Quick Composting Primer

Since I’ve done a brain dump of my composting habits for a couple of friends, I figured I’d go ahead and post it out on the web in case anyone else is interested. It’s just some of the tools and resources that I have personally used over the last couple of years for my composting experiments. This is essentially copied and pasted from an e-mail, so pretend I sent it in an e-mail to you. ;-)

Here’s some linkage for all my composting stuff. The first are just a couple of pictures of my original compost barrel, which is a 55-gallon soap barrel from a car wash. It was pretty easy to do. Just drill 4 corners for an opening, use a jigsaw to cut out the square, then screw it all back together with a couple of hinges and a latch.

“Let It Rot” by Stu Campbell — A pretty quick read on composting. Nothing earth-shattering or any exact sciences, but mostly how compost works (at the micro level) and how the different materials and additives help with the whole process. The author tends to prefer a compost pile as opposed to tumblers, but I recommend tumblers. They’re pricey and don’t hold as much, but they keep everything contained, make it easier to turn, and keep the varmints out.

Stainless Steel Compost Keeper — A handle little pail to store your kitchen scraps in. The filter does a great job at suppressing the odors and still allows the stuff inside to “breath” and not liquify (too much) into a nasty soup. Plus, if a bag leaks, it’s easy to clean out. The inside is one solid piece, so there aren’t any gaps or cracks for it to leak out onto your countertop.

Compostable Bags — I’ve only tried these, but they seem to get the best reviews on Amazon. If things get too soupy, they can leak, but I think that’s to be expected if you want the bags to be compostable. They have to be able to break down relatively quickly in under a year instead of before 3010. Just be sure to get the 2.5 gallon bags instead of the 30 gallon bags!

Mini Compost Tumbler — This is the mini version of what I have. It’s easy to turn, and it collects the drippings from the compost in the bottom as “compost tea”, which is a sort of homemade fertilizer that is a byproduct of the composting. It’s really good to have handy if you want to keep things going in the winter, and plain tap water doesn’t help replace the nutrients in the soil. This one is 17 gallon (per what I can read on the packaging box on their site (http://www.envirocyclesystems.com/Med/English/picture_04.html).

Bigger Compost Tumbler — This is the one I have. I think it’s roughly 7 cubic feet, which equates to roughly 52 liquid gallons, so it’s close to my converted 55 gallon drum.

Both tumblers are pretty nice. You can really only use about 50-75% of the total capacity before it gets too full to actually tumble anything. Some people complain that the larger version is difficult to turn, but mine is already at 50% capacity, and I don’t have any problems. Well, it was tough at first until you learn the secret to the tumble! Basically, give it a good heave to start the rotation. When you get to the end of however much you can rotate it, just hold it for a few seconds and give things time to shift around. It makes it MUCH easier than trying to constantly rotate it in one go. I call it the “pull-and-hold” method.

I’d also recommend an aerator. Not the rolling kind with spikes or the ones you put on your faucets, but a tool that you stab at the soil (or compost) and turn to aerate. This helps rip open any compost bags and churn the stuff in the middle of the compost. Something similar to this compost aerator or this manual tiller.

To get things started in the compost, you really don’t have to do anything. You can bootstrap things a little by getting compost activator or be cheap and just dig up a shovel full of soil from your yard, and it should already have some of the microbes to get you started. If you build it, they will come. A good rule of thumb with adding stuff to the pile is that greens provide nitrogen and browns provide carbon. There are other things you can add like fire ashes (not charcoal) that will provide potassium. To keep things in balance, it seems that everyone recommends more carbon than nitrogen in the mix, but I just kinda eyeball things and toss in some random dead leaves or plants from the yard to keep things in check. It also helps to aerate and “fluff” the compost as a lot of the kitchen scraps and greens have a lot of moisture and can make things soupy.

I’m no expert at all of this, and I don’t think it’s an exact science. I can tell you that my plants sure do seem to appreciate it, though. A couple of trials that I ran with identical plants in identical pots did have the plant planted in the soil amended with compost grow at 25-30% the rate of the other one. Once they got well established, they both slowed down to about the same place. I guess it helps speed up the first growth and establishment process a little faster. I’ll try to keep up with it and add some of the tea to one plant and give plain water to the other to see how they do this spring and summer.

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2 Responses to Quick Composting Primer

  1. Joe Lance says:

    Excellent recommendations. I learned composting as a kid, from my late father, and back in the day we just did a pile. (We lived in a rural area, and it was far from the house by the woods, so odors and varmints weren’t that big a deal.) Later he had a couple of tumblers, but they seemed to wear out over a short period of time.

    I bought a compost-maker at Lowe’s. It stands upright, and is a rather large, tough plastic rectangular container with an open bottom and a hinged lid. On each side near the bottom are sliding trap doors one can open to get at the end product. It’s basically a pile inside a cover, and it is somewhat vented so it can breathe; but it solves the odor/animal problem.

    Of course this solution doesn’t rotate, so I have made a makeshift aerator: I take my heavy Fiskars garden fork, stick it down into the compost, then place an old ax handle through the fork handle for leverage, and twist away. It really helps un-layer what’s in there, and yes, it breaks up the compost bags too. I only recently started doing this, so what’s down at the bottom may not be as good as what hopefully will turn out later.

    I am just about to start using my compost in planting, and I am hopeful that it will help provide a good garden yield. Thanks for this post.

  2. Pie says:

    Composting doesn’t have to be extremely complicated. Your solution works well and there is noting better than a can like yours for highly controlled output if targeting specific nutrients or if you are using that for kitchen waste.

    Don’t forget, however, that a fenced section filled with leaves works well too. Use the corner of your yard where the existing chain link fence meets two corners and just box it in with two extra sides.

    I dissolved an entire 70 foot hickory tree in 18 months with the help of leaves and grass clippings….Thing probably weighed 10,000 pounds.

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