No more roast worms! Or worm-icicles, for that matter.
January 11, 2008 10:45 AM   Subscribe

My amazing awesome husband got me a composter! Yeah! Now what do I do with it?

I've only vermicomposted before, so the regular composting is new to me. I've looked at this and this, but have some questions specific to my zone/current weather. FYI, I live in central Jersey, which is zone 6b, avg. min. temp. range is 0 to -5 F.

1. Can I start composting in the winter? I have some leaves/vines/branches/newspapers/cardboard/kitchen scraps as the occur. Is this enough to get it started? What else should I throw in there?

2. If winter's not a good time to start regular composting, how about vermicomposting? Anyone have success vermicomposting using a regular composting bin?

3. Also, along that vein, any one have success keeping the worms warm enough outdoors during the winter in zone 6b or colder? Last time I vermicomposted, I was in Illinois, which was zone 5, and I had to bring my worms indoor in the winter. This really really freaks my husband out, and I prefer to keep the worms outside the house, since he was such a sweetheart to get me the composter in the first place.

4. If I go the vermicompost over winter route, how do I combine that with the "regular" composting I hope to start once the weather warms up? Will my poor worms die from being getting too hot? The type of composter I have has separate "bins". Can I reserve one the bins for the worms and the rest for regular compost?

5. Last question! If you've vermicomposted as well as regular composted, which would you say did a better job of creating compost? By better, I mean getting rid of kitchen scraps in the quickest amount of time, and quality of compost created.

posted by jujube to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Sure, you can put things in your composter in the winter. If they are frozen, they aren't going to compost, but it isn't going to hurt. Your composter may fill up pretty quickly, but you can always start another pile.

Just remember that you need some brown material (leaves, paper, etc.) and some green (food waste, grass clippings, etc.). Composters differ on the correct ratios of each, but you probably won't go wrong with half and half. Be aware that branches, unless they are very thin, are likely to take a few years to compost completely, so you might want to avoid putting them in your composter.

The bins on your composter are there so that you can turn the compost over by moving it from one bin to the other, which helps it compost faster.
posted by ssg at 11:01 AM on January 11, 2008

Yep, what ssg said -- remember that you want brown (carbon) + green (nitrogen), and more brown than green. Leaves are the best and most plentiful source of brown stuff.

If you have too much brown -- no problem. Green stuff (grass, food scraps) is the stuff that rots, and you want to keep it in a good ratio, otherwise your compost pile will start smelling like ammonia.

My best advice for you is to see if you can track down some chicken or horse manure. Add it to a pile of leaves, mix well, add some water (conventional wisdom says that you want your compost pile to be about as wet as a wrung-out sponge), and it'll get hot overnight.

I would say that if you want to do worm composting, by a worm composter and keep it separate from this composter. Local worms will find their way in to your compost bin, and they'll retreat into the ground if it's too cold for them. Don't buy red wigglers or whatever for your compost bin -- it's probably not an environment that's suited to them.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:24 AM on January 11, 2008

Best answer: What's important to composting: carbon to nitrogen ratio, aeration, moisture, temperature, size f pile.. Moisture is easy- compost should be as wet as a wrung out sponge. Depending on humidity, you may have to wet it down with a hose. Aeration- also pretty easy. The primary and secondary organisms that create the compost need air (bacteria, fungi, earthworms, mites, beetles, &c.). The more you turn your compost, the faster it composts, generally speaking. Texture helps with aeration as well; you want a mixture of coarse and fine pieces, because everything being too fine can lead to anaerobic conditions (and those decomposers aren't going to produce compost). Temperature: composting with the proper ratio of carbon to nitrogen will produce hot compost. It can help to have your compost in a warmer area as it will go faster, but you will get the reactions you need by careful attention to what you put in. Size of pile: since you've got a composter, you don't have much control over this, but 4x4' is considered optimum for home composters. Carbon to nitrogen (browns to greens): this is the important part. If you mix leaves plus vegetable food scraps at 1:1, you'll be OK. What's more problematic is adding things like cardboard or newspaper, as those have a really high carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio. If you add too much carbon, composting goes slower.

