May 1 – 7, 2022 is International Compost Awareness Week. Check out guest blogger, Dan Martens’ tips for composting using a standing plastic bin:

It’s safe to say that no two home composting systems—or home composters—are the same. The following is based on my experience composting in my Connecticut backyard (Zone 7).

When starting anything new, it’s reassuring to have a mentor. I was fortunate to have excellent advice from the University of Connecticut’s Master Composter program. Although I’ve long been  composting garden debris, I didn’t focus on composting household food scraps until my town offered a program to purchase a freestanding plastic backyard compost bin. I’ve been composting for three years now, and have produced beautiful rich compost.

Plastic bin by Compost Coyote

Here are my tips and observations—as with any new hobby, the fun is in learning for yourself, so see what works best for you.

Collect compostables. Start collecting food scraps in a container with a lid a month or two before you start to fill your compost bin. Do not add foods such as meat, fish, dairy, oils and grease; they can attract animals or restrict airflow in your pile. Food scraps can be frozen until you’re ready to build your first pile. Make a brown leaf pile that you can pull from all year. Do not include any leaves that have been treated with herbicides or other chemicals. You’ll also need sticks and/or bulky wood chips for the base of the pile and a good amount of food scraps and leaves for the first build.It’s best to start simple with a step-by-step approach, so just focus on two feedstocks—food scraps and leaves.   

Assemble tools. You’ll definitely need a watering can, pitchfork, rake, compost aerator, containers and a garden cart.

Select bin. A compost bin with a removable lid is a simple way to keep compost neat, safe from animals, and protected from the elements. I think a 3’x3’ bin is the minimum size for getting a good pile going.    

Locate spot. Place your bin on level ground in a sunny to part shady location. If you do not have a flat spot, grade one with a shovel, then make a second flat spot adjacent to the bin.  

Start building. I build/rebuild my pile with the layering or “lasagna” method. Start with bulky sticks or wood chips next to the ground, then add a 4-inch layer of leaves. This base provides air flow and insulation. Everything the pile will need is in the feedstocks (food scraps and leaves).

Layer feedstocks. Place a layer of food scraps on top of the leaves; add another layer of leaves and lightly sprinkle with water. Continue alternating the layers: leaves/food scraps/water and repeat. Your layers should have 2 to 3 times more leaves than food scraps. So, in your compost lasagna, the leaves are like the noodles. Sprinkle with water after each set of layers, but do not oversaturate.

