Tag Archives: making compost

Guide to Composting in the Winter (article)

Have you ever checked out the website earth911.com?  I’ve checked it out plenty when it comes to finding recycling avenues for anything imaginable…but I never thought to see if they had any material on composting.  It turns out that they do, and I’ve been asked a lot about starting a compost pile in the winter.  While composting isn’t easy in the wintertime, it is doable.  Let’s see what earth911 has to say about it in the article below…

Just as you started to get into a solid groove with your compost pile this past summer and fall, churning over plentiful amounts of that beautiful garden gold, BAM! Winter hits.

But don’t throw in the shovel just because a white blanket of snow or a hardened sheet of ice now sits atop your compost pile. To help you get through the winter and ready to go once spring returns, learn some of the ins-and-outs of winter composting.

Listen to the experts

According to the University of Illinois Extension, “Composting [is] a biological process that decomposes organic material under aerobic ([meaning] oxygen [is] required) conditions. […] Composting speeds up the natural process of decomposition, providing optimum conditions so that organic matter can break down more quickly.”

In other words, a compost pile is an intentional strategy to speed up the decomposition process that nature, left alone, would take years to accomplish. To decompose at the rapid pace described above, the U of I Extension asserts that a main goal when composting is to promote the existence and propagation of aerobic bacteria.

Luckily for you, these compost dwellers are not picky eaters. And when they eat, they can turn up the heat – literally. According to the U of I Extension, aerobic bacteria heat up a compost pile when they eat, through the chemical process called oxidation. They especially love the carbon-rich (often called brown) materials, which give them energy. Another essential ingredient for your pile, nitrogen-rich (often called green) materials, help the bacteria grow big and strong and reproduce.

But why all the talk about the nutrient needs and chemical processes of bacteria? These factors can help us better understand why in the winter, at least if you live in a cold spot, composting is a different beast than it was in those warmer months.

The winter slow down

It happens to humans, so why can’t it happen to bacteria? The gray dreariness that often makes us want to go into hibernation mode (if only work, life, etc. would let us) also affects aerobic bacteria, in a manner of speaking.

The University of Illinois Extension says “warmer outside temperatures in late spring, summer and early fall stimulate bacteria and speed up decomposition. Low winter temperatures will slow or temporarily stop the composting process.” But fear not: “As air temperatures warm up in the spring, microbial activity will resume.”

Because ambient air temperature affects the speed of decomposition, when the temps cool down, so too does the aforementioned oxidation process. Instead of the voracious eaters they were in the summer and early fall, aerobic bacteria revert to a calmer state.

Yet even when the temperature drops, microbes responsible for the breakdown of organic matter can remain active in the compost pile, according the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. The center of the pile can be warm and actively composting because of heat generated by bacteria, but the outer layers of your pile are at the mercy of the daily highs and lows.

Furthermore, a compost pile needs the right amount of air and water (in addition to carbon and nitrogen) to be successful. So, when that winter snow and spring rain keeps on coming, your pile can get drenched. While water in the summer may be a necessary amendment, too much winter water will force air out of pore spaces in your compost pile, suffocating our dear aerobic bacteria friends.

Strategies for success, despite the cold

Here, a cinder block structure surrounds a compost heap. A block structure is one way to maintain internal pile heat longer into the winter. Photo: University of Illinois Extension

There are measures you can take to protect your pile from the elements and keep it viable further into the winter months. Here are some suggestions:

1. Build a roof. You have one over your head, why can’t your pile? Control external environmental factors by protecting your compost pile from unwanted precipitation.

2. Block it in. You may have noticed that the car in the garage or in the carport tends to be less frost-ridden in the morning than the car parked in the street. Without the protection of the house or other built structure, the car in the street is exposed to a bigger swing in nighttime temperatures.

Same principle applies to your compost pile. If you compost with heaps, build a protective barrier around your pile. If you already compost in some type of holding unit, you (and your compost pile) are covered.

3. Lay down a tarp. Putting a tarp over your compost pile not only whisks away unwanted precipitation, but it also helps contain the internal heat from the pile where you want it – in the pile.

4. Make a bigger heap. Extend the longevity of your pile by prepping early. According to the University of Illinois Extension, “During [the] fall months, making a good sized heap will help the composting process work longer into the winter season.”

Holding units are an alternative to heap piles, and can help protect the compost from winter elements that tend to slow the decomposition process. Photo: University of Illinois Extension.

