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What Kind of Composter Are You?

5 min read 11 Comments

What Kind of Composter Are You?

Composting can take your backyard garden to the next level, turning organic waste material into a rich and renewable soil amendment—for free! There are as many types of composting as there are home gardeners. Check out our guide below to see which method matches your own gardening style and get started making your own “black gold”—homemade, harvest-enhancing compost.

If you are a windowsill or patio gardener with limited outdoor storage space, pitch in to a community garden compost pile or sign up for a composting service.

Apartment and urban living is not always ideal for composting. That does not mean it can’t be done! If you are gardening in small areas—windowsills, decks, patios, or in a community garden plot—you need space-saving solution that won’t smell. Many states have compost subscription services that provide countertop composting bins and pails and collect them on a weekly basis, just like your trash or recycling, and provide you with usable amounts of fresh compost at regular intervals. Some municipalities also offer composting as part of their curbside recycling programs. And many community gardens will have a shared compost pile that everyone agrees to contribute to and tend.

If you have limited space but really, REALLY want to try composting indoors or out, explore the wild world of vermicomposting below!

 If you are a beginning or experienced backyard gardener with outdoor storage space, you have a lot of composting options.

Easiest: Cold Composting 

Cold composting is the simplest way to start composting—simply start separating your organic kitchen waste and adding it to the compost pile along with garden debris, like dead plants, grass clippings, and leaves—and wait about one year for it to break down into usable compost. No forking or turning required!

  1. Concerned About Backyard Aesthetics? Try Cold Composting in Closed Bins or Tumblers

    Freestanding compost bins can range from $50 to $250 and have a lot of advantages for the suburban or novice composter with decent but not unlimited space. Closed bins are used for “cold composting”—you cannot regulate their temperature—and they hold a limited amount of compost that can often be an adequate supply for a casual home gardener. They are open at the bottom and can be moved around your yard when needed—simply let the composting material fall out and fork it back in at the new location. Another advantage? They protect your compost from trash-foraging pests like mice, rats, and raccoons and limit unsavory smells.

    Tumblers are similar to compost bins except they can be turned, which will speed up the composting process. Because tumblers don’t touch the ground you will need to add a few scoops of earth to get microbes in your mix. You will also need to be more attentive to the balance between “brown” (carbohydrate and carbon rich) and “green” (nitgrogen-rich) elements in your tumbler. Don’t want to invest in an expensive tumbler? Our gardening experts have seen successful DIY versions made from 55-gallon drums or even plastic garbage cans.

  2. Looking for the Ultimate No-Fuss Composting Method? Try Cold Composting in a Pit or Pile

    Pit composting is even easier and cheaper than cold composting in bins. If you can find a place on your property to dig a composting pit (and if you can protect it from foraging predators like possums, raccoons, and other rodents) you can start composting. Choose a location out of sight and far enough from your home to avoid any unsavory smells. Start adding all of your organic kitchen and yard waste into the pit and wait for it to break down over 6-12 months. (Make sure any weeds or pulled plants can’t see the sun—you don’t want them to sprout!) No additional turning or maintenance required. Forking the ripe compost out of the pit can be a little bit back-breaking, however, so make sure you are up to the extra physical effort before choosing this method.

    Some home gardeners think ahead and utilize the pit composting method for planting. Dig smaller trenches to depths of 8” to 12” in places you hope to plant crops. Fill them with kitchen scraps, water the pile, and sprinkle a layer of blood meal across the top to speed decompisition. You will be able to plant atop the filled-in pit in about six weeks. This can be a great way to fuel heavy feeders like tomatoes, squashes, and pumpkins across the growing season.

    If you want to avoid hauling compost from a pit, a pile will work, too—but it will not be as hidden from view. Depending on your available space, this may not bother you. Keep the pile under five feet to avoid it collapsing and spreading and fork it now and then to avoid the formation of large air pockets.

Next Level: Hot Composting

If you want more compost available faster than cold composting can provide, you may want to explore hot composting. Hot composting takes more oversight and attention—even a teensy bit of math. But it will speed up your composting cycle, allowing you to amend more soil more frequently.

Hot composting is just what it sounds like: naturally “cooking” your compost to speed up the breakdown of materials and the creation of compost. On the most basic level, sunlight and warm temperatures will warm your compost. But to keep things percolating over time and seasons, you need to create an internal combustion system within your pile—natural microbial growth and activity that heats and ferments the composted materials from within.

Whether you hot compost in piles or bins, the basic ingredients are the same. You will need to balance brown elements (shredded cardboard, fallen leaves and shredded bark, sawdust, cotton fabric, dryer lint, paper, corn stalks, and hay) with green elements (eggshells, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable rinds and peels, seaweed, and manure) in the mix. The right ratio to generate microbial activity is 25 parts brown with one part green. All elements must be chopped up and broken down and moistened with water to create the right environment that can heat a hot compost pile to 130 to 14o degrees.

