Tools You Need to Compost
Compost is all about what goes into it, and then the actual science and actions all fall into place naturally. Finding the basic materials for making compost is easy because most can almost always be found in your home!
So in essence, composting is easy. The point of a compost pile is to make use of the excess, unusable biodegradable matter that you don’t know what to do with in the first place. Believe me, making compost does not involve you scouting for all the right things to go into it.
Well, maybe just in the beginning. A compost pile immediately makes certain waste in your home useable and useful, so let’s begin by looking in your trash.
What’s Compostable? – Composting Materials
To be clear: not ALL of your trash will be compostable. In the beginning, you need to do a bit of sorting.
In time, knowing what’s good and what’s bad will come naturally—just as naturally and easily as your compost will break down. Here’s a handful of words to help you remember what’s GOOD to compost: is what you’re chucking into your compost heap natural, non-chemical, and plant-based?
Best Stuff for Composting (for Beginners):
- Untreated Paper (coffee filters, shredded black and white newspaper)
- Fruits (non-citrus, including the peels)
- Egg Shells
- Coffee Grounds
- Dried leaves
- Vegetable (any part)
Yet More Stuff (More for the Expert):
- Grass clippings (non-treated)
- Used Fresh Culinary Herbs
- Dead Flowers
- Non-dairy Wheat/Baked Goods
- Pet Hair (Yes – it’s true!)
- Human Hair and Nails (Yep, that too)
- Garden Soil
- Garden Weeds (with no seeds)
- Old Breakfast Cereal
- Expired yogurt (cultured is best)
- Old Salads
- Natural fibers (cotton, linen or wool)
- Sour milk (small amounts)
- Moldy cheese
All of the above products can be added to your compost pile, and do break down over time. The beauty of it? You can pick and choose which of these you want to add. Who says composting isn’t an art?
You may wonder about foods like old baked goods or cereal. Yes, these are processed foods but a hot heap can handle small doses. These foods don’t include large quantities of fats, oils or grease like other processed foods. If some of the materials above seem too yucky to you (like hair or commercial paper products) and you don’t want them to be a part of fertilizer you add to your plants, no problem. Just leave them to your local garbage men and women!
This can be debatable, and it differs from one composter to the next. For example: some will readily compost manufactured paper products into their heap, while others will deem it impure to their standard of compost. Some will add spoiled dairy or old baked goods—others will not.
While some additions to compost are controversial, others are widely considered big “no-no’s” and should not be added. For those that seem to be a matter of opinion? Try them out and experiment. If you don’t like something, you can always sort it out of future compost piles.
Top Compost “Don’ts”:
- Meat (though some find fish acceptable)
- Bones (though some find fish bones acceptable)
- Dairy (especially fresh – some like spoiled dairy, which can add helpful “fermentation” to the pile, but there can be drawbacks)
- Pet Feces (Cat or Dog – any carnivorous pet that eats other mammals, especially. Some argue that bird or fish droppings are fine)
- Cat Litter
- Anything Chemical/Man-Made (they can kill a compost!)
- Plastic (it just won’t break down)
- Citrus rinds (take too long to biodegrade, but won’t hurt)
- Avocado rinds (same as citrus)
- Glossy Papers (like magazine covers – they are chemically treated!)
- Charcoal Ash
- Oils, Fats, or Grease
- Seedy Garden Weeds
- Diseased Plants
The above stuff is better left in your usual trash run, especially if you are a beginner. It is true that animal bones and meat can biodegrade. But they attract the wrong kind of pests, smell more putrid than plant matter, and if improperly handled can contaminate your food plants with pathogens, if you use them to fertilize. Pathogens can be very harmful to human health.
If you want a fast-produced, fine-grain compost for plants too, citrus and avocado rinds create a problem. They take exceptionally long to break down – that’s why. Of course too—things of a chemical nature can destroy the natural microbes, insects, or worms, so don’t throw them in there. Plastic particularly will just stick around in the heap, and never biodegrade.
Seedy garden weeds can sprout unwanted new seed plants everywhere in your garden, and create yet more weeds. Composting plants with a noticeable disease (for instance, with markings on their leaves) could spread the same disease to living plants if you use the compost as fertilizer—so be careful.
What about pet feces? There are methods to composting your pet’s waste stream in your home, but it requires a completely separate method altogether.
What Do You Put it in? – Composting Containers
So, once you decide what will go into your compost—and what won’t. The next step is determining what to put that compost in.
There are many different kinds of materials you can use, frankly. Untreated wood, ceramic, plastic, stainless steel, and galvanized iron are a few. Choosing the preferred material depends on where you live, and your indoor or outdoor composting plans.
If you have a backyard, you may not have to worry about a container too much. You can simply create a pile in an area that meets all the requirements. Many who have backyard composts (or live rurally) create their own spaces out of outdoor materials, or even dig a hole in which they can toss their scraps.
