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March 8, 2012 10:43 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I just bought a house and we negotiated for the previous owners to leave the seemingly unused compost bin. It's an Earth Machine. Composters of Metafilter, where do we begin?

How do you get started composting? What can/can't you put in it? We are both new to composting and are amateur gardeners. Prior to owning a home, we had a small and pathetic garden of potted plants that only fared marginally well and did not yield the bounty we had hoped (read: apartment living). We now have the space for a full-blown garden and we want the compost to be the best our little Earth Machine can muster. So tell us, Mefites, where do we begin?
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
In class we put everything but potato skins in compost. Egg shells, small bits of vegetables that aren't big enough to use for anything, stuff like that.

I've also heard that coffee grounds are pretty good to use, but I haven't tried it and don't know anyone who actually has.
posted by theichibun at 10:47 AM on March 8, 2012

Do put in: vegetable and fruit trimmings, overripe fruits you won't eat, coffee grounds, used tea bags, thoroughly rinsed eggshells, shredded newspaper (as long as you're fairly sure the ink is non-toxic), shredded paper grocery bags, leaves, grass clippings, healthy garden waste (chopped small).

Do not put in: meat, dairy, whole eggs, anything salty, weed seeds, diseased garden waste (like a blighted tomato plant or something).

Try to get a good mix of "green" material (food waste, fresh grass / leaves) and "brown" material (dried leaves and grass, shredded newspaper). I have a compost tumbler that I turn frequently so I can get away with 50/50 green and brown, but you will probably want to look up the recommendations for your specific container.

(BTW I do put potato peels in mine and it never seems to be a problem, but YMMV.)
posted by BlueJae at 10:55 AM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another potato peel composter here - we haven't had any problems in the heap or in the garden. Ditto for coffee grounds (cut up the filters and put them in, too.)

My mother-in-law has an Earth Machine-style bin, and has found (as we have w/our small heap and Envirocycle tumbler) that it helps to cut things into small pieces or shred - but not liquify - them before putting them in. I bought an old, beat up food processor at a thrift store for this, and it works well.

A short, cheap introduction with a lot of wisdom in it is Vic Sussman's Easy Composting. If you want more detail later, The Rodale Book of Composting is useful for reference.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:08 AM on March 8, 2012

Best answer: The mixture of nitrogen-rich ("green") and carbon-rich ("brown") materials is important. Too much green stuff and you'll have cold, slimy, smell rot instead of composting. Too much brown stuff and you'll have a barrel of dry brown stuff that just sits there. The balanced sweet spot is a pretty big target, though, so don't worry that you need a precise recipe.

The mixture also needs moisture and air. If it dries out, nothing will happen even if the green/brown mixture is right. Tumble it or toss the stuff around once in a while to keep it well-aerated.

I use a pile out in the open rather than any plastic container. Every fall I pile up a bunch of leaves chopped and gathered with my lawnmower. That's the brown stuff for the whole year. I then fold in grass clippings, garden waste and kitchen scraps as they become available. Kitchen scraps, btw, is just vegetable matter and egg shells - no meat, no dairy.
posted by jon1270 at 11:11 AM on March 8, 2012

Best answer: A great way to turn the compost in a small bin like that (we have one at my house) is with a Garden Weasel Claw - much easier than getting in there with a pitchfork or shovel.
posted by mskyle at 11:16 AM on March 8, 2012

Best answer: We have that exact composter and have been using it for a few years. Things I've noticed:

1) Be careful when using tools to turn the materials inside, one bad lick with the shovel/fork/claw and you might just crack the side/punch through. Not a good thing, we've been lucky but I've scared myself a time or two.

2) The door works great but after a year or so we were forced to pull the top segment off and grab the compost material from the opposite side of the composter that was slowly stealing our internal volume. This is a good time to use a lot of the material and start things over.

3) We started by putting down a layer of stainless chickenwire on the ground under where the composter would live. This was to 'keep out moles/varmints' and has proven a bit of a hassle and unnecessary (for us anyway). YMMV.

