How to Start Composting

When we lived in Germany, on the 4th floor in the on base house...there was no place for us to compost.

But we did anyway.

I found a secluded spot out by the fence and started a small pile, mainly of just "approved food scraps" (more on that in a minute). I called it guerilla composting because it was definitely not allowed but we were on a journey to zero waste.

That was almost 10 years ago.

Since then, we have lived in many different environments...and used various composting techniques...and I am feeling like now, maybe, I am experience enough to start writing and teaching about it.

OK so first....composting is about 4 things: green matter, brown matter, moisture, and heat. When these are in a health ratio, your compost is going to decay beautifully and not have much of a smell (other than they, yep that is organic matter smell).

Many times, composting manuals will talk about the ratio of green:brown. While this is is the primary concern, heat and moisture can actually help when the ratio isn't perfect.

Green matter includes things like: green grass clippings, veggie scraps, used tea and coffee grounds, eggshells, and animal droppings (except dogs and cats)

Approved food scraps: in many home compost systems dairy, meat, and oil covered scraps won't compost well. There are options for these BUT this is not the post for that.

Brown matter includes things like: pine needles, leaves, paper, cardboard (no coatings), lint, and sawdust.

The greens make it hot and wet, the browns balance it. A good amount is 2-3 parts green to 1 part brown.

Knowing this helps us to troubleshoot any problems. 

If the compost pile is too wet...add brown matter. Too dry? Add green or add some water. Your compost pile should be moist...not dripping wet or crumbling dry.

The compost pile should also be putting off heat. I have even heard of people running pipes through the compost pile to create heat for their greenhouses! A composting pile that isn't hot enough, won't compost that quickly. Add more greens to heat up a cold pile.

If a compost pile is too hot, it can "cook" some of the beneficial microorganisms. For those of you measuring temperature...between 150-170 is a good range. If the compost pile is too hot, add brown matter. Additionally, is your compost is too hot and your try to put it on your plants...you could kill the plants.

WAYS TO COMPOST

OPEN PILES

This was is the easiest to set up but is not safe from animals in anyway. It can be slightly difficult to keep a good balance because rain can cause some of the stuff to erode away BUT we did this for years (in two different places)...the food scraps will eventually break down....just don't plan on using that compost anytime soon.

TRENCH COMPOSTING

This is...dig a trench, fill with scraps/waste, and then cover. It will eventually break down. This is great for those with more space. We did this in the fall at a garden space when we lived in Wisconsin.

3 SIDED BIN

This is very common and is a step up from the open pile. Its a little more animal proof but not by much. Its easier to contain all your scraps/waste. We did this while in Belgium. The chickens loved getting into it and stirring it for us...stirring it helps it break down.

We actually used 3 pallets that our landlord had in the garage (not chemically treated). For those with the space for it...this is a pretty laid back composting method. 

Dancing Rabbit uses this system for their humanure system...but that is also a different post.

COMPOST TUMBLER

This is very rodent/animal proof and makes it really easy to stir/tumble. Just add in the scraps/waste and spin. The downside to this is...well...if you have a bigger family (like we do), its not big enough to handle the scraps throughout the year, so you would end up with multiple bins. 

It can break down sooner than the previously mentioned methods.

Now, there are definitely other fancier systems...but I don't have experience with them so I can't say.

I am wanting to try out vermicomposting (with red worms), so if I get a chance to do that, I will let you know. I have read that they can only handle so much at a time so I am not sure if it would work for a family of our size but it can produce usually compost sooner. This might make it beneficial when needing to "feed" your plants during the growing season (diluted...not all plants can handle straight compost).

I recommend either keeping a bowl for your scraps in your kitchen or a countertop compost bin. What you use depends on how often you want to take it out. Bowls should be taken out every other day or so to avoid fruit flies and smell, while countertop bins can wait until their are full. I have done both and I tend to just stick with a bowl. 

Well, there you have it...how to start composting. 

Let me know if you have any questions or care to share your composting stories and tips.