If you’re trying to lead a greener life, you’ve probably heard that you ought to be setting aside your biodegradable garbage and composting it to create natural fertilizer for your garden. If an indoor worm garden isn’t for you, composting outdoors is a great option.
Composters are sold at home-improvement stores and in gardening catalogs, but they’re at least $40–many are over $100!–and they look bulky and complicated. You may have heard stories like Katie’s, about a composter that didn’t seem to work at all, just letting the food scraps get moldy and stink!
I’ve been composting for 20 years without using an official composting device–longer, if you count my years in my parents’ home with a compost heap in the back yard. My method attracts earthworms to work for me, breaking down my garbage.
I don’t worry much about following rules like, “balancing greens and browns” or aerating the compost really frequently, but it works out well enough! (If you’ve been intimidated by articles about perfect composting, check out Rodale’s 6 Rules for some gentler guidelines from professional organic gardeners.)
Composting helps the environment by reducing the garbage sent to landfills and by fertilizing plants without harmful chemicals. Amazingly, compost can even help to break down pollutants that are already in the soil it’s mixed into! If you’ve been spending money on fertilizers, or if you pay by the unit for garbage collection, composting will help your budget, too.
Another reason to compost is that it’s just interesting to watch the process of decomposition. When you stir up compost that’s been sitting for a few months, some of it has just turned into “dirt,” while other parts are recognizable but have changed.
We had a butternut squash that was bruised and went bad before we could eat it, so it went into the compost in one piece. Two months later, it had decayed to a fascinating texture!
On my shovel here you can see that a banana peel quickly turns into something you can barely recognize, while the paper shreds from a fancy gift basket retain their appearance longer–and those light-green shoots are carrot tops that continued to grow after being cut off and discarded.
Getting started with my composting method will cost you only about $30 now and another, optional $15 several months later. You can buy all the supplies at any discount store with a garden department. Alternatively, check out how my brother started his composting setup for free by making use of an old fence he didn’t want!
My parents’ system also costs nothing: They simply pile the compost on the ground in a certain area, adding stuff at one side and taking finished compost from the other side, periodically stirring it and moving it over with a pitchfork.
The reason I put my compost in bins is that I have a small, urban yard with an erosion problem. We need our compost contained in a tight space. We’ve done our best to control erosion by getting a rain barrel to catch the water from our roof and by planting ground-cover plants.
Still, the slope of our block brings rainwater from the uphill yards running across ours to the downhill yards as well as down the steeper slope at the back of our yard. Compost heaped on the ground would just wash downhill.
As Easy As 1-2-3!
You’ll get started composting my way by throwing your biodegradable garbage into 1 bin. Soon, when your bin is filled about a foot deep, you’ll start using 2 bins. You can go on indefinitely with 2 bins, as I was doing at least until 2009, when I first wrote about my Lazy Composting method.
But it’s easier to have 3 bins when you reach the point where 2 of your bins are full. If you stick with 2 bins, you’ll need to remove your most-finished compost to your garden as the first step every time you turn and mix your compost.
This can be inconvenient if you’re turning the compost on a warm day in the middle of winter, when you’re not ready to remove the winter mulch from your garden. You’ll have a lot of compost by the end of winter because it breaks down more slowly in cold weather.
Here’s how you use the 3 bins:
- This bin is collecting new scraps.
- This bin holds compost that has been decomposing for a while but is not yet ready to spread on the garden.
- (optional) This bin holds your oldest compost, ready to use when you do your next gardening project.
My bins are the largest plastic flowerpots I can find. They cost about $15 each these days. They get brittle and start to crack after about 8 years in this climate; if you live in a place with stronger sunlight or very sudden temperature shifts, you may have to replace your bins more often.
Worn-out polypropylene (plastic recycling code 5) flowerpots can be recycled in some places–check your local policies.
I replaced 2 of my bins with these green ones a few years ago. My third bin held up until last fall, when its edge broke off and I retired it. These photos were taken on the strangely warm day in February when I set up my new third bin. You won’t see any earthworms in these photos because they were still sleeping underground.
