Composting 101
March 26, 2019 1:57 PM   Subscribe

I recently bought a house out in the country, and need to set up a compost area. Please give me your compost wisdom - what is the best way to set up bins (or should I use tumblers)? Are there reliable composting websites you love? Are there speedier or lazier approaches? Any secret to success in a very rainy (~80 inches per year) climate?

Property is about 4 acres, mostly wooded, some deer/elk, and I'm sure raccoons and rodents as well. There is no recycling/pickup of anything other than trash because it's far outside a metro (I drop off recycling at a collection point in the nearest town). But there is a lot of yard detritus from neglected pruning/weeding, and of course fruit/veg trimmings and peels - not much lawn. I have done vermicomposting before, but it was pretty cold here over the last few months and I think worms might not work unless there is some trick to keep them warm in winter. I like to garden, so want to get a good finished product. What are your magic composting tips and tricks?
posted by OneSmartMonkey to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Are you in Washington or Oregon? Many WA counties have Master Composter programs as well as Master Gardener programs. It looks like OR only has Master Gardener, but their Extension schedule right now is all about composting, so that looks like a way to go.

I do have compost wisdom, but like gardening wisdom it's pretty local in application, so my real advice is to learn from competent neighbors. Or from Extension.
posted by clew at 2:16 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I agree with clew but I'll tell you about my very lazy method. Two sections framed in wood, rabbit wire sides and the front panel comes off. Dump everything in one side for a season then in the other side for the next season. The first side gets used on the garden as needed but I do usually toss the the top, least decomposed layer onto the new side.
I also sometimes sift the compost into the wheel barrow to get rid of big stuff, sifter made from 1/2 inch wire cloth.
The piles should be a minimum of 3' x 3'. I throw in vegetable waste, grass clippings, bedding from a neighbor's rabbits, weeds from her pond, seaweed after a storm, egg shells and leaves. Weeds are fine but this pile doesn't heat up so weeds that have gone to seed aren't a great idea and I don't put in obviously diseased plants. Some leaves like oak take too long to break down so sometimes I have a separate pile that sits for a couple of years. And brush needs to be handled separately.
Don't worry about worms. They'll find the pile.
posted by Botanizer at 2:40 PM on March 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

If you have a lot of woody yard detritus you can always make a hugelkultur.
posted by stray at 2:45 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

We live on Oregon.
There is a wire circular cage set up, maybe 3 feet across. We fill it with kitchen scraps, wood chips, dead leaves, grass clippings. Even chicken heads dissolve in this. During mowing season, we can fill three or four of these in a mow around the property, but they will hot themselves right down within a very few weeks. Using the wire frame makes it very portable, so we can set one up wherever needed. Less hauling.

Small sticks and branches get used for hugelkultur beds.
posted by SLC Mom at 3:44 PM on March 26, 2019

We're on four acres in a rural area; our methodology is 'make a pile and occasionally add leaves or straw if it is smelly'. Then occasionally fork it over, scoop out whatever is at the bottom of the pile, and put it in the garden.

You can be neater about it, but in the country as opposed to an urban setting, a pile in the far corner of the yard is a-ok. I think an opossum ate a discarded pomegranate, and once a bear *sat* in it (it's toasty!) but otherwise, you're going to get a few critters here and there it's not a big deal. Part of the nice bit of living in the country--you're now a part of nature and you get to envision an opossum trying to figure out what to make of a pomegranate.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:38 PM on March 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

You want three bins, pretty much any place in North America. One for filling, and two for turning and tumbling.

I would generally advise chicken wire or hardware cloth and simple stakes to start out with a few rings or horseshoe enclosures. This is super cheap and will either work for many years or help your figure out where you need to be.

Most commercially available bins and tumblers will be far too small for your needs.

The more waste you anticipate, the larger they should be, but you should plan on them being equal sized for starters.

You also may want a fourth area with a framed screen for sifting, again depending on expected yearly input.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:54 PM on March 26, 2019

I am a lazy composter. I like Botanizer's method. Who wants to turn compost? What's the rush? When I lived in town, I had limited yard space. I used some wire fencing and just made a big circle, filled it with leaves and food scraps. I learned that leaves form a mat and may inhibit air flow, but they will break down. Citrus rinds can putrefy in a mat of leaves; I no longer compost citrus. 25+ years and I still remember that aroma. Otherwise, I just started a new heap every fall and used up the old heap in the spring. It got warm enough to melt snow. My idiot neighbor put a compost heap next to his garage and composted part of the garage.

I paid no attention to green or brown and trying to achieve an unlikely balance. Vegetation? Compost it.

My yard soil and grass had been in very poor shape and became much healthier. You know what that means? More mowing.

No animal products, they will attract critters. The compost may attract raccoons, who carry rabies but are fun to watch from a distance. I usually cover food waste with leaves. Dog shit requires high temp to be safe; I used to throw it on a bed that had increasingly lovely day lilies and irises but no food crops.

I'm in Maine, trees everywhere. The tree roots notice a nice source of nutrients and head for your compost, making it hard to dig up and put where you want. Putting down some wire fence or plastic is not a terrible idea. I scavenged a bunch of plastic storage tote lids that worked a treat. I usually start a new heap with the winter sticks and twigs that litter the lawn when the snow melts, that stuff will compost and also aerate the base.

You are keeping wet waste out of the trash stream(useful in my area, our trash goes to an incinerator), reducing the trash stream, enriching local soil. The worms will like it, the birds will like the worms. Thanks.
posted by theora55 at 5:38 PM on March 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

No animal products, they will attract critters.

Came here to say this - if rats or crows or seagulls are about, they'll root around for rotting animal proteins. I'd also be careful with the shit of anything that isn't vegetarian. Pretty much anything else goes in the pile. You really don't need to overthink it in a wet climate, if you've got the space just do the wire frame and keep adding to the pile, then dig the muck out of the bottom every season.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:12 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

There are some good books on composting. Let It Rot! is a classic, now in its third edition.
posted by Syllepsis at 8:46 PM on March 26, 2019

No animal products, they will attract critters.

But you're rural, so you want half a dozen chickens. Which for best health and egg production need high-quality, high-protein, high-fat feed. Which you can make endless amounts of by turning all your household food scraps into black soldier fly larvae. Those little buggers are voracious and they will eat pretty much anything faster than it can putrefy.

So that takes care of the food scraps. For garden waste, big metre-square enclosures per Botanizer will make hot compost piles that give you some chance of destroying weed seeds; it's hard to get that happening with small bins, which are in any case fiddlier to load up with garden waste. I like a rotating three-enclosure setup: one being loaded up, one actively hot composting and the third one maturing and feeding a huge population of worms.

If you want, you can get adventurous and go full circle of life.
posted by flabdablet at 4:46 AM on March 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is something I have thought a lot about and done a lot (albeit in a city), and Vic Sussman's short and dirt-cheap Easy Composting remains the best, most straight-forward single volume introduction I have come across.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:35 AM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

This year we're building three keyhole gardens, the centers of which are going to replace our existing compost pile.
posted by odinsdream at 8:54 AM on March 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

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