Color coded pile layers – leaves, compost, food scraps, water. Place food scraps in the middle.
  • Build the middle. Keep the layers going until you run out of food scraps. Spread the food scraps evenly, but always keep them toward the middle of the layer. If you don’t have enough food scraps, use mostly leaves; you can balance the pile over time. Finish the pile with a layer of leaves, about 5 inches from the top of the bin, to allow air flow. Do not finish with a food scrap layer. Food scrap layers should only be in the middle which discourages animals from trying to gnaw into the bin, and also helps build heat. If you don’t have enough food scraps to get started and you do have garden greens, it’s fine to use them as long as they have not gone to seed. A high nitrogen fertilizer, like blood meal can also be used – 1 cup for every 4 to 6 inch layer of leaves.
  • Keep microbes happy. The microbes in the organic matter (feedstocks) are key to decomposition; it’s important to feed them a proper carbon-nitrogen ratio. The goal is to have a balanced carbon-nitrogen meal. Think of leaves as the carbon source and food scraps as the nitrogen source. The food scraps and the leaves should be roughly equal by weight. However, food scraps weigh more than leaves, so for a good balance you will need about 2 to 3 times more leaves than food scraps. A balanced recipe provides a good meal for your microbes; they will eat it all, and the compost at the end will be balanced. If you add a 1-inch layer of food scraps, then add about a two to three-inch layer of leaves. The correct ratio will prevent most basic problems with the pile and will keep the microbes happy.
  • Aerate. After the food scrap layers have had time to break down from the build, you can aerate the pile. What is the proper time to allow before aerating? If your pile has dropped down 25%, or if a couple weeks have passed, give it a fluffing. Your geographic climate or season impacts your pile’s unique composting rate. If you aerate too soon, you may disrupt both the layering from building the pile and the heat generated by decomposition. There are no hard and fast rules; however, neglecting your compost is not a good idea. If you maintain the pile, you will avoid some smelly problems. I generally aerate every 1 to 2 weeks and add some water. To aerate, use a compost aeration tool or just push in a strong stick and wiggle it around. You don’t want to mix the pile and upset the layers; just loosen it up so that some air can get in. If you set your compost table, the microbes will have a party!
Compost aerator with some finished compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Feed. Remember decomposition takes time, so have patience. With a closed bin, you have two options for feeding your pile: the weekly add-in process or the batch process. If you add food scraps weekly, put them in the middle of the pile with plenty of leaves of top to conceal odors. When I first began composting, I used the weekly option, adding twice the amount of leaves than food scraps. This was a good way to start because I had more leaves in my pile than food scraps. Getting the pile going strong was tempered by the weekly interruption and the small mass of the inputs. Now I use the batch process. I save four or more weeks of food scraps in a closed pail and then feed the pile when my pail is full, about once a month in summer, then once in late in fall and once in late winter. In winter, on a warmer day, I add food scraps, leaves and water to the middle of the pile. I try to aerate the pile in winter unless it’s really freezing (then I don’t disturb it). My pile probably goes dormant, but I have never seen it freeze.
  • Prepare to turn & rebuild. When the pile has exhausted its composting activity, it’s time to turn and rebuild. How do you know when to turn your pile? I turn and rebuild my pile when my food scrap pail is full. In the summer, this is every 4 to 6 weeks, but in the winter I store my food scraps in the freezer until a nice late winter day. To make rebuilding your pile easier,have your components close at hand: full food scrap pail, leaf pile, watering can, pitchfork and rake. You’ll get dirty, so when you finish, wash off your tools and hands.  
  • Turn & rebuild. Lift the plastic compost bin straight up and off the pile and place it on the flat spot you made adjacent to your current pile. Now, with the bin empty, start the rebuild. The current pile, now exposed, will be about 30% smaller than the bin. It will sit in a neat column until you are ready to rework it with your pitchfork. Take materials from the current pile plus add new feedstocks to make a lasagna in the empty bin. Build the new pile in the empty bin the same way you started, but now add active compost as one of the layers. Repeat the original process: some bulk on the bottom, such as sticks, wood chips and leaves, followed by layers. On top of the base, add fresh compost from the pile, food scraps, leaves, more compost, and water. Repeat. Depending on the amount of new food scraps I have, I add in materials from the old pile that need more time, mixing them in with the new feedstocks in the middle of the pile. I finish with a topper of leaves and a light watering.
Turning out compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Harvest. If you need to make room in your bin, or you want to harvest in early Fall, do so as long as you maintain a full compost bin with a rebuild so that you can maintain a full bin through winter. How do you know when compost is ready? Examine it. When the feedstocks are not recognizable as their original material, you have immature compost. Remove this good stuff and set it aside for curing and screening.  
  • Cure and screen. When you remove compost, it is immature. Let it sit for month to allow any active microbes to settle down and to balance the pH. I screen my compost to remove twigs or small stones. At first, I screened fresh compost straight from the pile, but it was damp and messy, so now I wait for it to dry a bit. Transfer the compost to a breathable container (or pile) to hold it for resting. Loosely cover the container so rain doesn’t wash the compost away. I screen with a homemade screen made from 1/4-inch wire cloth tacked to a 2 x 4-foot frame. I rub the compost through by hand.    
Dan screening his compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Optimize!   
    1. Remove produce stickers before saving food scraps.
    1. Make sure there are no rubber bands, foil or plastic in food scraps.
    1. Chop food scraps and shred leaves to facilitate short-term heat build.  
    1. Aerate pile weekly without disturbing layers too much. Make sure to add water.
    1. Monitor temperature in the middle of the pile using a compost thermometer. After the first temperature spike, wait a week, then turn the pile, adding new materials as a chopped-up mixture mix of food scraps and leaves.    
  • Remember the goal.  Diverting food scraps from trash makes home waste management much more efficient and less smelly, plus diverting organic matter from household trash turns valuable organic matter back into healthy soil to fertilize gardens the natural way.
A favorite book of the author’s. Photo by Compost Coyote.

Learn as you go and find out what works best for you as you help the planet.  

Dan Martens, UConn Master Composter