Lazy Composting

This is the composting method that works for me!  It’s really simple, and it produces rich dirt for my flowerbeds quickly enough to suit me.  If you are serious about making really high-quality compost or doing it quickly or being certain it is safe for growing food, then you should seek out instructions from somebody who has bothered to learn all about that!  But if you just want to keep some of your garbage out of the landfill and make some good dirt, read on…

Composting just means allowing unwanted plant materials to decay and turn into dirt with the help of earthworms and tinier creatures.  All you really have to do is put the stuff in a pile outdoors and let nature take its course!  The following details are just to help you manage the process with minimal fuss.

There are two basic ways to store your Lazy Compost:

  • in a heap on the ground.  The disadvantage is that if you need to relocate your compost to a different part of the yard, you’ll have to heft it with a pitchfork into some kind of temporary container.
  • in two bins.  These can be just about anything that is pretty big (but small enough that you can drag it, full, if you need to move it) and lets rainwater drain out of it.  Opaque sides help it stay warm to encourage worms and bacteria to hang around.  My bins are two of the largest size plastic flowerpots from Kmart, about 2 feet tall and wide.  They’re getting a little brittle now, but they’ve lasted 8 years so far.  Alternatively, check out Analytical Mom’s method for making a compost bin in 5 minutes!

You’ll want to have it close enough to the house that you can go out and add food scraps to it pretty easily, but not up against your foundation where it can cause a dampness problem, and not right next to a window or outdoor seating area–compost usually doesn’t have a bad smell, but when you throw out a rotten onion you’ll want it out of whiffing distance!

Once you’ve chosen your location, pick up any dead leaves that are lying around your yard and put them in the compost.  Then start saving your food scraps: peels, cores, and pits from fruits and vegetables; coffee grounds and filters; tea leaves and tea bags (remove staples); egg shells; and spoiled leftovers of plant foods including bread, pasta, and rice.  (Some people say not to put moldy stuff in compost, but I’ve found that if you leave it on top in the sunlight, the mold gives up after a while.)  We use an empty family-size yogurt tub as our compost bucket; we keep it on the back edge of the kitchen sink normally and stick it under the sink when we’re trying to look elegant.  You also can compost paper towels, napkins, and tissues that are free of meat, milk, and chemical cleansers; paper plates and bags with no plastic coating; biodegradable litter, wood chips, or paper shreds from vegetarian pets like gerbils, hamsters, and rabbits; cardboard tubes and boxes; cotton swabs made with cardboard sticks and real cotton (not synthetic fiber); and hair clippings.

Whenever it’s convenient, take your scraps out to the compost and just drop them on top.  If you have two bins, put new stuff into one bin and keep older stuff in the other bin.  If you have a heap, add new stuff to one side.  This makes the good finished dirt easier to sort out from the stuff that still needs time.  It works better this way but isn’t strictly necessary, so don’t freak out if you accidentally put stuff in at the wrong side!

When you trim your lawn or other plants, any cuttings that are basically leafy can go into the compost.  You don’t want to put big sticks in there because they take too long to decay, and they can hurt you when you’re mixing the compost.  Also, don’t put in poisonous plants that could give you a rash when you mix.  If there’s any plant that you’ve cut back or ripped out by the roots because it’s invading your whole yard, don’t put it in your compost–then its seeds will be in there, and when you spread the nice rich soil on your garden, that invasive species will have a lovely new home!

The beauty of this system is that you can go all winter without doing anything but adding new scraps, so now is a great time to get started!  You will not have to mix the compost until spring.  (It’ll decay faster if you do mix it.  But you don’t have to.)

Every two months or so, from spring through fall, dig out the good dirt and put it on your garden.  You’ll recognize the good dirt because it looks like dirt–dark brown and crumbly–instead of like scraps and goo.  Put the things that still need more composting time back into the compost.  Some things just take longer, like avocado pits and peels, peach pits, egg shells, big stems from things like squashes, and hair.  Here’s how to mix and sort your compost:

  • Heap method: Use a pitchfork to set aside the upper layers of the heap.  Dig good dirt out from underneath.  Move remaining stuff over to the “old” side of the heap.
  • Two-bins method: Turn the bin with the older stuff in it upside-down and dump it onto the ground, scooping out every bit of compost stuck in the bottom.  Use a pitchfork or trowel to spread it out.  Take out the good dirt.  Put remaining stuff back into the bin.  Now dump the bin of newer stuff into the bin of older stuff; what was at the bottom of that bin will now be on top.  Take out any good dirt you find there.  Use your tool to stir the compost and work some air into it.  The bin that is now empty is where your new compost will go.

What if there aren’t enough worms?  Well, give it a try before you start worrying about that!  In my experience (several different yards in urban Pennsylvania), if you build it, they will come: Earthworms will find a compost heap/bin and get all up in it within weeks, and after a year or so they’re so well established that most of the compost is converted into solid masses of pink wrigglingness within three months.  It’s almost creepy how many worms appear and how big and muscular some of them are!  I suppose not all of them are professional composting worms, but they do a fine job anyway.

If you have your compost piling up for several months, including several weeks of warm weather, yet when you turn it you don’t see any worms and it doesn’t seem to be breaking down, then you do need to seek out worms.  The thrifty way to do this is to go to a social gathering and announce loudly, “I wish I had worms!” in hopes that someone will offer to give you a solid mass of pink wrigglingness from her own compost bin.  Or you could say something less misinterpretable, like, “Gee, I’ve been trying to compost, but it seems like there aren’t any earthworms in my yard; does anyone know where to find some?”  Or if you’re too shy even for that, you can order worms from a gardening catalog and watch for your postal carrier’s reaction.

What if the compost gets slimy and stinky?  This happens to some small-to-medium portion of our compost about once a year.  It’s caused by anaerobic bacteria, which thrive in places without air; when the compost gets too packed-down and wet, worms can’t breathe in it, but the anaerobic bacteria can over-breed.  In other words, this is a problem of Lazy Composting, which can be solved by being less lazy and stirring up your compost more often to get air into it.  But once it’s happened, there’s an easy solution: Spread the yucky stuff on the ground (on pavement, if convenient) one inch thick or less, and let it dry in the sun for a day or two.  That will kill off all the stink and slime.  Then mix it with some fluffy stuff, like dead leaves or shredded paper, and shovel it back into the bin/heap for further composting.

Check out MiniMOMist’s waste-free trick for tidy vegetable peeling that helps to balance carbon and nitrogen in your compost!

Visit the collection of gardening links at Mums Make Lists!

UPDATE: I wrote a 3-part series on composting at Kitchen Stewardship!

33 thoughts on “Lazy Composting

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