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Everything you need to know to get started with home composting

Composting can seem a little overwhelming. There seem to be so many things to worry about; things that might go wrong. It can seem a bit technical and science-y. But actually, the basics are quite simple, and it is easier to get a compost bin cranking than you think.

If you’re composting at home, especially if you’re a beginner, you don’t really need to get bogged down in the details. Understand the principles, and you’re on your way.

If you love the idea of composting, but simply don’t have the option to compost at home (or where you live), this post on composting without a compost bin might be useful.

If you’re keen to get you own compost system set up at home, read on.

Choosing your composting system

There are a few different composting systems (and I’m only talking about composting today – not other methods like worm farming/vermicomposting or bokashi systems).

For the beginner, there are two great home composting systems: the regular compost bins we are most used to seeing (I call them in-ground compost bins), that sit on the ground or are slightly dug in, and rotary compost bins, which are an enclosed system mounted on a frame.

Compost heaps or compost bays aren’t great for beginners as they are more difficult to manage. Digging food scraps into the ground or in trenches (if you have space for that!) works too, but it’s not really a ‘system’.

In-ground compost bins

These are easy to set up and low maintenance, and usually cost less than the rotary versions. There are a lot of second-hand compost bins available, so it’s probably not necessary to buy a new one. It’s also possible to make them by upcycling plastic barrels, old bins or other old containers.

You’ll find different styles of bin, some with doors at the bottom and heaps of ventilation holes, others that clip together and some with no bells and whistles at all.

I’m a fan of the no bells and whistles type, pictured below (I call them Dalek bins). These work best for the climate I live in. These types of bin don’t have a base, and I dig into the soil (about 10cm deep).

In my hot climate, any ventilation holes are just gaps for moisture to escape and pests to get in. Plus they provide points of weakness (because we all know plastic breaks down when exposed to sunlight).

Doors at the bottom might look cute, but the reality is it is easier to wait for the entire contents to become compost and dig the whole thing out at once.

That said, it’s possible to make most compost bins work. My neighbour was recently clearing out her shed, and offered me this for free. My plan is to dig it into the ground so that the vents at the bottom are covered, and only use it for garden waste (no food waste) to deter any pests that might want to crawl in the sides.

Because of the gaps along the sides, it will probably need a bit more water added than the other type.

Rotary composters

These tend to be more expensive than the in-ground versions, but they are perfect for patios and balconies and spaces where it isn’t possible to dig one into the ground. I’ve seen DIY versions but you’re going to need to be a bit handy to make one, as the cylinder has to be able to rotate on a frame.

There are lots of different styles and sizes, too. Some are long and thin, others are short and squat – and the way they are mounted on the frame (and therefore how they turn) varies too.

When choosing which one is right for you, it’s best to think not only about your space but also your physical capabilities. A huge bin might seem like a great idea, but if you can’t turn it because it’s too heavy, that isn’t going to work.

Another great advantage of these bins is they are less likely to attract pests and are pretty much rodent-proof.

Where to position your compost bin

You’ll often see it written that a compost bin should be placed in sunny spot, but that depends on where you live. If you live in a hot climate, placing a bin in full sun means it dries out. (Compost bins need moisture to work.)

I think it’s more important to think about a spot where you’ll actually use it. At the end of the garden behind the shed might seem like a great idea… until you need to put your scraps in it when it’s dark and raining.

A well managed compost bin shouldn’t smell, so being near a kitchen window shouldn’t matter, but if you don’t trust your skills (yet) perhaps make sure it’s not too near any doors or windows.

If you do have a garden, under a fruit tree is great, as the tree roots will benefit from the compost at the bottom of the bin.

I’d say, choose a warm and accessible spot (in a hot climate, dappled shade / afternoon shade is helpful if possible). Don’t forget, you can always move it later if your first spot doesn’t work out.

Setting up your compost bin

Once you’ve chosen a site for your compost bin (and dug it into the ground a little if it’s an in-ground compost bin – 10cm is ideal), you need to get it set up and ready to accept food scraps.

Compost bins need air (oxygen) to work properly, so when you’re setting up a new bin, it’s good to start with something chunky as the base, that allows air flow. Twigs and sticks and egg cartons are great.

The biggest mistake I see (and yep, this was also me when I started) is to add ALL the food scraps, nothing else, and watch in horror as your compost bin becomes a stinky, fly-infested mass of yuck.

Compost bins need balance. In particular, they need a balance of fresh stuff (called ‘greens’) and dead stuff (called ‘browns’). On a more technical level, we are talking about nitrogen and carbon.

Too much nitrogen (fresh stuff) will make for a stinky compost bin as it will break down too fast, using up the oxygen. Too much carbon (dead stuff) and your compost will take forever to break down.

For a beginner, a good rule of thumb is one handful of green stuff, and two handfuls of brown stuff. Or even three handfuls of brown stuff.

Placing a tub of shredded paper, old cardboard toilet tubes, egg cartons, dried leaves, wood chips, sawdust or straw (all carbon rich) next to your compost bin, so that every time you add some food scraps, you can add some carbon easily, works well.

