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

Living more sustainably has become a goal to many individuals who recognize that the earth’s natural resources are finite. There are numerous ways to lessen our impact invoking the three R’s of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. One relatively easy method of recycling is composting. And now would be the perfect time to start as May 1 – 7, 2016 is International Compost Awareness Week.

Up to one-third of a household’s waste could potentially be composted including food scraps, yard wastes and paper products. It has been estimated that about 70 billion pounds of food waste are discarded by Americans each year. That comes to about 20 pounds per person per month. So between 25 and 40 percent of food grown, processed and transported each year never gets eaten!

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Fruits and vegetables can be composted if not consumed. Photo by dmp.

According to www.feedingamerica.org, most of this is disposed of in landfills or by incineration. In fact, more food reaches landfills and incinerators than plastic, glass, paper or metal in municipal solid waste. When landfilled, the buried food breaks down in an anaerobic environment and methane is produced. Methane, as many of you are aware, is a potent greenhouse gas about 21 times more the global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

On top of the environmental cost and loss of resources that all our food waste is creating, we need to pay to have it removed from our property. Either we contract with private haulers or your city or town removes it paid for through your taxes. Many localities are beginning encouraging residents to compost their leaves and other organic wastes as both a cost saving tool and a way to amend lawn and garden soils.

While the optimal solution to this problem would be not to waste food and this should top everyone’s list, if food is going to be thrown away, as much of it should be composted and turned into a valuable soil amendment as possible.

Composting is simply the controlled process of decomposition of organic materials. Decomposition is a natural process. Any bit of plant or animal debris that falls upon the earth’s surface gets broken down and transformed by visible and microscopic creatures. Composting hastens this natural process by creating conditions that tend to accelerate natural decomposition the end result being a stable humus-like product that is great addition to most soils.

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3-bin compost unit at Middlesex County Extension Center, Haddam, CT. photo by dmp

Composting can be as simple or complex as one chooses to make it. The basic requirements for composting are a source of organic materials, air, water, microorganisms and a site for composting. The organic materials can be food scraps, leaves, grass clippings, spent plants, shredded newspaper or office paper, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells, manure, sawdust and spoiled hay. These organic materials may be layered proportionately according to how much carbon and nitrogen they contain. Decomposition is hastened when the amounts of carbonaceous material (brown) are balanced with high nitrogen containing organic matter (green). Many piles are started by using 2 parts green to 1 part brown. Technically this is referred to as the carbon nitrogen ratio and there are many online and written sources listing the ratios for a variety of organic materials. A carbon nitrogen ratio of 25 or 30 to 1 ensures faster decomposition.

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Easy turn compost bin. Photo by dmp.

Typically natural rainfall keeps the pile moist but you may need to water it occasionally during dry spells. Keep in mind that most of the decomposition is done by soil microbes and they need oxygen and water just like all living creatures. The compost pile should be as moist as a wrung out sponge. If it seems dry, give it some water. If it is too wet, turn it to aerate and dry out a bit. A general rule of thumb would be to turn the pile every week or two initially.

Whether you make or purchase a compost bin or simply create a compost pile is up to you. Wire fencing or cement blocks are an inexpensive way to contain a pile. Locate your bin or pile not too far away from either the garden or the kitchen so food waste and garden debris can be readily added to the compost pile and finished compost will be conveniently located next to the garden. Facts sheets at www.soiltest.uconn.edu give greater details on the composting procedure as well as on the various types of compost bins available.

Compost is finished after 3 to 9 months when it is loose and crumbly and the original organic materials that were put in the pile are no longer recognizable. Using compost in the garden or landscape has many benefits. It adds organic matter to the soil which in turn increases the water and nutrient holding capacities of the soil. Compost improves the soil’s structure which in turn results in better plant root growth. Since the pH of finished compost is usually around 7.0, using compost also often eliminates the need to add limestone or wood ash to the soil.

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Topdressing garden bed with compost. Photo by dmp.

Depending on what organic materials were added to the compost pile, the finished compost will contain varying amounts of the nutrients that plants need. Manure-based composts would generally have higher nutrient levels than leaf- or food waste-based composts. After adding an inch or so of compost to your garden soil and mixing it into the top 6 inches of soil, it is a good idea to test the soil before adding any more fertilizer or limestone. Many gardeners tend to add copious amounts of compost to their vegetable and flower beds resulting in excessive levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen which can pollute surface and ground waters. Conscientious gardeners want to supply their plants with enough nutrients to ensure productivity but not caused environmental or human health problems.

There is no time like International Compost Awareness Week to learn about composting and figure out how to incorporate it into your yard or garden. Apartment dwellers might want to consider indoor composting using worms. Yard-less residents may find that a nearby community garden would take their food scraps.

Dawn P