Getting Started Composting
February 21, 2021
I’m looking to set up some form of composting in my yard. I have a small outdoor area as part of a duplex (that I own) on the north side between the house and a wall. Which is to say it seldom or never gets direct sunlight. The area is only about 6’ wide and considerably longer than that. A spigot is nearby. I need to be able to walk around the piles. I don’t really want to spend several hundred dollars on a tumbler, though that would be ideal, probably. I have yard waste (piles of mulched leaves) and kitchen scraps (1 person). Lots of questions:
1. It would be most convenient to put the piles against my house, but I wonder about bugs and smells entering the house. I have an old wooden gate that I could possibly lay down against the house to protect the house wall. Any thoughts?
2. It seems I should have at least two areas, side by side, so I can turn compost from one pile into another. I’m not particularly handy with woodworking—building a box is probably beyond my skills, but I’ve heard there are other options. Your suggestions? I had a compost pile at my old place, but nowhere to turn it, so it didn’t break down very quickly. In fact, I never harvested any soil!
3. I also have a 30 gal trash can with a lid, but right now it’s full of soil from potted plants—could be added to the compost pile. Or would using the trash for the composting be the way to go? How does it work to turn compost in a trash can?
4. The recommendation is to build the pile in layers—woody stuff, green stuff, and soil. I have extra soil and leaves, but the green stuff builds up very slowly so it seems like I would have to work it into the leaves as I get it rather than creating a pile all at once. How well does this work?
5. Is it a good idea to dig a foot or so into the ground and start the pile there? (I’ve read that somewhere)
6. Is it important to put branches on the ground and build the pile on top of it or is this optional? Can cardboard be used instead of branches?
7. I hear about adding worms to the pile . . . how much does that help? Where do I get the right kind locally?
Thanks in advance.
Answer by JZ: Great that you are getting ready for composting. Thanks for a well organized email !
1. You have room for your setup to be a foot or so away from your house, but not against it. Trash can bins should be just right – size is your choice.
2. There is a fine, straightforward easy method of composting which follows natures way, that is static composting. This means that you do not necessarily have to turn or churn the ingredients. This method depends on convective airflow which is created in the pile by adding coarse bulking material as you build up: that would finger size, sticks, twigs, pine cones. This method is described in our brochure, Page 5: docs.nmcomposters.org/composting-in-the-desert-2018.pdf
3. Your trash can would serve quite well. You sure can have more than one trash can side by side. See Homemade Bins under Composting Info in our website menu. Your trash can(s) may be of a convenient size for you location. If you choose to do the static method in any container, then when it comes time to collect your finished compost, then you may scoop it out and use as needed or dump the contents onto a tarp. Undecomposed material including bulking goes back in as you start to refill the container with organics. If you wish to churn material in your container you may use a garden fork spade. There are also “screw” type devices on the market which may be useful. Just put it in your search engine, then you’ll see pics. and how they work. I do not use them.
4. Green stuff (nitrogen) is low in winter months. All of your left over fruit & veg. scraps, coffee and tea are greens. You may purchase some alfalfa meal / pellets (rabbit food) as a source of greens. Another option is to add 1/2 cup of fish emulsion fertilizer to a gallon of water, then sprinkle on you bin contents. You may add some soil if you like; not necessary to do so. See natural nitrogen sources and soil additive here: NMSU: Composting Additive If you choose static composting you do not have to add greens & browns all at once, but may add them intermittently, as they become available — makes it very convenient.
5. Yes, pit or trench composting is another static method. You may bury organics covered with about 12” of soil. Avoid adding meat/dairy/fish as the scent might attract unwanted critters. A fine “dump &done” method in a covered bucket in a hole is shown in the Homemade Bins material. With this method you only have to dig once! and moisture is maintained with top cover. Worms may be added to this container and even to to your trash can bin(s).
6. Yes, Add a 6” layer of course bulking at the bottom of a composting container, this will help avoid compaction of ingredients and provide for convective air flow. Then continue to add 2” or more of bulking for every 5” of added organics. Follow directions on Page 5 as above.
7. Red wiggler worms are great composting partners. To get started, say in a trash can bin you would need about 1K of worm. They will be slow in winter, but still “working”, then speed up in spring. You may check out our local sources under Worm Sources under Resources in our website menu.
8 A possible reason that you have not had your contents decompose in the past composting attempts is low or no moisture in the bin. Maintain moisture in all seasons. Moisture in bin should be similar to the residual moisture in brewed coffee grounds – moist, but not dripping wet.
9. See Convective Airflow under Composting Info. This shows how convective airflow (blue arrows) works in any container. If you bulk as you build, then you do not have turn at all.
Hope that this is helpful. Let us know if you have questions.
From original questioner: Thanks for your reply and suggestions. I stopped by my neighbor’s house a couple days ago and I really like her composting setup. She uses 30-gal plastic garbage cans with lids. They cut the bottom off the can and insert it about 3-4” into the ground (so it has contact with dirt). They keep the lids on the cans. No muss, no fuss.
My question is: she said they don’t add “brown” matter or dirt; just kitchen scraps. Since I have both mulched leaves and excess potting soil (used), I would like to add it as part of the compost. I’m wondering, since the trash cans don’t have holes, if this is actually a form of anaerobic composting, and what the implications are. For instance, would it still work if I add layers of dirt and leaves?
Finally, I don’t have ready access to small sticks and am wondering if torn pieces of cardboard would work as well for the “bulking” material at the bottom of the pile.
Answer by JZ:
1. Trash can homemade bins do have holes as clearly pictured in the Homemade Bins materials. If you wish to cut a hole in the bottom, that would be your choice.
2. The composting recipe is: Mix greens + browns + air + moisture + time = finished product. Yes you may add leaves, potting soil just combine them with greens, eg. kitchen scraps, weeds without seeds. If you only add greens, then you’d have moist setup which might compact, then you’d have odors. The answer would be to add coarse bulking material as you build. You bulk throughout the pile as well as at the bottom. Cardboard would not serve well as a bulking material. You could buy a bag of wood chips / bark at any nursery, which would be a fine bulking material. Please read this brochure paying attention to coarse bulking on page 6: docs.nmcomposters.org/composting-in-the-desert-2018.pdf
3. If you are interested in an appropriate anaerobic method then consider the Bokashi bucket method described under Bokashi under Composting Info on our website menu.
4. You would get plenty of useful information if you would read pages from the homepage menu at: nmcomposters.org