Composting Techniques for Anyone

Compost bins can be made of repurposed materials, like these pallets.

Composting doesn’t have to be difficult, nor does it require a strong back, large acreage, livestock waste or expensive bins. Even apartment-dwellers or those with physical limitations can put their kitchen waste to work. The following are composting techniques from the simplest to the most strenuous.

The easiest method of using kitchen waste and thin paper goods is to bury them. Each day gather your kitchen waste and choose a spot near a plant, dig a small hole with a trowel, plop in the food waste and cover it up. You’ve just fed your microbes, which will feed your plants, and it took maybe five minutes if you didn’t have to look for the trowel. You may also acquire some surprise volunteer vegetables the next season. If you have difficulties with animals digging up compost, then sprinkle cayenne pepper over the dirt, or cover the area for a few days.

If digging is out of the question, use your blender. Remove bones, large pits and tough plant stalks at which your blender might balk. Place peels, plate scrapings, tissues, paper towels, leftover beverages, etc., add water to fill the container, and blend away. A watery consistency is best. Pour this wonderful soil food around your plants; even your potted plants will love it. A dose of blended compost will last potted plants for months, so don’t overdo it; your soil microbes can only eat so much. If pouring it in the garden, you can be more generous. If your batch is thick enough to leave a bit on the soil surface and you’re afraid of attracting flies, then kick some dirt over the top. Simple.

The next step up is cold composting, which is throwing your biodegradable waste into a stationary, closed compost bin. Without being turned this compost won’t heat up much, and if you don’t layer the fresh stuff such as kitchen waste (nitrogen source) with dirt, dry leaves or dry grass (carbon source), then it will probably smell and attract flies and rodents. It will, however, gradually turn into decent compost, which is usually raked out the bottom.

If your compost bin is a tumbler, meaning that the barrel that holds the compost can be externally turned, then you should have hot compost. Done correctly, tumblers produce good compost in a short period of time. If too wet the tumbler becomes a hard-to-turn smelly, drippy nightmare. Loading the debris and unloading the compost can be challenging for the back, and since you can’t add to the load while it is composting you may have a back-up of compostables waiting for their turn in the hopper.

The next, more difficult type of composting requires a shovel. Find some poor soil, dig a hole of a size that can accommodate several day’s to a week’s worth of green waste, and then layer your green waste as it becomes available with dirt until the hole is filled. This method is particularly good for creating future no-dig vegetable beds in-situ; vegetables and other herbaceous plants love a more bacterially active soil than woody plants, which do like their fungal webs. You may plant in these beds in a month or two, depending on your weather and what you buried. Burying organic material sequesters carbon and gasses such as methane in the soil. Did you realize that you can bury clothing, too? Natural fabric clothes, bedding, towels, untreated wood products such as cardboard and old lumber, and even old rusty hardware, nails and wire can all be layered, watered in and buried.

Then there is the three-bin composting technique, which requires regular turning. Bins can be made of old wooden pallets wired together, or can be lovely permanent structures. Each bin should hold a minimum of three cubic meters of compost or else the pile won’t heat up. Everything except woody cuttings are layered into the first bin until it is full. Usually a 3:1 carbon: nitrogen balance works well. Carbon-based matter is the stuff that is pretty dead already such as dry leaves, brown grass clippings, cardboard, etc. Nitrogen-based ‘hot’ stuff includes green grass and weeds, fresh manure, kitchen scraps, and other things that still have some life left in them. Keep the compost materials only wet enough so that when wrung just a little drips out. You may have to cover your heap to keep it dry, or water it depending on your weather. The heap should heat up within days or else the recipe isn’t quite right. To heat up a stubborn pile add comfrey leaves, stinging nettle, or compost tea. After a couple of weeks, pitchfork the entire thing into the next bin, making sure to tuck what had been on the outside towards the middle. It will heat up again and in a couple of weeks you should be ready to give it the final turn into the last bin. Meanwhile you will have had the chance to start two new batches of compost.

Besides being a little taxing on the back, this method of composting, or any open-air method, releases methane into the atmosphere which contributes to global warming. The compost also reduces in size so you end up with a fraction of the bulk you started with.

A covered 18-day compost heap in progress

Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute recommends an enthusiastic 18-day compost method, which he demonstrates in his Permaculture Soils DVD. He mounds a wonderful array of manures and dry materials in a three cubic meter pile, waters and covers it, turns it the fourth day and then every other day until the 18 days are up. The beauty of this quick-cooking compost is that the resulting pile of compost remains the same bulk as the original, and being covered releases little gas. The minus side is that it requires a lot of materials that those without access to farm animals and lots of dried matter will find difficult to collect. It also requires heavy exercise every couple of days.

No matter what your physical condition or living circumstances you can use permaculture techniques to feed your soil by using your own green waste. Find what works for you, and it’s guaranteed you will be as happy as your plants to be lessening your footprint in such a simple way.