Composting for Dummies
May 6, 2013 4:08 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to start composting... I think. I am lazy and I am worried about vermin. What style of composter do I need? Any special tips for buying/getting started with a system?

The goal, not suprisingly, is to use our kitchen waste and grass/leaf waste for something besides the trash bin, and in doing so, to provide some nutrients for the containers and (small) planting beds in urban yard: flowers and some veggies. We are a family of 3.

We live on a city alley, and I am worried about rats, so I assume that means I want an enclosed composter as opposed to an open bin. I have space in a shady, cool (ok, it's dank) under-deck area as well as a sizeable spot alongside a deck in partial sun that could work. I have neighbors that would be thrilled to benefit from any extra output. Oh, and yes, I am lazy.

Do I want a rotating "tumbler" composter? Vermicompost? Any strong recommendations or "stay away from" brands/links for the composter and/or a starter kit? If I can buy the unit and/or any required accessories online all the better.

I'm wondering if the urban organic gardening fad has created/encouraged some new options or best practices since this Previous Question.
posted by nkknkk to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
We got one of these tumblers in our yard and it works well. Reasonably easy to assemble, no odor when closed. The only animals that found a way in initially were ants but they went away once the material started heating up.

We did end up buying a straw bale for a couple of bucks because our waste was too wet on average and we needed to mix in some dry material. Other than having to do that we're happy with it.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 5:17 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone who tried both, I found much greater success using my home grown worm bin then my tumbler. My tumbler at this point is nothing more then storage for scraps that haven't made it into my vermicompost bin yet. It simply takes too long for it to start up again during the nice months and bottoms out too fast in Minnesota winters. For less then $40 (including the worms), I made a 80 gallon tub that acts as my composting bin. During the winter, I throw it in my garage with a towel over it and the worms go to town all winter. I just followed these directions and bought some redworms from Uncle Jim's. The rest of the materials were bought from a local hardware store when the Christmas bins went on sale.

I currently have it sitting outside in my small yard but before that it was on my small city deck, and while occasionally I would find a worm or two crawling out - it was never overly nightmarish. There is a ton of literature online about it and I would recommend reading about it but the most important things I've found out so far, is the wet bedding is critical, worm poop apparently becomes toxic to them after a while so it is important to rotate the remove the stuff after a while, and finally limit the citrus you put in the bin as worms can't easily digest the stuff. I believe rot composting has a ratio to limit smells of something like 25:1 carbon:nitrogen ratio which is a ton of paper to keep up with the amount of kitchen scraps being added. With worm composting, you don't have this - I bought a few Sunday papers when I began and add some cardboard occasionally. I've never had a problem with any type of vermin, but it is important to note that you must keep any meat or dairy products out of the compost including bones or fat. Everyone that I know that had vermin thought it would be alright to put some meat, fat or dairy in the compost. My general rule is that if it's even come into contact with either, it doesn't go in - like I said, I've never had a problem so is this the key or have I just had good luck? I'm not really sure.

I would read both of these for to gain an idea of both types, small batch and vermicomposting.
posted by lpcxa0 at 5:49 PM on May 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

We live in a city apt. w/limited gardening and yard space and, after some experimenting, have settled on bokashi composting*. A year and a half in, it's working very well.

We used an Envirocycle tumbler for ~2 years, but were never able to get it to produce anything like finished compost. Even after sitting for months, what came out of the tumbler still need a month+ in the ground to fully decay, and no planting could be done in the space during that time. It was also a struggle to keep it aerated w/out it becoming waterlogged during storms.

The bokashi compost is ready to go into the ground in 6 weeks, and you can plant on top of it 2 weeks after burying it. It has the added advantage of having very little smell - our system is two sealed 5 gallon buckets that sit underneath our kitchen sink. You can also compost meat scraps, dairy, etc., since the buckets are sealed and the microbes very quickly begin to break them down and mask any smell that will attract vermin. The small added cost of the bokashi meal has been well-worth the speed and convenience.

I recommend picking Vic Sussman's Easy Composting and Stu Campbell's Let it Rot, both short overviews of traditional composting that will get you oriented, and can be had very cheaply used.

