Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Composting: Setting Up, Maintaining and Using Your Compost

Many people believe composting to be extremely difficult, smelly and generally not worth the time.  However, aside from providing the avid gardener with his/her brown gold (compost), improving the productivity of your soil, improving water retention in your soil, reducing need for fertilizers, reducing needs for pesticides and herbicides, reducing your trash production, and being generally good for the environment, compost can be a great learning tool too.  With all the tools and modern composting helpers, it can also be relatively easy.  This article is about starting your compost and maintaining your compost once it has gotten started.

All you really need to get started is a bin (unless you have a huge amount of space and organic waste so that piles will work).  and some waste materials.  There are plenty of ways to build your own bin but you can also purchase pre-made bins.  These pre-made bins aren't a lot more expensive than it would cost to buy all your own materials and are simple to set up.  First fill the lower portion of your bin with shredded paper or dried and fallen leaves, sprinkle with water and then start adding scraps and yard waste.

One of the most important keys to composting, is keeping the ratio of "browns" to "greens" just right.  Only about twenty to forty percent of what goes into your composter should be from the "greens" category.  The compost also needs to be kept moist (about as wet as an already wrung-out sponge) and aerated to allow molds to grow.  To help your compost get enough air, you'll want to "stir" your compost or turn it over occasionally.   Don't fill your compost bin quite as full as shown in this picture - it'll be hard to stir.  Having a "stirrer" can be really helpful with this.  Here is the one I own.

The prongs on the bottom pivot into the staff so it can be driven down into the compost and then when you pull up the prongs pop out and lift the materials in your compost.  I suggest getting the tools to make it easy.  The easier composting is, the more your kids can do to take the job over and learn from having this tool in your lives.

Things to Drop into your Composter:


  1. Used Tissues and Napkins (paper only)
  2. Nail Clippings
  3. Hair from your hairbrush (or clippings after a shave or haircut)
  4. Hair from your pet's grooming brush
  5. Bread (stale) - including old pizza crusts, rolls, etc.
  6. Paper towel rolls (toilet paper rolls count too)
  7. Crackers, pretzels and other similar snack items (stale)
  8. Used paper plates, cups, and any other paper serving item.
  9. Nut shells (except walnuts)
  10. Old herbs and spices
  11. Egg shells
  12. Corks
  13. Moldy cheese (just make sure to only do a little at a time.
  14. Old jelly, jam, or preserves.
  15. Stale Beer, Champagne, Soda etc.
  16. Old loofahs and natural sponges
  17. Paper egg cartons
  18. Toothpicks
  19. Bamboo skewers
  20. Paper cupcake or muffin cups
  21. q-tips (with paper shafts)
  22. cotton balls (must be 100% cotton)
  23. Anything cotton works, so old cotton clothing (t-shirts, underwear, etc - just cut it up first).
  24. Wool also works so the above goes for wool clothing as well.
  25. Any shredded documents or papers (avoid staples and the plastic windows from bill envelopes).
  26. Pencil shavings
  27. Sticky notes
  28. Business cards
  29. Receipts
  30. Coffee grounds and filters
  31. Tea bags
  32. Paper towels
  33. Boxes made from cardboard or tagboard torn into smaller pieces (pizza boxes, cereal boxes, etc.)
  34. Paper bags, ripped or balled up.
  35. Cooked pasta
  36. Cooked rice
  37. Contents of your vacuum cleaner bag of canister
  38. Contents of your dryer lint trap
  39. Newspapers (torn into smaller bits)
  40. Subscription cards from magazines.
  41. Leaves, Leaves, Leaves
  42. Expired houseplants (unless they have a disease that might be spread to other plants).
  43. Cut flowers
  44. Natural potpourri
  45. Ashes from the fireplace, outdoor fire pit, or grill and used matches.
  46. Used soil.
  47. Wrapping paper rolls,
  48. Paper table cloths
  49. Raffia
  50. Streamers (paper only - no tinsel)
  51. Jack O' Lanterns (chop up first for best results)
  52. Any holiday decor made from organic sources such has hay or evergreen boughs, trees etc.
  53. Droppings and bedding from your small pet (bird, gerbils, mice etc.) Do NOT put cat or dog waste in your compost.
  54. Feathers
  55. Old pet food (dry cat and dog food, fish, bird seed, rawhide dog chews, alfalfa pellets - no wet foods or bones)
  56. Dried weeds
  57. Twigs, branches and other clippings (shredded or chipped first).
  58. Sawdust
  59. Old Mulch
  60. Lunch bags.


  1. Veggie clippings
  2. Grass clippings
  3. Fresh garden trimmings and cut flowers
  4. Livestock manure
  5. Peels and rinds and other fruit scraps

Things NOT to drop into your Composter:

  1. Anything synthesized (any plastics, polyester, nylon, rayon, styrofoam, etc.)
  2. Metal
  3. Batteries, sealers, paints and other chemicals, poisons and toxins.
  4. Diseased or infected plants
  5. Meat
  6. Glossy Papers
  7. Heavily waxed papers (milk cartons)
  8. Cat litter and Doggie Doo
  9. Invasive weeds
  10. Charcoal ash.

Trouble Shooting:

If your compost smells bad: turn or stir your compost and add more browns (papers and fallen leaves are especially good).

Your compost pile must get nice and hot for decomposition to occur.  If it isn't getting hot, your pile is too small (at least one cubic yard) or it likely needs more water.  

Bugs or mold in the compost:  This is a natural part of the process and is a GOOD sign.  Keep mixing and watering the compost regularly.  Especially with your kids, keep an eye out for spiders and insects that might bite when working with the compost.  

You know Your Compost is Ready When:

It is dark brown and crumbly, smells like freshly turned earth, and you can't identify the stuff you originally put in the bin to start with.  At this point pull your finished compost from the bottom of your bin and pass it through a sieve or compost screen.  Stuff that stays in the screen goes back into the composter, stuff that falls through gets used.

Mix the compost into your garden soil, use it like mulch, or sprinkle it lightly over your lawn outside.  To use it inside pots, you'll want to use 30% yard waste, 50% worm compost (or time-release soil) and 20% vermiculite.

You'll have some great soil so you can grow some yummy veggies, beautiful flowers, or wonderful greenery.  

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