To answer your questions:

1) you can compost in the winter. Things will go slower unless your pile is big enough and has a good C:N ratio to maintain it's own temperature.
2)I don't know how cold it is where you live, but worms won't perform well if it's cold. Better to start a slow compost pile than to have a bunch of worms freeze.
3) I think most people move the worms into their garage at this point.
4) Worm composting is a different sort of process that just relies on the worms, rather than the whole slew of microorganisms and chemical processes in regular compost. So for optimal results, keep them separate.
5) It depends on what you're trying to compost. Worm castings are not the same thing as compost. Worms are pretty fast with food scraps, but a properly maintained compost can be finished in two weeks. Worms don't do cellulose and lignin as well as fungi do, so chopped straw goes faster in compost. What you end up with is used for different purposes.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:45 AM on January 11, 2008

Posibly too much info- just use this to figure out what common things you might compost will do to your pile. You don't have to go all crazy with math, although if you really want the formulas, I can look them up.

Here's a table of C:N ratios (second column)- you want to start with about 30:1, and the decomposers will bring your compost down to 10:1. It looks complicated, and you won't be using most of these things, but you can see that horse manure with a 30:1 ratio to begin with is a material that pretty much composts by itself. Vegetable wastes with 11:1 tell you that you can add something like leaves at 40-80:1 to have a quick compost. If you look at corrugated cardboard with it's 563:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio, you can see that you would only ever want to add this in small amounts, unless you have a huge amount of something much lower.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:55 AM on January 11, 2008

Best answer: 1] Yes, you can. Composting will be slower in the winter, but it will eventually work. Leaves and vines should be OK, but branches are a no-no. They will take ages to rot down, unless they're chipped, and even then they'll take a couple of years. Newspapers should rot down quickly, particularly if they've been used as pet bedding. Either shred or scrunch them if you can - try to avoid a "layer" of newspaper. Kitchen scraps are fine, but don't add meat, fish or dairy. They will rot down, but they'll also attract rats. Look into Bokashi composting if you have lots.

2] I've always found vermicomposting to be an expensive waste of time. Perhaps it's just me, but I find the worms don't eat enough, are expensive and are fussy about things like temperature and pH. It's preferable to get them their own kind of bin, so you can draw off the valuable liquid waste that they produce. They *can* produce compost in a normal bin, but any kind of "upright" bin isn't really ideal. The kind of worms you get in a worm composter are surface feeders. They do way way better in a big shallow tray rather than a upright cylinder. Think saucer rather than cup. In a wormery, you only have a few inches at the top being worked at any one time. Fill it up too quickly, and the waste under those few inches just rots, which tends to kill the worms off, in my experience.

3] I'm not familiar with USA Zones, but wrapping the wormery in carpet is usually advised. I once had an entire wormery die overnight during a cold spell. Another reason I'm not fond of them. Bubble wrap, cardboard, carpet, etc, are all good insulators, but don't forget that they can keep cold in as well as out. If your wormery gets down to zero degrees, it's going to take a lot longer to warm back up again with all that stuff round it, and you might not realise that it's frozen solid.

4] Don't try to mix your worms with your compost bin. They won't like all the disturbance that a compost bin entails, and it will probably get too hot for them. The kind of worms you get in a compost bin are different to vermicompost worms.

5] I've worm composted, ordinary composted, and bokashi composted. The bokashi wins hands down. It's ready to dig into the garden in 2 weeks, and it rots down very quickly. A bonus is that it can handle meat and fish, which ordinary composters can't, and wormeries don't handle very well.
posted by Solomon at 1:02 PM on January 11, 2008

Another thing: Turn your compost about once a week. I use a spading fork. This keeps the compost aerated and distributes the good bacteria. After you turn it, make sure there are no food scraps on the surface. They can mold and/or attract unwanted pests if they're not nestled happily in the pile of leaves.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:42 PM on January 11, 2008

hehe, how timely. I gave my wife a composter five years ago as a christmas present and it didn't go down too well. There were other presents of course, but the composter was the bulkiest, and seemed to sear itself into her mind at the epitome of inappropriateness.

It was also my daughter's first christmas, so we videoed her attempting to open gifts, being cute etc.

Ever since my wife has not failed to mention the composter whenever anyone mentions a gift, the word "give", christmas, or when she tells me what a crappy husband I am.

In the last few months my wife seemed to be getting over this bane of her existence, and I certainly enjoyed the christmas just past with only scant reference to the composter, that was until Wednesday night, when I stupidly discovered a video of our daughter as a baby.

We watched her having her first bath, first step, hassling the old cat, then her first christmas, and there in the background was the fucking composter. Now it's as if I just gave her the composter all over again.
posted by mattoxic at 6:30 PM on January 11, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone!
Mattoxic--sorry the composter wasn't such a hit with your wife. To each her own, I guess. :)
posted by jujube at 11:55 AM on January 14, 2008

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