*We bought our buckets and bokashi meal from bokashcycle, but there are other options out there.

posted by ryanshepard at 5:56 PM on May 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

I also live on a city alley, have a small backyard garden (practically a tiny farm at this point), and am super lazy. Here's my secret! The extent of my composting practice consists of... chucking all of my compostables into a smaller version of this (basically a ventilated box).
I've done this for the past three years, turning it by hand with a pitchfork every 1-2 months, and adding newspaper, shredded paper bags, or straw if it starts to get too wet or if it starts to smell. It has never attracted any kind of animal vermin (but I keep a brick on top just in case), it drastically reduces the amount of waste my household contributes to landfills, and beautiful, rich, nutritious plant noms/black gold pours out of the bottom whenever I open the little bottom door. In my experience, you'll figure out the right way to do it pretty fast.

So I say, find a box and start your pile! I have no complaints about the "throw it on the pile" method even though it would probably make your average master gardener shudder. The composter has also grown to encompass a nice healthy ecosystem of neat bugs and, seasonally, wriggly earthworms that emerge with the warm weather to help to break down the larger food bits. In the house, I keep a ceramic crock with a lid to store kitchen waste and then just toss its contents into the outdoor bin once a day. Everything compostable just gets dumped on top of the pile in winter, with no turning during the freezing months; everything rapidly breaks down once it starts to get warm.

I can't tell, based on the available spaces you listed, if one/all of them would have dirt on the bottom. I would definitely recommend having open dirt/grass underneath your composter, so all of the liquid can drain out of the holes in the bottom rather than sit and fester on hot concrete. The best spot for a composter is just someplace warm on top of dirt, direct sunlight is great but part sun would be good, too.

As mentioned above, no meat, no dairy, no oils or fats. Unless it's steamed plain, don't put any cooked food in there. No weeds or plant material from the garden unless you're 100% sure it's completely free of any disease. Coffee filters and grounds, tea and tea bags, paper towels, leaves, straw -- all that stuff is great in addition to fruit and veg. Thoroughly scrub and break down citrus peels and banana peels before you throw them in; otherwise they'll take FOREVER to compost. I'm vegan so I don't use them, but eggshells are really great for compost and just crunched up and put directly into your garden soil as well (some people swear by planting their tomatoes into dirt filled with eggshells, as the calcium supposedly prevents blossom end rot). Here's a great guide to composting for beginners.

Have fun!
posted by divined by radio at 6:42 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

We are a family of four and I use something simple like divined by radio. I chuck all veggie and fruit waste into it, but no meat, fats, bread, rice. I do put citrus, but we don't eat a lot of it. The only vermin are squirrels, who try and get in in the winter - I'm in zone 5 and things are pretty cold so the compost looks attractive in winter. I keep a pile of leaves next to it to alternate with green waste, and have also used shredded newspaper. I try and stir once in a while but I'm lazy. Ok, I don't really stir much. By the end of winter the bin is full, but with the thaw it drops down a bit. Every spring I rip the whole thing apart, take out all the slime until I get down to the compost. It end up being about half the bin. I put it on my veggie garden and then throw the slime back in and keep layering. Sometimes there will be a sweet rotting smell in the heat, but I just throw in more leaves/newspaper to stop it.

I've been doing this for the last 5 years and it works great and my veggie garden loves it. It has been pretty painless.
posted by Cuke at 7:03 PM on May 6, 2013

+1 for bokashi. We've been doing this for a couple of years now. A bokashi bucket that's about 1' square by 2' high (I think this is a standard size?) will take us about 2-3 months to fill with kitchen scraps, and this includes dairy, egg & meat products, as well as acidic things (onion, citrus) that worm farms can't handle.

Once it's full, I pour the smelly, pickled goop into a shallow hole in the ground & cover with dirt, where it quickly turns into useable nutrient-rich soil.

While the bucket is filling up, each time you top it up you drain off from the tap a bit of the juice, which you can dilute in a watering can & use it to improve the microbiology of your soil. Or just tip it down a drain or flush down the toilet. The marketing literature says it's great for improving the micro-environment in drains, but I can't say that's ever been high on my list of household concerns.

