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!
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?”