do you compost? novice needs advice

When it comes to being green, I try my darnest to be smart about not wasting things: LED lightbulbs? Check. Reusable grocery bags? Check. Eco-friendly cleaners? Check… Compost bin? … Um, compost bin? Okay, I confess. This is one green thing that I know we should be doing but I just haven’t yet made plunge to saving our organic scraps and making better soil for our garden. I know it’s easy and makes sense, but somehow changing our “everything goes in the garbage” habit has been a tough one.

This new Eco-Bin Composter might be the thing to push me towards productivity. It seems insanely easy. Its collapsible, spring-loaded design means that when it’s not use it won’t take up a ton of space in our garage or basement. It has an open bottom so worms can get up in there and do their thing. The sturdy mesh allows air in for faster decomposition, but it’s puncture proof. It comes with a lid and you can tie it down to an anchoring stake so it won’t blow away. Best of all, it’s only $40.

But here are some of my concerns; maybe some of you compost aficionados can alleviate them for me?
1. Won’t it smell? Our back yard is small and I’m worried about stinking up a corner.
2. Won’t it attract critters? We have raccoons, groundhogs, possum.. not to mention our dog!
3. It is only accessible from the top, how do you get to the good stuff down at the bottom, without making a mess?
4. Do I need counter-top container for gathering kitchen scraps?

Are you a backyard composter? Please let me know what lessons you’ve learned and what products you recommend for getting started. Soon we’ll be gathering piles of fallen leaves in our yard, so I figure it’s a good time to get started. Thanks!

Related:
Zero-Waste Kitchen: Could You Live Like This?

ginny

Angela, I used to compost with my own composter. Now the city of Portland does it for me. If we didn’t have baby diapers, I think we’d have one bag of trash every two weeks. I love diverting food waste from the garbage! That small compost bin looks great, but I agree that it makes getting at the soil at the bottom rather difficult. Our backyard composter never smelled. The key is having a balanced mix of grass clippings, leaves and food scraps. It’s super easy. And once you start, you get sort of excited to hull corn and peel potatoes. :)

dianne

The only smell you get is the smell of great soil – seriously! I’ve used all sorts of bins, and I’ve also just dug a small hole in the ground and tossed stuff in. The only problem I’ve ever had with animals is with squirrels who stole apple cores and pieces of jack-o-lantern. Just make sure you don’t add citrus, oil or animal parts and occasionally add a shovel full of dirt. My dad swears that dumping in a can of bear once a month is a must. I have friends who empty their vacuum into theirs and also their dryer lint.

dianne

Sorry -
Make that a can of beer. I don’t think you can get a can of bear. :)

1. Most compost doesn’t smell. Sometimes right after a rain ours will smell a little earthy. Never rotten. Rotten is bad and a sign that something bad has happened. If it does smell like garbage, add straw or dried grass or shredded newspaper pronto.

2. Avoid putting meat/dairy in it and for the most part it won’t attract pests, either, though I have no direct experience of groundhogs. Raccoons shuffle around in the top of ours maybe once every couple of years and then leave it alone. Our two dogs are uninterested. We let the chickens have full access and they dig enormous holes but not much else.

3. To get the finished compost out of a top-access bin, you take a pitchfork and turn out the new stuff into a second bin (there’s that second bin thing again) until you get down to the good stuff. You may need to sift the good stuff to get unfinished bits out.

I’m not sure about that container. It looks pretty flimsy, like getting speared with a pitchfork would destroy it. And unless you just don’t live in your house for part of the year you’ll have a compost bin going all the time, anyway, even if you are not adding to it. If you’re not super diligent about proportioning and turning and all that, compost takes a while. If you are, you will need more than one bin so you have one you’re finishing while you add scraps to another. I am not diligent about that sort of thing at all. I get four cubic yards of compost from my garden piles every year, and I don’t have the energy to try to speed them up. I’m a lazy composter; I like to just let things rot on their own time and with as little effort on my part as possible. Turns out things like to rot, so it works out well.

When people want to get started with composting, I generally recommend they get a cheap trash can and drill 1/2″ holes all over it. Low cost, low commitment, and if you like it getting more is really easy. I have about six of that type of bin in my garden.

4. We use a little bucket to gather scraps in the kitchen, but a bowl would work as easily, no need for a special container. You want to take things outside promptly to avoid attracting fruit flies.

DJ

You don’t want the pile to get too wet, because it will smell badly then… but usually, there is no odor. Be sure to bury new stuff you add, not just leave it on top uncovered. Don’t dump meat or dairy into the compost. I used to also compost the leavings from my rabbit’s litter box. The compost pile would really heat up and it was fun to have all these things turn to soil.