The bucket is completely sealed (it needs to be anaerobic) so vermin are not an issue. Not even insects.

A bag of microorganism-impregnated bran costs us around $10 and lasts months, a handful at a time with every topup.

Note that the juice & fermented goop have a terrible smell, a bit like very concentrated & acidic vomit, but this is only really an issue for the few minutes it takes to bury a batch in soil. If your garden is enclosed, you'll want to water any diluted juice in thoroughly.

For a point of comparison, we have a worm farm as well. Worm tea & castings are useful substances, but the worm farm itself is almost useless as a kitchen scrap disposal device. They just can't eat stuff even a fraction fast as you can create it.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:54 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

My experience has been that vermicomposting is good for kitchen waste but not yard waste. My worms can't take on too much at once and won't eat some things if they grow mold on them, so giving too much at once can cause problems. I have a Worm Cafe but have never graduated past one tier because the worms seem to work so slowly. I put about 1 small pail of scraps in there a week but it never gets high enough for the worms to climb up into a higher chamber. If I do any more than one pail, the scraps just pile up uneaten. Perhaps I am doing it wrong. I sadly still throw a lot of veggie scraps out because my worms don't seem to be able to keep up.

Worms are sensitive to temperature (like Goldilocks) so the shady area might be good but not sure how things work in colder areas in the winter. My worms seemed to get very slow during our mild California winter.
posted by dottiechang at 7:56 PM on May 6, 2013

I compost with worms in a Rubbermaid tub with 1/2" holes drilled around the top edge and a few on the bottom for drainage. It stays in our garage on a couple of bricks in a concrete pan during the winter, and moves outside to a shady place in the yard in the summer.

All year long I feed it kitchen waste (yes, no meat or dairy) and when the bin looks "low" (i.e., like most of the material has been worked through by the worms) I add a bag of shredded paper from my office.

Each fall and spring, I dump the whole thing in a flower or garden bed. I take a shovel full off the top and put it back in the bin, add a bag of shredded paper from my office on top, water it a bit, and start all over. The worms in the shovel of "starter" multiply like crazy.

I also compost in a wire ring - no worms in this one. Layer green and brown waste, and here's what really gets it cooking: a heavy sprinkle of rabbit pellets (or any form of alfalfa) every few layers. It gets HOT. I check the temperature every few days until it begins to cool down some, then I turn it and give it a little water if it seems dry. I can get another batch of dark brown goodness for my garden during our short summers. In fall when I clean out the garden and flower beds, I put anything large or woody through the shredder (garden variety, not office!) and layer it brown/green in wire ring. This stuff doesn't cook much before it freezes, but starts up again when it warms up in the spring.

I love what it does for my garden and flower beds! Worms Eat My Garbage is a good beginner's guide.
posted by summerstorm at 10:53 PM on May 6, 2013

I have no complaints about the "throw it on the pile" method even though it would probably make your average master gardener shudder.

I'm not a master gardener, but the lazy man's compost (pile in a corner, forget about it) is a time-honored alternative that does work (it just takes longer). The main reason for speeding up the process is because you need the compost for fertilization, or perhaps you have a problem like smell.

Really, this is dead easy. You just start from there and work your way up based on what you need, or what problems you observe. I know I don't get the browns/greens mix right, I know my pile only nominally drains, I know it never heats up the way a really active compost pile "should", and the only worms it ever gets are those that I encounter randomly during other tasks -- but I still end up with a nice, black compost that I can use to augment the lawn. If I could get it to go faster I might add the occasional bag of lawn clippings (mostly blade-mulched as it is) or a portion of autumn leaves.
posted by dhartung at 11:39 PM on May 6, 2013

