Composting FAQ

The following is a work in progress, but I hope to answer all of your questions about the art of composting.  If you have a question that you don’t see answered here, please contact me.

Q: Why should I bother?
A: It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s the responsible thing to do.  You’re in control of creating the best soil amendment there is.  Landfills are no joke and we’re filling them up at a rapid rate.  A hefty portion of landfills is organic material that would have been fine to compost, and up to two thirds of your household trash can be composted, too.

Q: Doesn’t compost smell really bad?
A: Yes, compost can smell…but it’s easily fixable and avoidable.  In fact, compost smells pretty darn good more often than not!

Q: What type of composting system should I use?
A: Well, it all depends on your situation.  Do you generate a lot of waste?  Do you have outdoor space or do you live in an apartment?  Do you like worms?  There’s a lot of methods out there, so I’ve stuck to the most popular ones below.  Here’s my short description for each:

Compost heap/bin: This can obviously be as big as you want, although I’d highly recommend that it’s at least 3’x3’x3′ and works best if you have a lot of material on hand to work with.  You can tie together some pallets to make a bin to keep it stacked high and neat.  With the proper volume of material, this is the best composting method with the highest temperatures.

Compost tumbler: Ideal for a house with a small backyard and 4 or less people.  They’re not the biggest container, but they’re neat and keep out unwanted animals.  There are many designs out there (some of which aren’t so good) so take some time to figure out what works best for you.

Worm composting system: Great for apartment dwellers and kids that like critters.  They require some attention to make sure they’re moist, in the dark and not overfed, but if you keep the conditions right they will handle your waste quite easily.  Works throughout the winter, which is a nice plus.

Bokashi system: This is a cool indoor system with little to no odor that utilizes microorganisms to process your kitchen waste.  While I haven’t tested this system yet, I’ve heard great things about it other than having to buy the bokashi mix every so often.

Dig a hole and do nothing: This is the easiest method because you simply dig a hole in the backyard and dump your food scraps in it.  I did this for a while and didn’t care that squirrels and cats dug it up and made a mess from time to time…but my neighbors did!

Lastly, you can check out my video on this topic by clicking here.

Q: My compost pile stinks!
A: This could be a number of things.  If the pile seems compacted, aerate it to increase airflow.  If the pile is visibly wet beyond a “wrung out sponge”, add brown materials such as cardboard, leaves or wood chips.  If it smells like ammonia, add browns and aerate.

Q: My pile isn’t heating up.
A: How long has it been since you started?  It usually takes a few days to gain some heat.  The bigger the pile, the more heat potential there is: volume is very important.  How damp is it?  Did you follow the ratio of three times as many browns to greens?  Did you shred up the materials?

Q: Can I put anything in the compost pile?  What should I avoid?
A: Meat, dairy products and seafood aren’t recommended unless you have a large composting bin at least 3’x3’x3′ in size.  In smaller sized containers, higher temperatures are harder to sustain for long enough to thoroughly process those items.  However, if you can add enough browns to balance it out while avoiding odors or attracting pests, go for it. If I ate that stuff, I would definitely compost it.

Recyclables (plastics, glass, aluminum) are not compostable.  Paper products, however, are great “brown” materials to add to your compost pile.

Pet waste and plants that were treated with pesticides/insecticides are not advisable to add either.

Q: Do I need an activator to start my compost pile?
A: Definitely not.  Great activators include manure, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, blood meal, bone meal, finished compost.  A lot of activators are animal products, so vegetarians may want to avoid them.  Again, an activator isn’t mandatory for composting, but it can help in the beginning.

Q: How long does it take to make compost?
A: It all depends on what method of composting you’re trying and how much effort you put into it.  Personally, I don’t like reading claims of “compost in 14 days!” as that only sets people up for disappointment.  I’d say 3-6 months is a good estimate for an average pile, but it just depends on what you add and how much you pay attention to it.

Q: What are all these bugs and eggs doing in my compost? Are they harmful?
A: Not really. However, compost mites are an indicator of a compost bin that’s out of balance. They like to live where it’s moist, so a quick correction would be to add more dry brown material. In worm bins, they aren’t known to kill worms unless they’re dying already. Overall, they’re just a part of the decomposition process and they are common with indoor composting efforts.

Q: It seems like my compost pile stopped working once it got cold out.
A: Composting definitely slows down in the wintertime, but you should continue to add to it anyway.  You can always add an activator to the pile and insulate it with a tarp or something similar to help it maintain heat.  I prefer switching over to my indoor worm system in the colder months.

Q: When is my compost finished?
A: It all depends. If you can recognize anything in the compost, then it’s not finished. However, you can use a sieve to filter through your material and put unfinished stuff into a new compost pile.  Click here to watch my Youtube video “When is Your Compost Ready to Use?”

