Composting – Find What Works for You

Composting has intimidated me for years. It just seems so complicated – temperatures, ratios, potential rodent invasions, turning, finding the right type of composter or pile, and just knowing when it’s done and ready to use. There’s just so much to consider, and honestly, I only have so much time. I’m a low-maintenance kinda gal… if something takes a great deal of time and constant monitoring, then I tend to avoid it. That is the very reason I avoided the effort of composting: I figured it was way too much trouble, and I’d probably do it wrong anyway.

The first time I tried it, I bought one of those counter-top composting cans with a lid – roughly one gallon size. It was meant to sit on the countertop containing your food scraps until full, then to be transferred to your compost pile outside. The problem was that before it ever reached the halfway full point, I had fruit flies and all types of funny smells coming from that thing. The advertised “odor control through airflow” did nothing, and I just ended up getting rid of it and giving up…. for the next 2 years. During that 2 year span I built out my garden and started my flock of chickens. Those two things just SCREAM “Please Compost Now!!!” So, I decided I needed to find help… because I really wanted – no, needed – to compost the wealth of chicken poop, veggie scraps, and yard debris for the benefit of my garden. I went to the bookstore, and just ended up feeling overwhelmed.

Then while doing some internet research, I came across a resource that I didn’t even know existed: the “Ask an Expert” program through Oregon State University. OSU is an agriculturally-based college, and they have very strong extension programs for the community. You can get advice from an expert on a variety of topics from garden pests and soil testing to canning and livestock care. I completed the contact form, and within one day I received a call from one of the composting experts associated with the program. He was happy to answer nearly 45 minutes of questions… and was excited to share information and solutions with me. This guy really had a passion for composting, and was very gifted at breaking down the complicated pieces of the subject into explanations that I could understand easily.

Within a week, I had a new composting set up, one that works absolutely great… and most importantly, is incredibly low-maintenance. And now that I’m aware of the OSU “Ask an Expert” program, I’ve used it to help find answers to multiple questions. They are really great, and not just for Oregonians. My aunt in Georgia could contact them anytime, and they’d be happy to help her, too.

I wanted to show you the system I am currently using. One thing it’s taught me is that composting is much more forgiving than you’d think. I always forget to water down or turn the pile. I guarantee that I dump things in that aren’t the correct Brown-Green (Carbon to Nitrogen) ratio. Even so, this system has been slowly churning out compost effectively. So, here’s my system:

  1. A simple (but cute, of course) medium-sized green glass bowl that graces my counter top. It collects the day’s food scraps – everything from used coffee grounds to orange peels. Every evening when I go outside to shut the chicken coop door, this bowl comes with me.Kitchen Compost Bowl
  2. The contents of the green bowl are dumped into a 6 gallon feed can that resides on the back porch. It’s small, unassuming, and allows me to clean out the kitchen compost stash from the day without hiking all the way back to the main compost pile… because I know myself well enough to admit that’ll never happen on a daily basis.
  3. Then, there’s the big composter – the focal point of the whole operation. My nieces and nephews call it the alien spaceship; I’m sure you can figure out why. Pretty good resemblance, eh? Now, not everyone needs a huge container for their compost. usually an open pile will suffice just fine. In my area though, I know there are rats… and they love, love, love compost piles. To prevent that problem, I bought an enclosed composter and attached a layer of 1/4″ hardware cloth to the bottom. It works perfectly to keep the rats out – but unfortunately it also keeps the rain out (and compost piles need water). So, when I have the hose out that way to water plants, I water down the compost pile, too. It gets turned when I have time (and when I actually remember to do it). However- if you choose an open system and happen to have chickens, you’ll never have to turn it – they’ll do it for you.Thermostar 1000 Composter FINAL

This simple 3-part system has worked fine for me, because it fits my personality. That’s something that is often overlooked when someone tries to start the process of composting. You can’t do what has worked for your mom or your neighbor. You have to do what works for you. I know that I’m not going to trek from my kitchen all he way back to my main compost pile every day. That’s just never going to happen. So, the feed can on the back porch was the perfect solution; I walk by it every night on my way to the chicken coop. I also knew that if there’s an open bowl of food scraps sitting on the kitchen counter, I’d take care of it each evening. So, the trick is to find something you can stick with so that you’re set up for successful composting from the start.

In addition to the OSU program, I found a book that is hands-down the best I’ve ever read on the topic of composting. It’s simple, easy to understand, and presents multiple options on how you might implement a system of your own. It’s an older book from 2008, but is still the best I’ve found: “The Complete Compost Gardening Guide: Banner batches, grow heaps, comforter compost, and other amazing techniques for saving time and money, and … most flavorful, nutritous vegetables ever” by Deborah Martin and Barbara Pleasant. This is a great book to just have at home for constant reference. It addresses everything you could possibly encounter during this process. 

Don’t be intimidated by starting a composting process in your own backyard. If I can do it (quite imperfectly), then I’m sure anyone else can, too. Since you have to mow the lawn, make those grass clippings work for you. How about the ash from your fireplace or outdoor fire pit? Those are perfect for a compost pile. Do you have weeds, kitchen scraps, livestock poop (never dog or cat), or spent flowers from your garden? Throw them all in the pile. Below is a list of some of the more readily-available items you can – and cannot – compost, and which category they fit into. Like I said earlier, I don’t toss in the correct ratios, because I don’t have the time to keep track of everything that is dumped in. However, this chart helps me remember that if I dumped in an entire load of grass clippings (all nitrogen), I’d better find something from the carbon category to put in the composter, too.  THE FORMULA:  I’m sure you’ve often read about the all-important C/N (Carbon/Nitrogen) Ratio. It’s not complicated. Basically, all organic matter can be divided into one of two categories: First, the carbon-rich (brown stuff) and second, the nitrogen-rich (green stuff). Although nearly any combination of organic materials will eventually decompose, you want to try and find the correct C/N ratio in order to speed up the process. Commonly recommended is usually 25:1 (25 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen).Using the right mixture of “brown stuff” and “green stuff” when will encourage the compost pile to heat up and decompose efficiently. A Composting For Dummies article provided some good “recipes” to begin with:

  • Recipe #1: Four parts kitchen scraps from fruits and vegetables, 2 parts chicken or cow manure, 1 part shredded newspaper (black ink only), and 1 part shredded dry leaves.
  • Recipe #2: Two parts kitchen scraps, 1 part chicken manure, and 1 part shredded leaves.
  • Recipe #3: Two parts grass clippings, 1 part chicken manure, and 1 part shredded leaves.

You can tweak those recipes using substitutions from my composting guide, found below.

Download (PDF, 196KB)

Basically, the point of this article/post is to let you know that composting is easy. It may take a little bit of reading to get going, but not much. Composting is forgiving. Have you ever gone on a hike in early spring and noticed how the forest floor is composting all of the leaves from last fall? Nature decomposes organic material naturally, so just let it handle your compost pile. You’re really just an assistant to nature – keep adding stuff to the pile, and try to keep the ratios balanced. Mother Nature will do the rest!


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