I've always done like what divined by radio suggests. I just keep organic stuff in a small plastic tub inside and chuck it out when it gets full or stinky. Occasionally I would add in some handfuls of shredded paper (free from the office) and the worms take care of the rest. Our heap was REALLY fast in breaking down things and I think it was because of the large amount of worms that crawled up and ate everything. We havent put anything in it for 8 months so we can scoop out all of the nice rich compost, but as soon as we've made our way through it we are starting right up again. As far as an idea of yeild, we had two people putting stuff into it for a few years and were able to get probably 200 Liters of good compost.
posted by koolkat at 5:29 AM on May 7, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks all! If you're just doing the "pile it in a corner" thing don't you get rats or opossoms? I understand that keeping meat, dairy, etc out of the pile will cut down on that, but the homes along our alley (including me) just coordinated an anti-rat effort with the city so the last thing I want to do is provide a vermin snack shack.
posted by nkknkk at 6:25 AM on May 7, 2013

As far as Rats and the like I think we put a wire mesh underneath it to keep the rats out, and the cats would rather enjoy when the rats got trapped in the wire mesh. (I think it was a big gauge 1cm square wire mesh) There are still rats around, but once you get a good pile of dirt at the bottom they tended to go for the food left out in the garbage from the students on the other streets.
posted by koolkat at 6:47 AM on May 7, 2013

Living on an alley in a super-densely packed urban area where I see rats quite frequently, not to mention tons of freaky "FYI, this alley has been treated with rat poison! Hope you're not walking your dog here or anything!"-type signage, I've honestly never had any sort of animal try to get into my compost bin, from rats to possums to raccoons to squirrels. The absolute worst garden pest problem I have is that the sparrows that live in my lilac tree will not stop stripping the leaves off of my pea seedlings. This model is almost identical to what I have, except my bin is 50 gallons instead of 65 (and it's never even gotten close to full, albeit in a household of two).
I definitely wouldn't make my urban compost heap in an uncovered pile (I have neighbors who do this, unfortunately) or even one of those open-air wire bins -- having a fully-enclosed, opaque container is what I think keeps the beasties out.

I don't think they've ever even tried to get in, because my dog is hypersensitive to noises like that coming from outside and would have totally flipped out if he ever heard it, but I do keep a single brick on the flip-top lid of the composter box as well as one in front of the bottom door during compost harvesting season, just in case. Nothing has ever tried to dig under my bin, but if you're worried about protection from burrowing, yes, definitely get a bit of thick chicken wire mesh on the bottom; you can also staple it up onto the sides of the bin for an extra layer of protection.
posted by divined by radio at 9:22 AM on May 7, 2013

I composted for the three years that I had a garden using compost bins. The key to keeping rats out of your compost is to keep it just a bit wetter than a sponge. I had both rats and mice in mine when I let it dry out but they left in a hurry when I kept it wetter. Particularly if I used 'compost activator'

Here is my advice:

Don't bother with biodegradable kitchen caddy bags - they are usually just ordinary bags (which are now biodegradable) and take about 2 years to break down.

Put lots of cardboard and tissues in with your compost as a way to balance the green with the brown if you don't have piles of leaf mould. Otherwise you will ended up with really stinky gross green slop.

Mix in some regular yard earth to get the worms and bacteria in there to start reactions off.

I added 'compost activator' ( a well rinsed out milk jug of pee) to my compost about twice a month.

Aeration is important if you want it to breakdown quicker. The more you aerate (poking or tumbling) the faster things will break down.

Twigs take forever to break down. If you really must put them in cut them into about two inch pieces.

Lawn cuttings are okay but you have to mix it with other stuff otherwise it will just suffocate your pile and slow things down even more.

Leaves do better if you make leaf mould out of them instead - just bag them up and put some holes in the bags and leave them for a year.

You will get less compost then you probably expect. It amazed me how much the process reduced the volume. About 1 or 2 thirds of our garbage went into the composters but in three years I only emptied out about half a compost bin. Mind you this was from two composters just on top of dirt. So this is something worth doing more for the garbage reduction than soil improvement.
posted by srboisvert at 5:46 PM on May 7, 2013

My boss has an open compost bin (imagine 4 slatted pallets in a square) and has had lots of problems with rats and mice. I bet chicken wire would help a lot.
posted by dottiechang at 10:46 PM on May 7, 2013

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