraps. We would make several trips out to the heap if I was making soup.

Think about how much kitchen waste you typically generate and how often you are willing to go empty the crock or bucket — this will help you decide what type of waste container you want. In our house, it's once a week so we have a large bucket.

By keeping the container for scraps in the kitchen, it will help remind other family members that kitchen waste goes into the compost bin.

Does Compost Smell?

Keeping a container in the kitchen for composting does seem a bit daunting, but you won't actually be composting material in the kitchen.

As long as you empty the container regularly and rinse it out (put the rinse water and stuff in the heap, too) it shouldn't smell. Some of the kitchen crocks in the market have odor filters to reduce or eliminate any odors as well.

I add a layer of shredded paper from document clean ups, newspaper and certain types of junk mail after I place some kitchen waste into the bucket, and this has been quite effective at reducing odor when I lift the lid to add more.

I keep a bag of shredded paper right next to the bucket to help remind the family to put a handful in each time.

What Can I Compost?

If you have a search through the internet of how to compost, a plethora of information is available and a lot of it is confusing to beginner gardeners, so I will do my best to keep it simple.

You can compost pretty much anything that has lived, just depending on how recently it was living depends on how long it will take to break down.

Most people split waste for composting into two groups: greens and browns, also known as nitrogens and carbons.

Greens

Items that fall into this category are the fresh materials — those rich in nitrogen and if in large quantities on their own will make the heap smell. This is commonly seen when large amounts of grass clippings are added to a pile and a black, sludgy,stinky mess happens. Don't be put off by this, though — it's an easy fix.

Nitrogen Rich Green Composting Material 

Green materials include:

Flowers (from arrangements and bouquets as well as dead-heading from the garden)
Fresh leaves
Fallen fruit
Bolted brassicas (cabbages, broccoli and cauliflowers)  and salad leaves
Coffee grounds
Tea leaves
Fruit peels and cores
Vegetable off cuts
Corn husks
Manure (not cat or dog poop)
Dried seaweed
Fresh, rinsed seaweed
Lees or trub from home brewing
Weeds: problem perennial weeds should be drowned in water for a week or two first, other more noxious weeds may be better burnt or have special removal requirements like Japanese knotweed. (If in doubt, check your local extension office or municipal waste department at the town council.)

Browns

Items that fall into this category are the dry, fibrous materials that contain a lot of carbon that require high levels of nitrogen to break them down.

These materials are best shredded or put through the chipper to break them down and increase their surface area to speed up decomposition.

Composting Brown Materials 

Brown materials include:

Newspaper
Dried leaves
Hay
Straw
Cardboard
Sawdust
Teabags
Coffee filters
Dust from the vacuum
Pet hair
Shredded paper
Pruning waste
Toilet paper inners
100% cotton clothing

On top of these green and brown materials, you can also add crushed eggshells and crushed seafood shells, biochar and a little wood ash to the heap as well as rockdust to remineralize the compost and the subsequent soil.

Too much wood ash with raise the pH, making soil alkaline, whilst too many citrus fruits can lower the pH, making it too acidic.

What Can’t I Compost?

In a traditional compost heap meat, fish, bones and items like grain, bread, cooked foods and popcorn are likely to attract vermin or bears and are best placed in a Bokashi system instead where bran inoculated with microbes ferment the waste first.

How Do I Compost?

Simply place the material into the compost bin or heap. You can layer the material in as you get it or mix it before you add it to the heap.

There are many types of composting receptacles available on the market to suit your needs or you can make one.

If you have large quantities of material, such as grass clippings, it is better to mix them with some shredded paper or cardboard material to help it compost evenly and stop the sludgy mess.  If you are placing lots of browns in the heap, wet them first to help break them down quicker.

Turn, Turn, Turn

Once your pile has built up a bit, turn it over, moving the outside layer to the middle and the middle to the outside. I find it is best to use a gardening fork to turn the material.

If you have a bin or container for the pile, it is best to empty it out or lift the container off, mix up the material then place the material back into the container.

Turning the pile introduces oxygen, which helps the microbes and insects to break down the material into compost. Leave it for a couple of weeks then turn it again.

How Long Does Compost Take?

Making compost can take a few weeks to a few months depending on the volume of material and the temperature. Typical composting time is usually 6 months for an average garden.

Some composting methods, such as worm composting, can take as little as 3 months to produce compost.

Troubleshooting

Sometimes, problems do occur in composting. Here are some fixes.

Problem: Bad smell
Likely Causes: Not enough air and/or too much green matter
Fix: Add paper/fibrous material and turn to introduce oxygen

Problem: Pile is dry in the middle
Likely Causes: Not enough green matter and/or too dry
Fix: Water the pile and add more green matter or high nitrogen material

Problem: Material not decomposing
Likely cause: Material too large
Fix: Chop or shred material to increase surface area

Problem: Attracts vermin
Likely Causes: Cooked food, meat, dairy or oils added
Fix: Remove these sources and don’t add them to the heap / try a rodent-proof bin

Problem: Layers are not breaking down
Likely Causes: Compaction and/or not enough air
Fix: Mix the material to introduce air, and split up the compacted layers

Problem: Pile is very wet and sludge
Likely Causes: Too much water
Fix: Cover the pile to reduce rain access or change to an enclosed bin, open up the bin on sunny days to dry out the heap.

Composting is very important to a gardener, as my Granny said to me “Get the soil right and the rest will work out in the end”.

Emma Raven has been gardening, cooking, canning and home brewing for most of her life. Formulation scientist, blogger, home brewer and avid gardener. Born in a village on the northern east coast of England, she now calls the Wasatch Mountains of Utah home. Find Emma at Misfit Gardening.
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