Regular forking or turning of your hot compost materials is required. (In cold-weather climates like Maine, you may even see steam as you turn your compost!)
When done right, hot composting can yield a fresh batch of ripe compost in just three to four weeks.

Achieve the Ultimate Composting Level: Vermicomposting

If you want to move beyond hot composting or constrain your compost pile to a smaller space, you can get a little bit of help from a surprising source: worms. A relatively small container filled with hungry red wiggler worms can make short work of composting materials—chomping through paper and cardboard recycling materials and organic kitchen waste at a rapid rate. And they don’t need a lot of space to do their work!

Done correctly, worm composting does not smell and does not attract fruit flies. (Throwing fruit and vegetable waste into the freezer for 24 hours before composting will keep fruit flies away.) And a healthy vermicomposting worm colony needs less tending than a sourdough starter! Kept at the proper temperature, worms can go up to four weeks without being fed, so you won’t have to find a wormsitter if you go away on a vacation.

Pinetree Garden Seeds sells a some composting supplies and this year, we are adding vermicomposting worms to our product line. We have seen successful worm composters made from plastic storage bins and we have seen vermicomposting setups that look like artistinal fine furniture. It is an incredible way to renew and recycle household waste that we hope more people will be inspired to try.

So, what kind of composter are you? Tell us what you’ve tried and what you hope to attempt in the future in the comments.


11 Responses

Jason Kittler
Jason Kittler

December 08, 2020

I have the luxury of both the space and the time to wait to cold compost in a pile. It is extremely easy, occasionally gives me some funky looking squash hybrids, and I have never noticed any smell or trouble.

Susan E Hatfield
Susan E Hatfield

December 01, 2020

Great information. I have tried all the methods that you mention. I especially like to start my containers (10-25gallon) in March with cold compost from the tumblers. I fill the containers about 6-8" , cover with several inches of potting soil and let them sit until May +/- . When I’m ready to plant, so are the containers. Glad to hear that you are adding worms to your inventory. I have worms living in all my soil and the compost areas. They really are a benefit. I just received my new catalog. That will help make winter more bearable.

Ray Barish
Ray Barish

December 01, 2020

I built a three bin composter following instructions from the Crocket’s Victory Garden book that I got as a PBS member, and brought it along when we moved here 40 years ago. Each bin is 3′ × 3′ × 3′, and every year as I move the material from bin to bin it turns the pile. If I was to rebuild it I would have the bins be larger for new material as it consolidates as it decomposes. Most of the material is fallen leaves along with pea vines, bean plants and corn husks – no tomato plants as I am concerned about blight. I sift the material going to the final bin through 1/2" mesh. If I see any earthworms I pick them up to drop them as intact as possible into the sifted material. The results are very fertile material – in fact I am growing your All Year Round Lettuce in compost filled plastic cups in a window greenhouse in our detached garage! This is in mid November in the Hudson Valley!

Carol M Davis
Carol M Davis

December 01, 2020

I have done everything but the vermicomposting, although my daughter has done that. Currently I use two tumbling bins, although one doesn’t really tumble any more. I did not know about putting scraps in the freezer first. And I have a question. There are tiny flies in my tumbler. Are they fruit flies? I don’t recognize them as such. I just thought they were part of the process. I dump in, tumble and don’t worry about how long it takes. That is a good article. Thank you

Robert Douglas
Robert Douglas

December 01, 2020

Keeping a worm compost pile on the ground and adding a number of layers of plastic sheeting and hay commensurate with the winter temperatures in the area gives them the heat they need to keep working through the winter and ready for potting soil in the Spring. Be sure they have a real good layer of food scraps and some mulched leaves as well and adequate moisture at all times.

Andi Unger
Andi Unger

December 01, 2020

I have never lived anywhere that did not have a space for composting. now we have moved to a property with some land where I can start, I am going to begin with cold composting to get a feel for it. If all goes well, I will add some worms in next year. looking forward to doing this!

Judy S Ferguson
Judy S Ferguson

December 01, 2020

This is one of the best articles I’ve read lately on the levels of composting.

Mary Sayen
Mary Sayen

December 01, 2020

I want to try worms. I’m reading The Earth Moved and agree with you more people should try this method!

Susan Woods
Susan Woods

December 01, 2020

Great article on composting. Printed it and clipped it inside my NEW catalog. Thanks!

Lori  Mani
Lori Mani

December 01, 2020

I compost successionly in two plastic, wheeled, upright, lidded, 50 gallon trash cans in the garage. I build it in multiple layers of; carbon, nitrogen, rock fertilizers, soil and a sprinkle of homemade BOSS starter. The beds are top dressed with it, followed by a layer of shredded pine mulch. The plants very seldom need supplemental water, no additional inputs and produce well.

Betsy Wells
Betsy Wells

December 01, 2020

I’ve been composting for a long time. I have a compost pit in my backyard that is about 2×4 which I fill with yard waste (no disease or seeds) and kitchen scraps. When I dig into it, I find worms and other bugs that feed on the contents of the pile. I get lots of finished compost at the bottom of the pile which I add to my vegetable and flower gardens.

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