"Reboot" an inherited composter?
July 15, 2014 6:27 AM   Subscribe

The prior owners of our house--and in all likelihood, the owners before them--had a composter. When we bought our house, the composter was about half full with matter. Is it necessary to "reboot" the composter to begin using it, or should we just start with what's in there?

Our sellers had the house a couple of years, and they were not the kind to compost, I don't think--meaning that whatever's in there has been there for three years or so. And I have really no idea what is, in fact, in there. I popped the lid and it was brown and looked like it had been sitting there a long time, but didn't smell, or have things on the top layer that shouldn't be there. But I have no idea what lurks beneath! We'd love to start using right away and build on what's there, if possible (and not have to find a way to dispose of it), but I don't want to start aerating and find that Scarabic had been doing the composting.

And, since you're here, if you have any tips for restarting a compost pile or favorite composting resources, I'd love to hear them.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Home & Garden (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd mix the whole thing thoroughly (with a pitch fork, or whatever you've got handy) to aerate it and see what's there. I suspect you have a big old pile of "black gold" and you're good to go. You can use what's there and just pile new stuff on top.

I'm a super lazy composter, though...
posted by BrashTech at 6:36 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree, you ought to be good to go. If you want some insurance, you can mix in a bit of topsoil. This PDF from Cornell covers the basics pretty well. As they say, "compost happens" - stuff will decay given half a chance.

If you or someone you know is a homebrewer, spent brewing grains will get a compost pile going like nobody's business. My compost gets a regular diet of them and has earned the name "The Digestor."
posted by exogenous at 6:46 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would probably empty it and start over just because there's probably some great compost in there. Can you dig down a bit just to see what you have? If it's dry plant matter and not much soil, just water it thoroughly before starting and/or mix in some food scraps, so that it can get cooking again.

Funny, I was going to the same source as exogenous--they have a few more sheets here, and we've had pretty good composting luck using what we learned there even though we're lazy and rarely add enough brown stuff.

My personal tips: don't bother throwing avocado skins in; they seem to be made of sturdier stuff and come out of our bin whole. And two ways of dealing with a compost bucket in the house: one, throw some shredded newspaper in the bottom before you start every time, to absorb liquids before they get funky, or two, keep the container in the freezer and avoid in-house decomposition entirely.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:30 AM on July 15, 2014

It's really hard to mess up compost. Just throw stuff in there.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:21 AM on July 15, 2014

Do you have a pitchfork or other tool to turn it? I'm a pretty laissez-faire composter - I put leaves in it in the fall, grass clippings in the spring and fall, and vegetable scraps throughout the year - but if it were me just I'd dig in and mix it up good - see what you have. You can either get a medium-sized pitchfork or one of those things that looks like a walking cane with spikes or a corkscrew on the end, whatever seems like it would work best for you. (I have wire bins rather than a prefab composter, so I use a pitchfork.)

Check out local garage and yard sales for tools - when we bought our house we came across a wide variety of tools for cheap that way, which meant we didn't have to drop $20+ at Agway or Lowes on every tool we thought would be useful.

If when turned over and mixed up thoroughly it looks like dark rich soil (not too course, no big chunks or identifiable leaves, veggies, or plants, damp/rich but not wet/soggy), I'd say it's something you could use in new plantings / pottings now.

But if it's been left alone a long time it's probably cool and not actively "cooking" the way people aim for when they're in the midst of the process to get rich compost. So if it's really dry or has whole or partial leaves in it, or identifiable dried chunks of vegetables or fruits in it, then mix it up good and just use it as a starter for putting your own greens - veg scraps, some lawn clippings, maybe, but don't overload it with grass - into over the coming year, turning it every day or two when you add new material.

Good luck. I get a fair amount of satisfaction out of the compost we are able to use, particularly given the relatively minimal effort I put into dumping scraps in the bins and mixing them up every few days.
posted by aught at 9:02 AM on July 15, 2014

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