16 thoughts on “Composting FAQ”

  1. My sister is considering compost systems. I have had very good luck with a bin, but couldn’t tell her from experience how the compost tumbler works. So she found your video helpful. She seems convinced that a tumbler would work the best for her. Unfortunately, we’ve had no luck finding the Envirocycle in stores. We found one that had a threaded screw on cap that was difficult to put on and off. In your FAQs, you mention that there are tumblers that are poorly designed. Is this an example of what you mean? Could you give us some examples of other things we should watch out for?

    1. In the world of composters, everyone has different needs… the Envirocycle screw-on cap could be improved by being metal threading instead of plastic…but personally I don’t really focus on compost leachate for tea brewing, so that doesn’t bother me.

      Some tumblers have cranks and are high off the ground. Personally I prefer it on the ground so I can “fall into” the tumbler to rotate it…I find it easier.

      I find it also important how the tumbler opens and closes. This piece needs to be sturdy since it will be getting used a lot (i hope!). Plastic can be flimsy.

      My last final determination would be aeration potential. While a tumbler is great to retain heat and “cook” material, your material will decompose faster if it has good oxygen flow…so there’s a balance there to be had. It’s easy for tumbler material to get rather wet as plastic doesn’t really “breathe”, therefore some form of aeration in addition to prevention from rain will go a long way.

      All in all, get what appeals to you. Compost is a natural process, and it will happen. Meet your needs and have fun with it…our future thanks you. 🙂

  2. How small do I have to cut up newspaper. Can I just tear it into 1″ strips or do I have to tear the strips into small pieces?

  3. When composting shredded paper, do I need to be concerned about the type of paper or ink being used? Some paper are bleached white and some inks/toners may have undesirable compounds. Would this matter at all in the context of composting?

    1. I was wondering this too. I have a paper shredder, but I currently shred some plastic cards in there too. If I can compost the paper, I’ll separate out the plastic and dump the paper in my tumbler. But what about the ink or the bleach used in the paper?

      1. Don’t worry about the ink or bleach- it’s miniscule- i’d be more worried about keeping out every bit of plastic you can from your compost pile first and foremost. Your number one best composting ingredient is shredded leaves- if you have access to them, get as many as you can and utilize them through the year.

  4. Does a worm compost bin need tumbling? Also, how do I go about extracting worms for to start another compost bin? Thanks!

    1. Nope! The worms are best left alone to do what they do. They know where to go and what to eat.

      A sheet of plastic laid over top of your worm composting setup with a few holes poked in it, with brand new material waiting on the top is the best way to get them to get into one location. It might help to cease feeding them for a week or so…then the process will be that much quicker when you add the new material and they’re near finished with the older stuff.

  5. I How many worms should I start with in a Worm Inn? I cook for one vegan and one nonvegan, make daily smoothies for two, and juice daily for one. We also make one pot of coffee a day and read the daily newspaper.

    1. With the Worm Inn, I’d recommend starting with one pound of red wigglers, but it sounds like you could do two pounds since you’re creating that daily juice waste.

      I recently started juicing and it’s exciting how much more food scraps I have now for composting!

      One last thing- I’d recommend collecting food scraps in a container and emptying it into the Inn after a few days’ worth if possible. This way the material starts to decompose a bit before it hits the worms and they get to work on it quicker. I keep a one gallon jar in my kitchen and I empty it when it fills, which takes 2-3 days.

  6. im afraid my compost pile will attract mice rats and the kind. I plan on using a tumbler system with the wheeled base similar to the one in your vids. but I have a phobia of mice and big dirty rats. have you or anyone had a problem with that?

    1. Hi Courtney,

      The reality is that rats and mice will not be present when you have a well-working compost pile.

      While a tumbler will technically keep them out, they fall short on capacity, which leads to compost lacking in quality (and quantity).

      A compost bin can handle your waste year round and create excellent compost with less effort at a fraction of the price.

      If you have more specific questions about your situation and would like more in-depth advice, I’d be more than happy to help- just shoot me a message.

      Happy composting!

  7. Hi Tyler,
    I read somewhere on your website that you should not put ashes from a wood stove into your compost. Other websites say it’s OK and even good for it. Can you tell me why you recommend against it?
    Regards,
    Keilly

    1. It’s highly alkaline stuff, and unless you are specifically aware of your soil needs, thus adding alkaline wood ash containing some potassium will benefit, it’s best avoided.

      Wood is good in the form of sawdust and leaves. Twigs, branches, wood chips, and ash are too large in size to break down in any reasonable amount of time, and they’ll end up working against your pile in that regard.

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Composting Made Simple.