4) We compost our household kitchen waste (including small amounts of meat/bones/dairy), the stuff our dyson canister vacuum picks up, our lint from the dryer, and [sometimes] bits of cardboard and paper. It is located about 20 feet from our home and we've never had a problem with smell/things not breaking down (eventually, patience is key). That said, we don't eat meat much since we're half vegetarian and other half respectable/amicable to not eating much meat. I've found a good way to cheat, mostly since I'm awful at adding the brown materials and we have too much green material, is to add soil every so often, or just take compost from the bottom and start it again at the top. Our pile heats up sometimes, sometimes it doesn't. Patience is key, time cures all ills with compost.


5) A bit against the grain but when we first purchased the composter we went and got a bag of cheap cow manure and added it in. 4 bucks or so and it gave us a bit of mass to get started. Again, potentially completely unnecessary but worked for us. YMMV.

6) Count on losing/breaking the pegs/screws provided that hold it in place. This is not a big deal, see number 5 above.

7) I ran zipties holding the top and bottom halves together through the air vents. It was a "meh" solution. Didn't help much, didn't hurt any, made me feel better.

8) Remember the pile should be moist, so add water when it crosses your mind. Good use for rainwater if you can collect it. Also, smaller input = faster breakdown. Not necessary for you to dice things, but just a fact of the matter, although a few bigger things to provide airspace in the pile can also help, or so I hear. If you put in a half watermellon hull on monday, you're likely going to have a half watermellon hull staring at you for a bit. *shrug*

9) The vent settings on the lid have made zero difference to us whatsoever over the course of us owning the composter.

We're not trying to make ideal compost as much as cut down on our waste stream, that said we make ok compost for our victory garden. Like I said above, time cures all ills. You may not get it right, but it's pretty much impossible to get it wrong.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:58 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

We throw in all vegetable matter waste in our kitchen (carrot tops, onion skins, old fruit, banana peels, etc), pizza boxes, old bread, newspapers, grass clippings, whatever. We even throw in whole potatoes if they're bad. We have a rabbit, so we also throw in the contents of her litterbox (newspaper, hay, woodstove pellets and her pee and droppings, which are just vegetable matter themselves). We don't bother cutting anything up, and eventually it all breaks down and becomes compost. We don't water it because we get rain that takes care of that, but if your bin is enclosed you probably want to water it occasionally. It is really hard to get it wrong.

We just made a compost bin out of four wood pallets and some chickenwire, so we don't have the composter you do, but it's pretty much all the same, right?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:17 PM on March 8, 2012

You can also throw dryer lint in there!
posted by cooker girl at 12:23 PM on March 8, 2012

Yea, I should have said "don't compost dog/cat droppings" I have no idea about rabbit or other animal's feces. I'm guessing it would be fine/safe, if only because the volume of droppings going in is less of a percentage of the total volume. I've just always heard that composting dog and cat droppings took a bit of finesses/skill/temperature that most home composters don't possess.

If you do want some information on composting to make human-ure and/or what it would take to [safely] add your urine to the mix (lots of nitrogen there!), there's information out there on that subject as well, I'll avoid that as off topic for now.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:25 PM on March 8, 2012

Further nitpick, your title mentions worms being added, that's Vermicomposting and a bit of a different beast. From the organic farmers I worked with for a few semesters it makes some of the best stuff for organic planting there is. Basically, the 'you only need a pinch or two kind of good'. You shouldn't expect to see worms in your bin, or if so only at the bottom perimeter of your pile where it meets the ground. Ideally, your pile will be too hot to sustain worms. Ideally that is....
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:33 PM on March 8, 2012

For poop, use a digester.
posted by dhartung at 12:35 PM on March 8, 2012

dhartung: Seconded. If I had a chance to redo ours I'd use something larger than the 5 gallon bucket I have purposed for ours. But it works and has a lid, so *shrug*

OP, The mention of adding leaves/sawdust [from the video] if smells develop is a good one for both composter/digester.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:40 PM on March 8, 2012

Best answer: Community gardener here who helped rework the composting system for our garden. We have three composters similar to the Earth Machine (just squared off instead of round), with no rats and no stench. Here's what we learned:

* Our list of compostables is pretty much the same as BlueJae's. (One member keeps trying to add shrimp shells and fish bones but he's bonkers.)

* It's CRUCIAL to have a good balance of green and brown material. Otherwise you'll have a vile, stinking pile of rotting veg covered with maggots. So this is what we have everyone do:
- Dump in kitchen scraps, then use the spade to spread it out in an even layer.
- Cover the layer with brown stuff until the scraps aren't visible.
We make it easy to do these things: the spade is kept nearby, and we have a repository of brown stuff right there too. (We scavenged a playpen from the garbage and just fill it up with raked leaves; we also have an overflow that's just a turkey wire column.)