If composting indoors or in your apartment, even on a balcony, it’s wise to choose the ideal container that fits your needs. Furthermore—you will have to target the appropriate size depending on where you are composting. If indoors or on a balcony, you’ll want to aim for a smaller container. Outdoors, you can manage a larger compost.
Indoor Composting: The Apartment and Balcony Composter
This is an excellent section for beginners: whether wishing to start experimenting with compost indoors, or others who live deep within the urban sea: in a studio or completely indoor apartment or house.
So you don’t live outdoors, and you want to keep your compost compact and inconspicuous. What should you aim for? While some articles and books might be hyper-specific for all you adventurous urban-homesteaders, the truth is that you have a lot of options.
Where to put my compost container? Depending on the size, you can place your compost anywhere that is cool, dark, and out of direct contact with sunlight. A closet, pantry, unused cupboard, or under the sink are prime places. Got a wonderful balcony? Put it out there—just make sure it has adequate shade and cover.
Commercial Compost Containers
For starters this can be the most simple and pain-free method. Search online for “compost containers” and stick to the small ones. Go a bit larger if you’ve got balcony room for it. You will have plenty to choose from, so select one that will function for your home.
If you’re not looking to be thrifty, basic composting containers range from $25 to $45. Not too shabby!
Many major metropolitan areas provide citizens with their own compost bins and containers, just like they provide recycling or trash haul.
Check with your local government or sanitation department and see if they’ll incorporate composting methods straight into your utility bill, and provide something for the indoor/studio apartment. Most city compost containers would fit nicely on an apartment balcony!
Some cities will sell you their own compost bins, but you can still participate in most of their programs if you use your own. Keep a smaller container with our own compost, for example, then slowly fill a slightly larger city container for weekly pickup.
You can choose how to do it. But contacting and participating in a city-wide compost program can be helpful, especially if you generate more compost than you know what to do with or don’t plan on using it. The city just picks it up!
These are an option for those looking to spend a little more on a container. These electric compost holders help with the “mixing” and heating process as well.
Electric composters are a more expensive option with some ranging up to $300. If you want to compost but don’t have the time for the management, maybe the electric option is just right for you. These are ideal for indoors strictly, and may be good for a sheltered balcony (remember, they are electric and must be plugged in). Want to go the whole nine yards? Look for services that build in your electric compost to your cabinetry or wherever it is you store your garbage.
Make Your Own
Are you a D.I.Y. crusader? Want to determine the materials and size of your own personal compost container? Then making and crafting your own could be the right choice for you.
SIZE – Before you dive into the materials, for the indoors it’s all about size. Think about it—you want to aim for something that fits and flows with indoor life, without getting in the way, but that also does the job.
- If you go for something like a pail, can, or bucket, up to 20 gallons in capacity size is good. That, or you can aim for a box up to 20”x20”x20” (20 inches long, wide, and deep). Some recycle “buckets” by using old, larger coffee containers.
- If you’ve got the space for it, composting experts say that the optimal space for a small compost pile is 3’x3’x3’ (3 feet long, wide, and deep). But for the sake of options, know that you can fit your compost container in a much smaller space.
MATERIALS – What should your container be made out of? Stainless steel, galvanized iron, plastic, or ceramic are the best for keeping odor down. If you know what you’re doing, however, certain wooden containers jive well in the indoor urban homestead; some don’t work as they wick moisture and could create a stink.
- Composting Can, Bucket or Pail – You can buy a garbage can or lidded bucket of some sort from a thrift or department store. Make sure it is plastic or metal as these materials work well.
○ You will have to drill/hammer/punch holes in the sides, bottom, and top (lid) of the container, for aeration and drainage. Get a small tray for placing underneath the container, as compost fluids will drain out (which you will have to empty/add to plants regularly). One way to simplify drainage is to drill a hole at the bottom that can fit a cork. Simply remove the cork when it’s time to drain! Also, make sure that the lid is tight-fitting.
- Composting Box – Boxes can be made out of plastic, metal or untreated wood.
○ If you’re more the woodworking/handyman (or woman) type, try using ½” plywood to construct your bin, ensuring it’s the target size and has the same model holes/slats for drainage and air supply. Create a hinged lid for the top as well. Fair warning, though, should you build a wooden box: using untreated wood means the material has the potential to rot relatively quickly, so be prepared to build another box should rotting occur. On the other hand, using treated wood runs the risk of exposing your compost to chemicals. As wood has the tendency to “absorb,” I suggest greasing or “treating” the inside with something natural, such as vegetable starch or oil. This will reduce absorption into the wood, which will help reduce stench as well as keep it from rotting sooner.
Outdoor Composting: The Big Balcony and Backyard Composter
Got the luxury of more space and the nice, fresh outdoors? Then you have a few more options in terms of where and how to contain your compost, as well as how big it can get.