As you add things to your bin, the stuff at the bottom will get compressed, and eventually run out of oxygen. This will make for stinky compost. Turn your compost with a pitchfork or turning fork (like a giant corkscrew) – or by rotation if that’s the type you have – to keep the air circulating. Turning once a week or once a fortnight is fine, or more often if you start to notice any bad smells.

What can and can’t go in my compost bin?

Anything that was once alive will eventually break down to become compost. There are a lot of myths circulating that you can’t compost things like onions or citrus – of course you can! When it comes to plant-based food scraps, everything goes.

As for other food scraps, it’s not that they can’t be composted, but they are more likely to attract vermin, other pests (like flies and maggots) or harbour dangerous bacteria.

As a beginner composter, avoid putting meat, fish, dairy products, bread and large amounts of cooked food in your compost bin if possible.

Thinking about garden scraps, the only things I don’t put in my compost bin are persistent or nasty weeds – things like couch or Kikuyu grass roots, or those weeds that have the spiky seeds that stab you if you stand on them barefoot.

Although home compost systems tend not to get hot enough to kill seeds, most seeds aren’t really a problem. It can be fun to get surprise tomatoes or pumpkin plants germinating from compost. Common weed seeds like dandelions still go in – even if I didn’t put them in my compost bin, the seeds are going to blow in from elsewhere, and they are easy enough to weed out again if they do appear.

Common composting problems

A good compost bin needs variety, oxygen (air), moisture and microbes/insects to keep it working. When one of these things is missing, you get problems or it slows right down.

Stinky compost bin? Add more carbon rich material, and turn your compost to increase air flow. Make sure food scraps are buried. A well managed compost bin doesn’t smell (or smells earthy, like soil).

Dry compost? Add water.

Soggy compost? If you can squeeze water out of your compost with your hands, it is too wet. Add dry material – shredded paper, sawdust, dry leaves.

Insects? Most insects are fine, so don’t panic. Lots of one type might indicate an issue. Ants usually mean it is too dry, so add water. If flies or maggots are a problem, cover the top with mulch or soil, and make sure food scraps are buried rather than sitting on top. The odd cockroach might make you wince but it isn’t going to harm you or your compost. An infestation probably means you haven’t turned your compost for a while. Mix it up, and keep turning it and they’ll find somewhere else to live. Insects have short lives, and will be gone soon enough.

Not doing anything? Adding a handful of compost or manure will add some microbes to your compost to give it a boost. Turning it will also (literally) help stir things up.

Can I set and forget?

If you want ready-to-go compost in 2 – 3 months (in a warm climate), you need to balance your greens and browns, and turn frequently. But if you just chuck it all in and forget about it, it will break down eventually. Much more slowly, but it will happen. Winter (and colder weather) also slows things down.

If you do want to use your compost bin in the garden, two (or more!) bins can be helpful. If you’re constantly adding fresh food scraps to your compost bin, you are always going to have non-composted bits in your compost. Ideally, you’ll fill one bin to the top, and then continue to turn it whilst starting to fill a second one. That way, you’ll have fresh compost ready to go by the time the second one is full.

Once emptied, you can start refilling again and leave the other one to work its magic.

If you want to start composting at home, the best thing to do is to just start. Then, as issues pop up or you have questions, you can troubleshoot one by one. Most problems are easily fixed. Get a compost bin set up, and you’ll learn as you go.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any questions about composting? Any issues I didn’t cover? Any beginner tips you think others need to know? Any other thoughts at all? Please share in the comments below!

Community Composting (+ Tips For Better Compost)

One of my favourite things about living with less waste is that there is never a single solution. There are always lots of solutions. Different options work better for different people and different situations, but there will always be a way.

In Australia, 40% of our landfill bins consist of food waste. Trimmed off bits, peels, skins, seeds, cores, outer leaves, shells, things we left in the fridge a little too long, bad bits, leftovers.

We toss this stuff in the general waste bin, and off it heads to landfill. Which, contrary to what many people believe, isn’t a giant compost heap. It’s a tomb of waste, sealed by layers of rocks (or sometimes layers of plastic) in between the layers of rubbish, and slowly releasing methane into the environment.

At the same time as we throw our food scraps in the bin, we head to the garden centre to buy plastic bags of compost to help our plants grow better.

We’ve got it all wrong!

So what can we do with our food scraps instead?

Before I moved to Australia, I lived in Bristol (in the UK), and I was fortunate enough to have my organic waste collected by the council every week and taken to an industrial composter. This isn’t an option where I live now (although some councils are currently trialing it).

Even if it was, I wouldn’t use that service now. I would rather keep my food waste (it is a valuable resource!) and turn it into something I can use – or donate it to someone else who can use it instead.

I’ve talked about some different ways of dealing with food waste before: DIY worm farms, done-for-you worm farms and bokashi bins. If you’re just starting out on the living-with-less-waste journey, setting up systems at home can take a bit of time.

As always, there’s a solution. Community composting!

For anyone wanting an easy beginner’s solution, or for anyone without the time or space to set up their own systems, community composting banks are perfect.

What Is A Community Composting Bank?

