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Compost 101: Our Guide to Composting

What is composting?

Composting is the process of speeding up the natural breakdown of organic matter into nutritious topsoil with the help of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. Composting takes anywhere from two weeks to two years, though the average time would be from 10 days to four weeks, depending on the method, equipment and materials used.


Types of composting

1. Aerobic/anaerobic composting makes use of the naturally-occurring bacteria in organic materials. Aerobic bacteria need oxygen in order to thrive. These are what you want to have in your compost as they do not emit a foul odor. If the heap has a rotting garbage smell, that means you have anaerobic bacteria working away on the compost. This can easily be remedied by making sure there is enough air circulation in the compost pile by turning it over.

2. Vermicomposting uses red worms to decompose the organic waste. Chopping or cutting the waste into small pieces to help speed up the process. Food scraps, yard waste, dog waste or paper are recommended for this type of composting. The worms (not your usual backyard/garden variety) eat the organic waste and drop castings (worm waste) which are very good soil conditioners. Worm castings are also used to make worm tea, which is a concentrated liquid composed of nutrients and microorganisms. You can make worm tea by running distilled water through the worm castings. When it is poured into the soil, the microorganisms multiply, creating a healthy growing environment for plants.

See our full line of Vermi-compost bins and supplies.

Getting started

1. Location, location, location

In choosing a location for composting, you must keep the following in mind: aesthetics and functionality. It is not a good idea to place your compost pile on your front lawn, unless you own acres and acres of land with no neighbors within a five-mile radius. If that's the case, then feel free to do as you please. For those who own a small piece of property, it is recommended to place the compost bin in the backyard. If you don't have a backyard, you can also use your basement. Ideally, your bin or compost heap should be placed in an area with good air circulation, good drainage and partial shade. Placing it near a water source or the garden is also recommended.

2. Equipment

The right equipment will help ensure successful composting. Most compost bins are constructed of wood, wire or plastic. There are a variety of bins to choose from, depending on where you decide to do your composting (indoors or outdoors) and how involved you would like to be in the composting process. Bins are usually classified into the following:

  • Holding units do not take up a lot of space, making them perfect for people living in apartments. They are also low maintenance as they do not require turning. The only drawback is that the lack of aeration causes the composting process to take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years.

  • Portable bins are similar to holding units, except that they can be taken apart and moved. Materials can also be mixed with this type of bin. Plastic units are available for purchase, or you may construct a bin using wire or wood.

  • Turning units are designed so that they may be aerated. Also know as Tumbling Composters, or Spinning Compost Bins, Turning units produce compost faster because they supply oxygen to the bacteria in the pile. They also have less odor problems, which are associated with poor aeration. Turning units do require a little more time to build but are becoming increasingly easy to use. 

        Turning Units come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Like the Elongated Sun-Mar 400 or the spherical EComposter

A variety of compost bins to suit your compost location and, more importantly, your budget can be found in our Compost Bin Category.

      

If you're not a DIY type of person or a bin purchase is simply out of the question at this time, you may also use a compost heap. A good pile should measure no less than 3' x 3' x 3'. The space will be sufficient enough for composting but won't make it too difficult to turn.

3. Moisture

Determining how much and when to add water to your compost pile can be tricky. Too much water won't decompose the organic waste and make it slimy and smelly. Too little water will kill the microorganisms breaking down the waste.  A good rule of thumb is the more green waste you put in, the less water you need to add. If you are backyard composting, and your area experiences heavy rain, make sure that you have a roof (or even a tarp) over the pile. This will help prevent nutrients from leaking out. In general, your compost pile should be moist but not wet.

4. Aeration

Oxygen is needed by the microorganisms responsible for successful composting. Make sure that the bacteria in your compost gets enough air by turning the pile often. You may use a pitch fork, spade or compost aerator to mix your pile. If you are using a turning unit, you just have to pull the lever and it will mix the pile for you. It is also important that the contents are turned well so the materials at the edges get moved to the middle and those in the middle get moved to the edges. Lack of air slows down decomposition and results in a dense, stinky pile.