* Use a compost thermometer. When the temperature drops below the green area, stir things up with your WeaselClaw or whatever. Dig down as deep as you can and when you're done, add another layer of brown.

Result: Lots of excellent compost!
posted by dogrose at 12:44 PM on March 8, 2012

Can you use pine needles for the brown stuff?
posted by Four Flavors at 1:04 PM on March 8, 2012

I've had little luck with pine needles in any quantity whatsoever. Compared to oak leaves they're awful. Pine needles = better for mulch than for compost, in my opinion anyway.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:26 PM on March 8, 2012

Note: There is a difference between vermicomposting and hot composting.

If you're putting lawn waste in there, avoid walnut leaves. If you are putting workshop waste in there (i.e. sawdust and shavings) avoid walnut sawdust (and waste from treated lumber of course). Walnut is much like Roundup except that Roundup will biodegrade more quickly and walnut will spare walnuts.

A lot of things on the don't list are on the don't list because it takes a long time for them to sufficiently decay or because they generate quite a stink while doing it. Obviously this is not what you want if you're working with a small volume in an urban or suburban environment.

Hot composting will kill weed seeds.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:30 PM on March 8, 2012

There's a lot of good advice here, but I'll just pop in and say I screwed together four pallets and throw all my yard waste and almost all food waste in there, toss it around once a year with a pitchfork, and it's always about the same height. No smell, either. I'm not harvesting the stuff for a garden, just trying to keep stuff out of the county incinerator.
posted by look busy at 1:57 PM on March 8, 2012

I doubt you'll ever get a decent hot compost going in something as small as that Earth Machine, which is more of a mouldering composter. The instructions on Earth Machine's own site are a good place to start.

Vermicomposting is also much easier to do than to worry about. Assuming you're starting from empty, just keep throwing stuff in there and letting it rot for a few months to get a healthy crop of bacteria and fungi working on its innards, then throw in a pint of composting worms and see how they go. Worst possible case is that you kill a pint of composting worms and turn them into compost. Best case is that they thrive and mean you need to pay much less attention to keeping your bin's C/N ratio near optimum and/or turning its contents; once worms have got going, about the only thing you'll need to worry about is moisture (should be moist but not soggy; throw in a handful of dry leaves or shredded paper if too wet, or nothing but vegetable scraps for a few weeks if too dry) and temperature (make sure your bin is in deep shade).

Note that composting worms are not the same thing as the earthworms that will also come to visit your bin without you having to do anything at all. Earthworms will not spend much time in your bin, just visit it to eat and then spread composty goodness through all your nearby soil; composting worms will stay in the bin and chew everything up for you.

Backyard bins like the Earth Machine are good for people who don't really care about their compost but want something smarter to do with their household organic wastes than stinking up their rubbish bins. If you want to do proper hot composting - hot enough to kill weed seeds and pet poo parasites - make big compost piles.
posted by flabdablet at 10:38 PM on March 8, 2012

Kid Charlemagne, it's a generally true statement that hot composting will kill weed seeds, but I've read that many smaller home compost piles do not get hot enough to kill all seeds -- especially smaller piles of the sort you can keep in a container. And I've had personal experience with things sprouting on occasion. So that's why I avoid putting weed seeds in mine.

My compost in a compost tumbler gets pretty hot (plenty of mass, well balanced mix, black container, plus I live in St. Louis). I do actually put things with seeds / the ability to sprout in there (pumpkins, apples, the aforementioned potato peels, etc.). A lot of those are killed, but some weed seeds are tougher -- heck, there are weed seeds that evolved to specifically sprout after a fire. I have had the occasional sprout near the top when I've been lazy about keeping seeds out and also lazy about tumbling. It's not a big thing to deal with but I figure if you're just getting started it's a nuisance you don't need.

(I wouldn't go through garden waste with a fine toothed comb to prevent this, though. Any weeds that do sprout should eventually be killed as long as you turn it regularly.)
posted by BlueJae at 6:13 AM on March 9, 2012

Like I said, our Earth Machine gets hot enough to steam sometimes. More often, it doesn't. Results are still yummy to plants.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:47 AM on March 9, 2012

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