A community composting bank is simply a location where members of the community can go to deposit their food scraps.

(They are not necessarily called “banks”. I was thinking about this word, and whether it was better to use the word “hub”, “centre” or “facility”. A phrase popped into my head that I’ve heard many times before: “growing your own food is like printing your own money”. If compost is what helps us to grow food, then I think bank is the best word after all.)

The best composting banks are those with capacity to handle the scraps they receive; those with unrestricted access; and those that are managed/overseen by someone to check they are working properly, not contaminated or full of pests.

By “best”, I really mean “easiest to use”. That’s not to say others don’t work well too. Given the choice, I’d prefer to turn out to a facility that is open/accessible, has space to take my scraps, and isn’t infected with cockroaches.

I’d still come back if I turned up to find the place was locked, or the bins were full, but not everyone will. To reach the maximum number of people, things need to be as easy as possible.

The other important consideration is location. A 24 hour access composting hub on the other side of town is less practical than the restricted access compost bins just down the road.

As with most community initiatives, the more local, the more useful and likely to be used.

How We Set Up Our Community Composting Bank

I run a community composting hub together with my friend and neighbour. Originally, both of us listed our home compost bins on the awesome website sharewaste.com, a free-to-use service connecting people with food scraps with people with compost bins.

Around the same time, we started a Food Tree project on the land next to my house, planting 34 food trees for our community. We realised that these trees are going to need a fair bit of compost.

We had space for compost bins and we knew plenty of people in our community would be eager to donate their food scraps to our bins.

We started with two bins, and have now increased to five (all donated or sourced second-hand).

As people contact us via Sharewaste, we ask them to bring their food scraps here, and started making compost.

Managing A Community Composting Hub

As with everything, the more people who get involved with something, the more likely it is that things will go awry. With about 20 families currently emptying their food scraps into our bins, we started noticing more and more that things weren’t quite as they should be.

I should add that this is not the fault of the people donating their scraps. As the managers, it is our responsibility to make sure it is all working.

If people haven’t had compost bins before, there is no reason why they would know what is good and what is not.

There were a few problems that we had in particular.

Fresh food scraps going in whichever bin.

This meant all five bins would have fresh food scraps mixed into varying degrees of compost – frustrating when we wanted to dig out the ready compost and there’s a bunch of veggies in there too.

We realised that whilst it might be totally obvious to us which bin was the one for new food scraps, it certainly wasn’t clear to everyone!

Too many veggies scraps (too much nitrogen).

Compost bins need a balance of nitrogen and carbon. Nitrogen-rich scraps are anything green and fresh; carbon scraps are anything brown or dead. Veggie scraps are high in nitrogen. If the only thing being added is fresh green nitrogen-rich scraps, the bin will get stinky and attract flies and other pests pretty quickly.

For all of the green scraps added, some browns (carbon) need to be added too.

Food scraps not being mixed in.

A big mound of fresh veggies sitting on top of the compost pile will not break down nearly as well as those food scraps stirred in, because that is where the microbes are – inside, not on top! Not to mention that food on top will attract pests.

Too much carbon.

Less of an issue as most people are donating food scraps (nitrogen), but we did find one compost bin completely filled with shredded paper – and nothing else. Without anything else, that would have sat there probably for years, breaking down ever so slowly. In the same way as there can’t be too much green, there definitely can’t be too much brown.

Setting Up a Composting System That Works

My neighbour and I talked about all the issues, and how to reduce them in future. Community things need to be easy, and we felt a big list of rules would be overwhelming and put people off – which is the last thing we want!

We worked through the issues one by one, and have implemented a system.

Firstly, we decided that it was too difficult to expect people to figure out which bin was the one to add their scraps to simply by looking.

We decided instead to implement a linear system, where the scraps always go into one designated bin, and then we will move into other bins along the line manually.

(This means we can also check there’s nothing strange being added.)

We also decided that to make it easy for people to add carbon to their food scraps, we’d set up a bin solely with carbon so they could simply scoop some in afterwards.

Then, we added some signage and labels.

We wrote up the basics on a sign, weatherproofed it and secured it to a post.

We wrote a document with more tips and tricks (the stuff that we’d like people to know) and added a QR code to the sign, so if they have a question, they can check.

We’ve also secured the aerator/composting fork to the signpost (and explained in the sign what it is for) so that it is easy for people to mix their food scraps into the existing compost.

We painted labels on the two bins that people need to use. When in doubt, always label.

In short, we’ve tried to predict in advance what could go wrong, and then solve it before it happens. So far, it seems to be working well.

Looking for a Community Composting Hub?

If you’re feeling inspired to hook into an existing hub or maybe start your own, my first suggestion would be see who else is in your area via sharewaste.com. My second suggestion would be to contact your nearest community garden.

If both of these fail, consider whether you could set up a mini hub at your place. Even if you only have capacity to take a couple of household’s food scraps, it all helps!

Now I’d love to hear from you! How do you currently deal with your food scraps? Do you like your current system or would you prefer something different? Have you any experiences with community composting hubs – both good and not-so good? Anything other questions? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!