A composter like the Tumbleweed Compost Tumbler saves you the hassle of heavy labor in turning over the contents of your bin and figuring out the layering process. You also don't have to deal with leaching issues, as the container holds all the nutrients in place. This tumbler's unique feature is the breaker bar in the middle which effectively breaks the contents as they tumble. This ensures proper distribution of air and moisture which is key for better and faster composting.

If you have a tendency to forget things on your to-do list such as 'tumble compost bin every three days', you might want to consider automatic composters like those from NatureMill. You just plug it in and the composting begins. It only takes two weeks before you get your first compost batch. 

5. Temperature

When microorganisms eat, they produce heat which helps speed up decomposition. A subtle warmth means that worms, fungi and bacteria are working hard. When the majority of decomposition has taken place and the compost is ready, the compost will feel cool. A compost pile that is working very well will produce temperatures of 140-160 degrees Fahrenheit.

6. Materials

You may use grass clippings, banana skins, vegetable peelings, wilted salad greens, kitchen scraps, wood chips, hay, dried leaves, etc. Avoid anything that would rot, like meat or dairy (please note, however, the Green Johanna composter do accept meat, chicken, fish). Materials for composting are generally classified as brown (carbon-rich) or green (nitrogen-rich). Examples of browns are autumn leaves, coffee filters, tea bags, peat moss, sawdust, hay and shredded paper. Greens are tea leaves, coffee grounds, hair, food scraps, egg shells, manure and fresh grass clippings (to name a few). It is very important to keep a 50-50 balance of browns and greens when composting. Too much browns won't generate the heat that lets you know that the bacteria is working and too much greens release an ammonia-like smell. Also make sure to cut or shred the materials in small pieces for faster decomposition. Since a compost pile can shrink up to 70% as it breaks down, you can add materials to it. Just remember not to squash the materials down as it would squeeze out the air that is inside the pile which is needed by the resident bacteria.

Some of you might be happy to know that you can use shredded paper for compost. Others might have a few concerns, especially with possible biohazards. According to EPA regulations, the amount of heavy metals in magazines and newsprints are of background levels and do not pose any real health and safety risks.

For those with pets, another solution to getting rid of their waste is by adding it to your compost. Now before start disagreeing with that statement, please continue reading. Pet waste, as well as human waste, contain pathogens. As per EPA regulations, all new waste have to undergo a five-day kill period at at least 131F to reduce pathogens found in pet waste to a safe level. It is understandable that nobody would want to continually monitor the temperature of their compost bins so it's a good thing that there are products from NatureMill and Tumbleweed which simplify this task. Both the NatureMill Pro and Plus Editions feature computer programmed automatic process for pet and food waste composter which heats to at least 140F. All that's left for you to do is to drop in any browns, greens and pet waste. Tumbleweed has a pet poo converter which uses worms to convert the waste to useful, nutrient-rich compost.

More details on our compost products can be found
here.

Benefits of compost:
  • Suppress plant diseases and pests.

  • Reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers.

  • Promote higher yields of agricultural crops.

  • Facilitate reforestation, wetlands restoration, and habitat revitalization efforts by amending contaminated, compacted, and marginal soils.

  • Cost-effectively remediate soils contaminated by hazardous waste.

  • Remove solids, oil, grease, and heavy metals from stormwater runoff.

  • Capture and destroy 99.6 percent of industrial volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in contaminated air.

  • Provide cost savings of at least 50 percent over conventional soil, water, and air pollution remediation technologies, where applicable.

Uses:

  • As soil amendment to increase the soil's organic matter. For best results, apply 1 to 3 inches of compost to the soil surface and work it in to a depth of about 3 to 4 inches.

  • As mulch. It promotes soil moisture retention, insulates soil from extreme temperatures, and breaks down to provide nutrients and organic matter for soil structure.

  • As potting mix. It is an excellent source of basic nutrients for your plants and offers good water retention.

  • As potting tea. Compost tea acts as a mild liquid fertilizer, which is ideal for indoor or container-grown plants.

Additional information can be found at:

http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/rrr/composting/basic.htm

http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/rrr/composting/benefits.htm