Because volume is a factor in retaining compost pile heat, the U of I Extension suggests that for those in the Midwest, piles should be at least one cubic yard. The Midwest gets pretty cold, so it’s likely safe to say that this measurement suggestion can apply elsewhere in the U.S.

5. Shred it. According to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, “Shredding the material in the pile to particles less than two inches in size will allow [the pile] to heat more uniformly and will insulate it from outside temperature extremes.”

6. Dig a hole and bury it. Another tip from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service suggests digging a trench in the garden or flowerbed and adding organic wastes like kitchen scraps (hold the meat, grease or animal fat, please!) little by little, making sure to bury the waste after each addition.

Similarly, “compost-holing,” or digging a one-foot deep hole anywhere in the yard and covering with a board or bricks until full of organic wastes, is another strategy to beat the winter cold and keep on composting.

Right method for the right place

In the end, it is always important to consider what type of system works best for you. The area available for composting, seasonal climate, along with the time commitment you are willing to give to your pile, all impact the type of composting system that would work best. Always do your research when looking to start, continue, or try a new type of composting system.

Top Ten Secrets – #1 Compost, How and Why

Top Ten Secrets – #1 Compost, How and Why

This guy rules.  He goes over a number of different methods to get started composting, but what I like is his first method discussed is simply digging a hole.  This is how I got started, and I still like to bury food scraps from time to time in a pit just for fun.

He has great energy… I really like how he blasts store bought compost activators as a waste of time- they are.  They might work but they’re definitely not worth it.

Whether it’s a hole in the ground, a bin or a tumbler, you can get started composting quite easily and start turning your waste into a valuable resource.


How to Build a Compost Pile for Dummies

How to Build a Compost Pile For Dummies

Here’s a short, simple video on the basics for setting up a compost bin in the backyard.  Ignore the comments section, keep it simple and get started!

When is Your Compost Ready to Use? (video)

When is Your Compost Ready to Use?

When is your compost ready to use? Some questions to ask yourself include:

How does it look?
Can you recognize any of the material?
How does it smell?
Is the material warm?

Here I have a few different samples of compost…vermicompost, tumbler compost, commercial compost, and trench compost.

What do you think of these samples?  I feel like my tumbler compost and vermicastings could both go even longer before using them, but that they’re still OK if I were to use them now.  In fact, I’m going to use these samples for my next “Clash of The Composts!” experiment coming soon… stay tuned!

Green Cat Litter (article)

Here’s a great article written by Madeleine of http://www.nzecochick.com .  She offers some good solutions for greening your cat litter that are worth checking out.  Take it away, Madeleine!

If you have a cat (or like me you don’t have a cat but when my family goes away our home is the cat hotel for them) you have to deal with cat poop. If you have a cat door this is easy as they just go poop outside, normally in a new section of garden where you have planted seeds. Grr. Cats are great pets but boy can they be destructive and annoying. Not to mention their impact on the bird population!

If you have an indoor cat or don’t have a cat door or your cat sleeps inside you’ll need a cat litter tray. You can use a number of items to hold the litter; a plastic tray, an old draw, a metal tray or a wood box. All these items have pros and cons; they are all cheap to buy. The wooden and metal items can be reused in the garden when they are no longer needed. The plastic tray can be recycled or reused at the end of its life. I personally use a plastic tray as it can be very easily cleaned to sanitise it. If I was doing it all over again I think I’d get a metal tray.

You’ll need some kind of litter for the cat to poop on. Currently I’m using one made from recycled paper. I like this option as it doesn’t smell, is highly absorbent, relatively cheap and doesn’t stick to the cat’s paws. Also you can scope out the poop and flush it down the toilet and it doesn’t matter if a small amount of the paper goes down the loo too.

An even better and cheaper option is to use compost to fill up your cat litter tray. This is a great option as it will save you lots of money and to empty the tray simply throw it in the garden. Again you can get rid of the poop by flushing it or throwing it in the rubbish or if you don’t care just throw it on your garden and dig the compost through your garden.

If you think your cat has parasites such as Toxoplasmosis you must throw the cat poop in the rubbish bin. The easiest way to do this is to put your hand inside a plastic bag scope out the poop and tie the top of the bag closed. If you’re pregnant do not touch cat poop at all. Make sure you wash your hands carefully after touching any poop or compost.

-Madeleine  of http://www.nzecochick.com

It doesn’t need to be fancy…

When I visited home for the holidays, I had to take a look and see what my mom’s old composting area looked like.  This really spun me out because I remember making this little frame out of cinder blocks a long time ago and it looked good.  What’s funny is that if you want to compost, you can make do with this just fine…just make space and add stuff to it in appropriate quantities.