Look for flowerpots with a smooth, rounded top edge, instead of a folded-over lip with a sharp edge. Look for pots that feel sturdy, not thin-walled. You won’t need a saucer for underneath; if the pot has an attached saucer, make sure it is removable. Make sure your pot has drainage holes in the bottom!
Make Your Own Wormhole!
I just like the science-fiction sound of that. 🙂 The holes in the bottom of your bin will allow drainage, just as they would if you planted a plant in it, so that your compost won’t be flooded when it rains.
But these holes also serve the important purpose of allowing worms to come up from the soil into your compost.
Usually, you’ll have to punch out the pre-scored holes in the bottom of your new bin. Stabbing them with a screwdriver works well.
Place your bins directly on the ground. Choose a location close enough to your kitchen that you’ll be able to carry scraps there easily, and close enough to your garden that you won’t have to haul the finished compost very far.
Compost bins should be in partial shade so that they don’t get too hot or cold for proper decomposition. Here’s more advice on choosing a site.
Our bins sit next to the rain barrel, just off the edge of the concrete at the back of our house. We have a concrete walkway from the back door and also underneath our first-floor bathroom, which sits on concrete pillars–our back yard is at basement level. Coming out the back door with scraps, we walk only 10 feet to get to the compost bins.
Our yard is so small that every part is “near” the compost bins–well, every part of the backyard is! We live in a row house, so to carry compost to the front yard we have to go around the next-door house and up the alley. I use a utility tub with rope handles to do that.
Gathering the Good Stuff
Once you’ve set up your bins, start filling Bin #1 with biodegradable garbage! Here are some things you can compost:
- fruit and vegetable peels and pits
- too-old-to-eat bread, pasta, rice, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
- If leftovers got moldy, spread them out on the top surface of the compost; sun and air often kill off mold that would flourish in your dark refrigerator.
- coffee grounds, paper coffee filters, tea leaves, tea bags (remove any staples)
- dead leaves
- green scraps from trimming your lawn and shrubbery
- weeds–if they aren’t poisonous plants that could give you a rash and if they haven’t gone to seed.
- You don’t want weed seeds in your compost because they might grow in your garden when you spread the compost there.
- paper products–unless they have a glossy finish or plastic coating, or they’ve been used to absorb meat or dairy products, toxic chemicals, or blood
- cardboard–unless it has a glossy coating or has absorbed any of the above yucky stuff
- cardboard egg cartons–after removing the stickers
- cotton balls and cotton swabs made with real cotton (not synthetic fiber) and paper sticks
- waste and biodegradable litter/bedding from a vegetarian pet such as a rabbit or gerbil.
- Meat-eating pets have dangerous bacteria in their waste–and anyway, it smells bad.
- hair and pet fur
It’s best to include both “green” things like fresh vegetable scraps and grass clippings and “brown” things like paper and dead leaves. Don’t worry about making separate layers; just toss things in as you discard them and aim for about equal amounts.
You may not be able to compost all the paper you discard because it’s just too much. Our approach is to put paper that’s in recyclable condition in the recycling, and compost only tissue-grade paper, small papers like shopping lists, and paper bags with compostable food on them (like a bagel bag with poppy seeds in every crevice!).
We also recycle big pieces of cardboard–when we’re done reusing them–but we compost small pieces.
Our toilet paper comes wrapped in thin paper. When we change the roll, the paper wrap and the old cardboard tube both go into the compost.
What Doesn’t Go Into the Compost?
Meat and dairy, because they’ll smell terrible and attract pests. Toxic chemicals. Sticks or chunks of wood, because they break down too slowly and can hurt you when you handle the compost. Plastics, synthetic fibers, and other stuff that won’t biodegrade.
Here are some things I found when I turned my compost that shouldn’t have been in there.
The balloon stem must have fallen in when my son was throwing water balloons last summer. The sticker obviously was on an onion–we should have pulled it off and put it in the trash, because produce stickers are made of plastic and don’t biodegrade.
