Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How to Start Composting

Three people have asked me about composting this year, which gives me hope that it's catching on.  I think a lot of people, when they first get curious about composting, read some description online or in a book, of a long and complicated process of layering browns and greens and finished compost (where exactly does one get that first batch?), carefully watering to achieve the oft-repeated "wrung-out sponge" moisture content, then stirring faithfully once a week.  Not to mention the amounts of money that you can spend on bins, kick-starters, kitchen buckets (with filters), and just the right kind of worms.

It's really not that hard.  Some of you are composting right now in your refrigerators!

Here is Shaela's busy mom foolproof composting method:
  1. Get a container.  Arguably not necessary, but I said foolproof, and foolproof works better with a container.  Mine is a set of 3 stacking squares made from ordinary 2x12 boards.  The bigger your pile, the warmer the pile will stay, but bigger bins are more work to move around and can be more...conspicuous.  I like bins with open bottoms, set on soil so insects and worms can move in and out freely.
  2. Fill it about 90% full with "browns" - leaves, shredded paper, straw, hair clippings, natural cloth.
  3. Add some soil.  A few shovelfuls will be plenty for even a large container.
  4. Put a jar or bowl in your kitchen and use it to collect "greens" - non-meat, non-dairy edible scraps like eggshells, potato peels, apple cores, coffee grounds, or rotten veggies from the crisper drawer.  You can put the jar or bowl in the fridge for longer shelf life and to deter insects.
  5. When your bowl is full or the bottom starts to accumulate water, dump it in your compost bin, then cover the scraps up with the surrounding brown material.  Add browns if necessary to completely cover the greens.  Don't worry if there is a mild smell when you first dump the greens in - it will fade in a few hours.
  6. A few times a year, stir by moving all the material out of and then back into the bin.
  7. When compost is finished is a very subjective question.  If it looks like chunky dirt (maybe even with a few leaf clumps here and there) you can call it done.  The longer you wait, the more nutrients the compost will lose.*  I usually find that my compost is done when I need it to be done.  Once it's done hold off on adding more scraps to the pile for a couple weeks.
  8. If you want that smooth, even consistency of store-bought compost, shovel it through a screen and put any large chunks back into the bin.
  9. Marvel at the magic and mystery.

 If you do it this way, it won't get stinky, it won't attract flies or rodents, and it won't be overgrown by weeds.

*Note: you may read elsewhere about underdone compost burning plants because it has too much nitrogen in it, or temporarily robbing the soil of nitrogen as the excess browns decompose further.  I can only say that neither of these things has ever been a problem for me.


  1. We compost in the landlord's compost container, but no one is very good about covering the food scraps. As a result, it's a jungle - many fruitflies and fat lizards. Also, rats and possums. But that's not so bad, because the compost is far from the house, plus South Florida is filled with wildlife to begin with, so the pile just concentrates them.

  2. Renee Michelle I still miss your veggie scraps, but I'm actually happy to think about them sustaining Floridian lizards. Though it's hard for me to imagine a FAT lizard?!!