Next to this was a nice looking compost bin…again, it does the trick.  You can add material nice and high and it stays fairly organized.  Note the slits near bottom which double as a spot to anchor it to the ground as well as provide some needed air circulation.  Way to go, mom!

To start composting, all you really need is a little space and a rough idea of what to do…that’s really it.  It can be as simple or complex as you want it to be.

The following day I got to go out into the wilderness and I found myself thinking about how much the animals would appreciate all the food scraps that people throw away, especially during the winter.  Who wouldn’t want to feed this guy?

Top Tips for Composting at Home (video)

Top Tips on How to Make Compost at Home

About time I make a video on how to compost, eh?  I’m only a year into having this website…not bad!

Since I live in the city, using a compost tumbler is the best choice for me. However, using a bin, worm trays, or just making a heap all have the following tips in common.

My top tips for composting at home:
-Stick to the 3:1 ratio for browns (leaves, cardboard, paper, straw) and greens (food waste, coffee grounds, grass clippings)
-Shred your materials to speed up decomposition and avoid clumping, which impedes airflow
-Pile should be moist as a “wrung out sponge”
-Turn your pile each week to hasten decay
-Add a shovelful of dirt to introduce essential organisms

AVOID composting:
-Meat, dairy, fish and excessively oily foods
-Plastics, glass & aluminum
-Pet waste
-Coal ash and charcoal
-Weeds that have gone to seed

Q: Pile isn’t heating up.
A: Either add a fresh green source or if too dry add water.

Q: This pile stinks!
A: Add more browns and aerate.

Any questions?  You know what to do.

Can You Use Compost As Cat Litter?

You may recall that I recently had an article posted about whether or not it’s a good idea to compost your cat litter.  This time, I’m flipping it around to “can you use your compost as cat litter?”

Let me remind you that I don’t own a cat…I merely deal with them crapping all over the side of my house and I’m basically okay with that.  Working with waste all the time means I don’t smell much of anything anyway.  Here’s a photo of the gifts that the alley cats leave for me:

I have a feeling these cats would have no problem using compost in their litter box, if they had one.  I have not observed these cats seeking out my compost in the (fenced off) backyard to sit in.  Looks like I have a new experiment to try…

I received an email a few days ago from Anne in Austin, Texas.  She writes:

“I’ve found lots of discussions about using cat litter as compost, but haven’t found any discussions about this: Is it safe to use compost AS cat litter? I’ve been using a good quality garden compost from my local nursery as cat litter for several months. Cheaper than litter, no switchover problems, no smell — in fact, I usually just catch that “sweet” compost smell. It doesn’t seem to track as badly as other litters. I start out with about an inch in the box and then add more over the week. Then I dump the used stuff in a low-traffic area of the yard (not in the veggie garden). Use a rake to spread it out; might throw some cut grass on top to help accelerate breakdown.”

Anne: Awesome question.  Well, it seems that you’ve made quite an interesting discovery. Anyone else out there want to try this?  I would love to hear your experiences with it.  She continues:

“So far, I’m liking this. But my vet wonders about possible health concerns for the cat; she wonders if the “fresh” compost from the nursery contains bacteria/pathogens that might be harmful to the cats. I’m thinking No, but only because: Hey, if I use this stuff on my veggie garden, how harmful can it be to my cats? Is it reasonable to assume that the compost I buy at a nursery is (mostly) harmless?”

As for the doctor’s concerns, I would be shocked if the compost contained anything harmful.  I responded to Anne to ask her if the compost was “aged” for several months and/or certified by the U.S. Composting Council, which would certify that the compost was at thermal kill temperatures (above 140F) for several days straight…the answer: it was.  🙂

So let’s recap…it appears that using compost as cat litter has had the following perks:

-significantly cheaper

-good at absorbing urine

-doesn’t smell

-doesn’t require scooping

-has next to no tracking

-is easier to clean up

-you avoid the landfill (YES!)

Some suggestions… if you’re worried about pathogens, make sure you’re getting U.S. Composting Council certified compost.  I would be surprised if nurseries sold any sub-par compost, but somewhere like Home Depot or Lowe’s might.  Also, keep the compost from drying out…its naturally moist properties are what help this process along.  Last thing: keep the “compoost” (Anne coined this term!) separate from your normal compost pile.  So there you have it, no sweat…get to it.

Too good to be true?  I’m sure there’s cats that won’t like it, but some might…maybe stray/outdoor cats?  So give it a shot and let me know what happens.  I’m not responsible if your cat craps on your couch instead.

