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!
Concerned About Backyard Aesthetics? Try Cold Composting in Closed Bins or TumblersFreestanding 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.
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.