Where to put my compost? It’s basically the same parameters as indoor compost: somewhere cool, shaded, and out of direct sunlight for extensive periods throughout the day. As opposed to under the sink or in a pantry, your larger compost pile might find a great home underneath a nice shelter you make for it, the shade of a tree, a sheltered balcony, or simply up against the outer walls of your home.
How big can it get? If you’re going for something larger but manageable, you can jump up from the 3’x3’x3’ limits to 5’x’5’x5’. Anything larger can be hard to handle and difficult to maintain.
The Stand-Alone Pile (for the backyard)
It’s true, and it has worked for ages: some folks simply place their compost in a pile.
Again, you will have to find the proper place for this pile, and ensure that it doesn’t cause too many problems. A pile will only work in areas where you can place it on the earth and open soil— an open compost pile on your balcony or deck will create a terrible mess for you and your neighbors!
If you’ve got a urban backyard, a stand alone pile may be an option. Since it isn’t exactly “enclosed” however, you should spend a little more time turning it and gauging a healthy temperature for its mass—techniques we’ll get to a little later. If you have kids or animals, you’ll have to figure out a way to keep all those things separate in your backyard, and to manage it in a way so that it doesn’t take on the characteristics of an out-of-control garbage heap. Don’t worry—we’ll teach you how.
Dig a Hole (for the backyard)
If you don’t like the idea of a big pile in your backyard, then dig a hole. Also known as trench composting, this is a very easy method. Simply dig a hole 8-12” into the ground. You can easily cover it back up as well to make it relatively inconspicuous as you scrap, layer and water it to break it down into beneficial soil.
A hole creates more surface-area for compost to touch wild soil, both enclosing it and exposing it to beneficial microbes. This makes it break down faster than most compost piles. When all is broken down—shovel out your beautiful, black earth, and start over again! A disadvantage to this method, though: it’s easy for pests, rodents or even curious canines to dig it up.
Commercial Compost Containers (for the balcony or backyard)
Yep, there are pain-free purchasable options for the big balcony and backyard composter as well. Look online, search for “compost containers” (or “compost tumblers” which make the turning process much easier) and take a look at the larger ones that can afford you more decomposition and space. Some are affordable, others more pricey (upwards of $200).
Many of these can fit nicely on a balcony, and work incredibly well. If you are looking to buy a simple but larger bin for your balcony, do realize that you will have to add some microbially-active soil to the bottom if it is not enclosed or lidded. If you have to move it, you might have to prepare yourself for a bit of a balcony mess.
In a backyard, big containers or “pens” placed right on the bare earth work exceptionally well, and pose no problems—making for a neater, more pleasing alternative to the bare compost pile.
City-Provided Containers (for the balcony or backyard)
Most city-wide compost containers you can buy from your city’s sanitation service are ideal for the balcony or backyard composter. They are just large enough to fill up with your week’s worth of scraps and yard waste, before the city comes by to haul it away for municipal use elsewhere.
Some are a bit too big for the studio apartment/inner urban dweller, but sometimes they are a tad too small for the very ambitious city homesteader with the big backyard. Think of it this way: if you have tons of compost in your backyard and you don’t know what to do with it, donate some to the city for pick-up.
However, if you don’t make quite as much compost, you may want to keep all of it and not donate all of it to the city. In that case, it would be best to use your own container.
Check in with your local area or city management to see if compost can be a part of your utility bill, or if it is accessible to you!
Make Your Own
If you have a pioneering spirit (and time on your hands) to fashion your own larger compost container or enclosure, making your own can be incredibly simple.
Since you’re working with the outdoors, you’ll want to go for the more permeable, easy-to-move and weather-durable options. These usually consist of larger compost containers made of plastics, wood, or metal wire.
- The Chicken Wire Compost Pen (for the backyard) – Simply cut and “wrap” a stretch of chicken wire into a long, cylindrical tube within which you can toss and layer compost scraps. Make sure that this creation is placed on open, bare soil—and that the ends of the wire section are fastened together securely, so the tube doesn’t fall apart (twist ties or twisted, smaller bits of wire are great for this).
The holes in the side of the chicken wire are excellent for aerating the pile and maintaining temperature. The only struggle with this enclosure: emptying it or turning it! You can either create a “latch” in the side that you open to remove the bottom-most finished layers, or you will have to get accustomed to “lifting” or cutting open the cage for access.
- The Wooden Pallet Method (for the balcony or backyard) – Large factory pallets are often quickly disposed of by truckers or factories, but these can make an awesome ramshackle compost container.
○ You will need four pallets to make the “wall” of your cube-shaped compost container. As with the chicken wire, tie three of the pallets securely together so they stand upright, but leave one unfastened so you can open and shut one side of the compost for access, and remove the finished compost or turn it easily.
There are a lot of materials that go into composting, which can be the most complicated part of the process. When you actually get into the wonders of decomposition, however, it’s surprisingly easy.