Now I’m starting to wonder if I should take in a stray cat just for this experiment…it’s tempting!

How to Compost Your Cat’s Litter (article)

Today on the street I was asked about an eco-friendly way to deal with cat litter.  Oh, the conversations I get to have with people…I love it.

Not being a cat owner, or any pet owner for that matter, I wasn’t even sure what kitty litter is made of.  I discovered that the “eco-friendly” cat litter is corn cob, pine chips, or if you’re innovative and resourceful, sawdust.  Using clay or sand kitty litter wouldn’t work with compost, and it’s not smart to dump down your toilet, either.

Even though I don’t use my compost for food purposes, I’d probably dump my cat litter in my compost ditch NEXT to the compost tumbler for a while…but I guess in a matter of time it would smell?  Cats like to crap all over the side of my house, and everyone smells it but me.

Anyway, my main point is, keep cat litter out of your main compost as it risks carrying lots of nasty parasites unless they are thermally killed (high temps for several days), which most home piles won’t obtain unless well maintained and rather large in size.  Let’s see what Juniper Russo Tarascio has to say…quite a thorough article here.  Luckily she offers several options, so see what works for you.

As national awareness of a global ecological crisis is being risen, cat-and-dog-owners are looking for more and more ways to raise green pets. While composting your cat’s litter isn’t likely to turn him a freakish shade of olive-drab, this step-by-step guide can help reduce your cat’s ecological paw-print by disposing of his waste in a way that’s responsible and beneficial.

There are many benefits to choosing to compost your cat’s litter. His waste will no longer fill up plastic (petroleum-based) garbage bags, which reduces his carbon-paw-print more than you might initially expect. Even reusing bags from the grocery store to dispose of your cat’s waste will add up over time, since you might otherwise be using a canvas tote. Another obvious benefit of composting kitty-poo is that you’ll have a free, organic fertilizer, which won’t contain any synthetic contaminants and doesn’t need to be shipped across the country to get to your garden. Even if you don’t have a garden, odorless cat-compost can benefit your house plants, trees, or even your neighbor’s flowerbeds. Composting cat-litter is also a responsible way to keep potentially hazardous parasites and waste–like e. coli, toxoplasmosis, ammonia, and nitrate–out of our landfills and waterways.

There are four basic steps that need to be taken to turn your cat’s waste into a clean, odorless fertilizer that can enhance the nutrient-content, water-absorption capacity, and structural integrity of your soil.

1. Build, or Buy, a Compost Bin.

Compost bins that are pre-purchased can be used for disposing of cat waste, even if they were designed for food waste. The only critical difference in way that the two are composted is that cat waste must be left to compost for at least eighteen months before it is completely safe to use on edible crops. This eliminates the risk of parasites like e. coli, tapeworm, and toxoplasmosis contaminating foods grown in soil that has been enhanced with cat manure.

If you want to build your own compost bin, this is simple enough to do: layering several planks of wood, one on top of the other, to build an open-lidded box is all that’s really necessary. For one to two cats , a three-by-two-by-two foot box is generally sufficient space. You may not even need to nail the wood together; the purpose is to create a general container–not something that will be airtight. You may wish to place a lid on the bin to prevent dogs and cats from making your compost-bin their own, but it is not necessary for odor control if you compost properly.

If you have purchased a compost bin, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you have created one yourself, you can start encouraging the growth a healthy colony of compost-enhancing bacteria by adding a two-inch layer of topsoil, dry leaves, and/or sawdust to the bottom of your homemade bin.

2. Choose a Cat Litter.

Clay-based, sand-based, and crystalline litters are not compatible with use in compost, since they can damage your the structure of your soil and cause synthetic toxins to leak into your garden. The best choices for compostable cat litters are those made from natural, living sources.

Plain sawdust is a wonderful, inexpensive, and delightfully green cat litter that utilizes a wasted resource. Most cats love its texture and will eagerly use a sawdust-filled litterbox. However, it can sometimes be difficult to find in urban and suburban areas, and some owners may not be satisfied with the degree of odor-control it provides, especially if they own more than one cat or do not plan to empty the litterbox frequently. It is an excellent option if you have only one cat and don’t mind a bit of extra work.

Another good option for an earth-friendly and compostable cat-litter is a commercially produced litter made from pine or cedar. These tend to have pleasant, natural scents, and they have been processed in such a way as to be significantly more absorbent than plain sawdust. However, it is somewhat expensive by comparison.

