Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Composting technologies

My goal in this post is to give you the practical advice on how to actually compost at home, with the idea that my previous posts have given you both some motivation to do it and some of the principles at work.

Let’s start by reviewing the basics.  All we need to compost is: air, water, nitrogen and a reasonable temperature.  Nature itself provides most of this and in essence all you need to do is make a pile, turn it regularly, and ensure it doesn’t dry out.  However, by controlling the process just a bit we can really speed things up and make life a bit easier for ourselves by saving space and organising the whole venture.

I’ll review a few technological approaches that may be of use to the average householder:

Piles

This is the tried-and-true low-tech solution.  Simply start a pile somewhere convenient with enough space to allow for turning.  Check moisture levels weekly and turn when you notice the pile has shrunk significantly.  I usually keep adding to the pile until it is a decent size, then start a new one while it matures.  Depending on the amount of waste produced and speed of decomposition, you will probably find that a maximum of three piles will do.  The advantage here is obvious – simplicity.  However, the the major disadvantage is lack of control.  The piles will be open for cat, dog and rat visitors, subject to wind and general unsightliness.  There will also be a limit to how high you can make the pile before it slumps, growing horizontally.

DIY compost box

A simple box to contain the compost can be made to suit any size or space.  There is no ideal material, it just must be constructed to allow air to enter.  This may be done with wood slats or chicken wire, but there is no ideal design.  The composter I built for our garden has three spaces and is made from used fence posts and bit of expanded metal I collected.

DIY Composter at our garden in Scotland.

Fresh clippings go into the left bay, they are turned once into the middle bay and are screened (I have a screen made of chicken wire that can be placed over the box) before being dropped into the right bay.  Screenings go back into the second bay for further decomposition.  The rear ‘wall’ of the composter is an existing wire mesh fence.  This system is still quite simple and cheap, but results in a bit more control over the process.  It still has the disadvantage of being open to the elements.

Round plastic composter

Round plastic composter.

The round plastic composter and its rectangular and octagonal counterparts are a poplar choice for those who do not generate a large amount of waste and are looking for a more concealed option.  The idea is that you continuously fill the container from the top and remove finished compost from the bottom.  Whilst the concept is quite tidy, it does not absolve the user from the ensuring the composting process is running along.  As turning is not advisable (although I’ve ‘mixed’ ours using a fork) the best technique is to layer the more dense/moist kitchen waste with grass clippings and leaves.  We use our’s (see here) for kitchen scraps that may attract animals – bits of cheese, egg shells, plate scrapings, etc…  I try to keep large chunks of wood and other bits out  as they may take longer to digest.  This is an ideal solution for the city dweller who may not produce much garden waste.  Due to the magical shrinking power of compost, our unit has oft times been full to the top, but after two years of adding waste has still not reached the top of the front door.

Rotating composters

Rotating composter.

Many people, such as myself, have a weakness for any sort of gadget that makes your life easier and possibly a little more interesting.  Rotating composters are very common in large-scale operations and, under strict management, have the ability to compost waste into a finished product in less than a week.  Home versions, such as the one shown, may achieve similar results under the right conditions, but this, in practise, seems unlikely.  Their main advantage, however, is simple ergonomics.  They are much easier to load and unload and a good mix is much more certain.

So, hopefully there’s been enough information here to help you start composting!

In the mean time, I’ll take any questions you may have on the subject.

 

  • Anonymous

    Your DIY composter is beautiful. We have a similar system with two open boxes and a shake screen that we use. Our piles are currently hidden from view by a gigantic volunteer squash something that spontaneously arose from the edges of the compost.

    At this time of year, when frost is threatening my garden, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to collect everything, I’m very thankful to know that what I don’t preserve or eat, I can compost to help provide for our garden next year.

    • Steve

      Volunteer squash can be exciting!  Apparently most of them can cross-breed and result in some crazy (and possibly beautiful) offspring.

      • Anonymous

        The squash is interesting for sure. It’s ridged like an acorn squash, but grows to the colossal zucchini size if left unpicked for too long. But it has the most beautiful huge green leaves; the plant takes up about a cubic yard.