Kate

I found rats and mice kept getting into my compost even though I limited what I added: now I put chicken wire down on the ground first so that they can’t dig their way in (but worms can!) and a few barrier bricks around the outside of the base for good measure. Other commenters have already given the excellent advice to add leaves etc – you need a good carbon to nitrogen ratio so for all the ‘green’ stuff you throw in the compost you’ll need to find a good quantity of ‘brown’ stuff (leaves, mulch, tired soil, dried lawn clippings etc). I treat one of my compost bins as a giant worm farm and just throw in soil on top of each contribution from the kitchen and that works quite well too.
You’ll be surprised at how large a kitchen scrap bucket you’ll need even if you empty it daily! Happy composting.

miriam

Instead of a kitchen scrap bucket, consider using a gallon size ziploc bag that you keep in the freezer. When it gets full, just dump the frozen scraps on the pile. Voila–no smell, no mess, and no one has to see your fruit and veg trimmings in between trips to the compost bin!

The nice thing about the freezer option is that the freeze/thaw cycle helps break down your waste. The not so great thing is that you have to use up freezer space for waste. Unless your compost is a great distance away (I used to do this when I had a pile at a community garden 4 miles from home), it’s usually just easier to carry it outside as you generate it.

Molly

I’m not the greenest person around, but I actually find composting to be kind of fulfilling, seeing your old fruits and vegetables turn into something useful — and for free, once you get the start-up costs out of the way.

We have a basic square compost bin I purchased from Sam’s Club a few years ago. I have mixed feelings about it. It does have a sliding door on one side so you can stick your trowel in and get a small scoop of compost. It doesn’t make mixing easy though, so for our next bin, I’m considering getting a spinning one to help speed the process up a bit.

I wouldn’t recommend getting a countertop bin. I spent a decent amount of money on a stainless steel version with a carbon filter, even though our bin is approximately 25 steps away from our kitchen. I’d use the countertop bin, but would wait to empty it….and then I’d have a smelly, juicy, moldy bin that attracted gnats and fruit flies. I quit using it, since it’s so much easier to just walk outside and clean out one bowl than it is to deal with that hot mess.

I too have reservations about that bin. We keep a countertop bin with a charcoal filter and empty it every other day into a pile in the back yard and have not had any problems with dogs or other critters getting in. We have 2 piles in the yard..one that’s receiving scraps etc..and one that’s “cooking” – once you have it to a certain point, you want to leave it alone for 6 weeks to break down. It’s very rewarding to feed your plants for free with your own waster that didn’t end up in a landfill.

Mary S

I will say that the year I did my own compost my plants did AMAZING. I had a neighbor then and we shared the yard, and the difference between his plants and mine was hilarious — it was like a commercial for composting, mine looked so much better.

Diane

It shouldn”t smell if it doesn’t get too wet, and if you avoid putting any meat or dairy in it.

It helps if you can stir it all up once in a while. But I agree with you that this particular design makes it look difficult to get out the fully composted material. It looks to me as if you need to fill it maybe 3/4 full, keep stirring it, and then don’t add anything to it. Then, once it’s all composted, you could empty it and begin anew.

We had several rabbits and were able to compost their leftover hay, and litter box leavings. But you can’t do the same with dog or cat feces, because it carries things that can be bad for people.

Problems with fruit flies hovering the compost pile can be remedied by covering the exposed “trash” ( e.g fruits or vegetable) which these fruit flies are attracted to. You can use a pile of grass clippings to cover the exposed fruit or vegetable. You can also add lime or calcium to drive away these fruit flies.- Kirsten

CAB

I love my compost pile!!! I lucked out when I snagged a huge, wooden, two section compost bin on Craigslist. The guy had built it for his wife and she didn’t want it. Perhaps she wanted flowers for her birthday instead?? ) I am on my third year of making compost. In the fall I shred tons of leaves with my electric leaf shredder (another Craigslist find). I keep bags of them behind my bin. My compost is made with layers of the shredded dried leaves and UNCOOKED kitchen waste. I keep a white, 5 gal. covered plastic pail in my kitchen (Home Depot $3.95) for our uncooked kitchen scraps and daily coffee grounds.
It is amazing how it NEVER smells so I only carry it out to the bin when it is full. If the weather is reasonable and the snow isn’t too deep, I add a layer of shredded leaves from the stored bags every so often. In the summer I occasionally turn the compost with a garden fork. My advice is to not get too intimidated by all the advice out there. Composting doesn’t need to be complicated!