Wheat-based natural litters are also a compost-friendly, green option for cat owners seeking a nontoxic and sustainable way to dispose of their cats’ waste. Composed of wheat husk–a by-product of the food-farming industry–they are an odorless, clean, and renewable option that is usually readily accepted by most cats and sufficiently absorbent, even for multi-cat households.

Another ecologically conscious option is litter made from recycled newspaper. Available in most stores, this product, while somewhat expensive, is accepted by most cats and composts very readily. Surprisingly, it is very absorbent compared to some other natural products, although the amount of odor control it provides for feces is somewhat limited.

You may find that you’d prefer to try all of these options to see what works best for you, your wallet, and your cat. Whatever you choose, these litters are all fully compatible with your choice to compost your cat’s litter, and can all help to enhance your soil.

3. Begin Composting.

The first time you compost your cat’s waste, it may seem unusual. Stick with it–you’ll soon be rewarded with the feeling that you’ve done your part to reduce the impact your cat is having on the planet, and you’ll act as a great example to people wishing to do the same.

After adding the first layer of sawdust, soil, or leaves, simply dump your cat’s waste (feces or urine-clumped litter) directly into your bin. Cover it with a one-inch layer of sawdust, soil, or leaves, and leave it alone. When the time comes to empty your entire litterbox, simply do the same, and add another layer of your composting material. To speed the composting process, it’s a good idea to aerate the litter every few weeks or months. Do this according to your manufacturer’s instructions, or, if you’ve built your own bin, simply turn the litter using a shovel or pitch-fork.

You may also purchase earthworms at a farm-and-garden supply store, or via the Internet. They can help to digest your cat’s manure and aerate it, speeding the compost process even further.

If you notice an odor coming from your compost bin, this is no reason to surrender hope. All that is necessary under these circumstances is that you add an additional layer of your compost material–sawdust is best. This will help to dilute the ammonia and seal in any offensive smells. Frequent aeration can prevent this problem from ever occurring.

When your compost bin is full, you can either continue aerating it occasionally, which will speed the composting process, or you can seal it at the top with a layer of straw, hay, or pine straw. This will lock in any odors and allow nature to do its work from there.

4. Use Your Compost.

After one year, or as little as six months if you continue aerating your bin, you can remove the top layer and use a shovel to check the status of your compost. Most likely, by this point, the manure will no longer be identifiable as cat litter, and will have a sweet, earthy smell and loamy texture. At this point, the compost can be used on ornamental plants and fruit trees, but you may want to wait a few months longer before using it on crops like potatoes, carrots, or peanuts, which it would directly contact–just to err on the side of caution.

By the time your cat litter has composted for eighteen months or more, it should be completely ready to use on any crop. Depending on your climate, soil composition, type of litter, and number of cats, you may not feel like the litter is completely ready. Although composted cat litter tends to be cleaner and less prone to parasites than typical garden soil (after all, you never know what’s been using your flower-bed as a litterbox!) many cat owners feel overly cautious about using litter to grow food crops. Although this fear is unfounded, there is nothing wrong with waiting another few months, or even years, before using your new compost.

There are many uses for composted cat manure. It can be used as a mulch for trees, or mixed with weak soil to give it a loamy texture and high nutrient content. It can be spread in flowerbeds to give extra life to your nitrate-hungry perennials. It can even be used as a starter for another compost pile, including kitchen compost!

Although cat-litter compost is safe, always use your common sense. Regardless of what kind of compost you use, it is always a good idea to wear gloves when handling compost or working in the garden. Pregnant women should avoid directly handling cat waste under any circumstances, since it sometimes carries a virus that may lead to birth defects in a fetus if it is contracted by the mother. Regardless of how your food is grown, you should aways wash and/or cook your vegetables before eating them; this rids them of both synthetic and natural contaminants.

It would be impossible to fully address the issue of composting cat manure without addressing what I refer to as the “gross-out” factor. How can someone grow food in their cat’s poop? you may be wondering. But the fact is that, regardless of where your food comes from, it was most likely grown in something you’d prefer not to think about. Conventional fruits and vegetables are often grown using massive amounts of petroleum-based fertilizers, and organic produce is almost always fertilized with chicken litter–a foul-smelling and highly pollutive mixture of bone, feather, tissue, and feces. It’s also worth noting that even your home-grown foods were grown in soil that was, inevitably, pooped in at some point by a wild or domestic animal.

With deliberately-composted cat litter, you can oversee the entire process that nature uses to turn one creature’s waste into another creature’s nourishment, and, in my opinion, that is a beautiful thing.   -Juniper Russo Tarascio