That other thing must have been a disposable bowl that somebody thought was paper, but it actually had a plastic coating on the interior–picking it up, I felt that one side was soggy, but the other side was slick with moisture beaded on it.
Maintaining Your Compost
Compost needs to be turned to mix it, expose different parts to the sun, break up larger items, and work in some air. (Earthworms, other helpful critters, and beneficial bacteria all breathe air.) It’s great if you can turn it every week or two, but don’t stress. You’ll still get pretty good compost if you turn it every two or three months.
The first step is to remove any non-biodegradable garbage that you see in your bins. The wind often brings in lightweight litter, like plastic bags.
Then, loosen your older compost in Bin #2. It can get very tightly packed after repeated rain or after freezing and thawing through the winter. Use a shovel or trowel, being careful not to smash against the sides of the bin.
Next, pick up Bin #2 by the top edges. (You should bend your legs more than I’m doing in the photo, to prevent lower-back injury.) Tilt Bin #2 over Bin #3. Then move one hand to the bottom of Bin #2 to turn it upside down and dump the contents into Bin #3.
Now you’ll have a bin-shaped clump of compost. Break it up with your shovel. You may see some roots from seeds that were in your food, which sprouted in the compost. Most often, breaking up your compost will kill these seedlings, and they’ll decompose.
Sometimes, you’ll get a surprise plant growing either in your compost bin or in the garden where you spread compost. We’ve grown delicious squash and tomatoes from these volunteer plants!
You’ll also see stuff that hasn’t “turned into dirt” yet. Some things break down faster than others. Eggshells, citrus peels, avocado peels and pits, corn cobs, squash stems, and hair/fur will take a while. This doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong!
Just smash them with your shovel into smaller pieces. Anything really slow can be tossed back to Bin #1.
It’s okay to leave some chunks in your ready-to-use compost in Bin #3. When I plant seeds or bulbs that are completely underground, I set aside eggshells from the compost and use them to make a border around the newly-planted area to remind us not to step there.
Next, repeat the steps to transfer the newer compost from Bin #1 to Bin #2. I usually find that this compost is heavier, so I have to move some of it a shovelful at a time before I can lift the bin. You’ll have more intact stuff here than in the older compost. Chop it up as much as you can.
Bin #1 is now empty, ready for new scraps. Bin #3 (the brown one) holds the compost I’ll use first when I start planting things in the spring.
The Lazy Approach to Unidentified Larvae
This turning of the compost was interrupted by a discovery at the bottom of Bin #2.
These are larvae of some kind of insect. I don’t know what kind. There’s probably an app for that, or a book, but my lazy attitude is: If I don’t know what they are, I’ll try to reduce their numbers.
I don’t try to kill them all because that would be too time-consuming. But I don’t ignore them because they might be harmful. Instead I just get most of them out of my compost area.
Because the rain barrel is emptied for the winter, I filled up my watering can and used that to rinse the bin. I noticed some more larvae on the ground that had been under the bin, so I scraped them up along with a thin layer of dirt. I spread this dirt on the concrete in the sun and called it good enough.
What if I knew the larvae were dangerous?
A few years ago, we shredded a lot of old papers and put all the shreds in the compost at once. When I turned it, I recognized (thanks to a recent trip to the zoo!) termite larvae. We didn’t want termites anywhere near our house!
To get rid of the termites, I put all of those paper shreds and some of the adjacent compost in a garbage bag that went to the landfill. I washed the bin very thoroughly and let it and the ground under it dry for several days before beginning to use that bin again.
(Of course, we should have prevented any termites in the neighborhood from finding a good place to lay their eggs, by not putting so much wood pulp in our compost in a big clump not mixed with “greens.”)
The unknown larvae were the only visible critters in my compost in February. Very soon now, the earthworms will come up, and my compost will be crawling with life! I look forward to showing it to you. Meanwhile, check out photos of the Darwinian Gardens nourished with my compost in the past few years!