How What Where to Compost Part 2: Bins & Piles

If you’ve gotten the basics in How What Where to Compost Part 1, below are tips on how to compost in a bin vs. a pile. “Bin” in this context means an enclosed plastic bin.

It can be as simple as a trashcan with holes drilled in it…

Or a more expensive stationary bin that may be open on the bottom, allowing bacteria, worms and other goodies to help the compost accelerate…

Or it may be one that can rotate in place…

Click the images for more info. Bin-wise, I’ve only used a trashcan with holes drilled in it, so I don’t have experience with the other items. I thought they’d be fun to share to get ideas flowing if you’re bin-curious. And here are some more types.

PLASTIC BINS

17.5.11 TheWholeRuth Compost

  • EQUALITY: Put in an equal amount of “green” and “brown.” It doesn’t have to be at the same time, but within a few days of adding food scraps or green, add brown.
  • ADD BROWN: Be sure to put in “brown” stuff. Only adding food, without carbon-rich dry brown items, makes the bin too nitrogen-rich, which is stinky and doesn’t make the chemical reaction that creates compost.
  • WATER: Also, while water is usually added to compost, it’s sometimes possible for enclosed bins to use the moisture of the green ingredients to help cook the compost. But if things get too dry, try gently adding in some water when you turn the bin.
  • MORE INFO: If you need more info, read How What Where to Compost

HOW DO YOU TURN THE BIN?

  • NOT TOO HEAVY: Make sure it doesn’t get too heavy to turn. Turning the bin gives the compost the oxygen it needs to work.
  • ROLLING IT AWKWARDLY IS FINE: When we were using a plastic trashcan with drilled holes, we’d slightly tip it and “steer” it, rolling it along the drive-way at an angle to rotate the contents inside.
  • TARP OPTION: If the type of bin you have is stationary or isn’t rollable, an option is to dump out the compost onto a tarp, turn it and then put it back in the bin.
  • MOVE-IT OPTION: If your bin is open to the ground at its base, some people pick up the whole bin off the compost, put it down in a new spot, then return the compost.
  • PITCHFORK OPTION: You can also use a pitchfork to repeatedly push into the pile and lift it straight up. This is hard for me to do.
  • MIXING TOOL OPTION: Some people use a handy compost mixing tool, designed only for turning stationary compost bins! Stick the bottom in and twist the handle to aerate the pile. People say they work wonders. Click to read their good reviews:

OPEN-AIR PILES

  • 1 CUBIC YARD: One cubic yard is the magic size for the pile to really heat up.
  • OUR EXPERIENCE: The following tips are how we make a pile at The Hollywood Orchard:

LAYERING

  • BROWN + GREEN + WATER: Make a layer of green, about an inch thick, then a layer of brown, same thickness, then mix, gently water the layers the whole time you’re mixing, repeat until done.
  • MIX EACH LAYER: To reiterate, instead of mixing it all at the end, we mix each layer. Doing it slowly lets it be thoroughly mixed which helps it cook. It’s physically more manageable to me too.
  • HOW TO MIX: We use a pitch-forky hoe. (I’m sure that’s the proper name.)

WATERING

  • GLUE: Watering while mixing lets the moisture go deep into the layer to hold it together like glue. This lets the pile get really tall and reach a cubic yard.
  • NO MOISTURE, NO HEAT: Without watering each layer, it apparently doesn’t cook!
  • SPONGE GOAL: The pile should be saturated to where you could wring the compost out like a sponge. But if water is trickling down the sides, it’s too much.

HOW TO FLIP/ TURN

  • Next to the pile, have a second space as large as the one that holds the pile. 
  • Shovel the top layer onto the empty spot and repeat the same watering/ mixing for each layer like before. 
  • The top layer will become the bottom layer and the bottom becomes the top.
  • The top layer will have cooked the least because it was exposed to the air.
  • The inside will be more cooked, even ashy sometimes, or still steaming!
  • So flipping allows the whole thing a chance to cook evenly. 
  • More new green or brown can be added every time a pile is flipped.
  • At the end, cover everything in a layer of brown to reduce smells.
  • For a visual, in the photo above, we moved the pile from the left space, where the pitchfork is, to the right. 
  • (I thought we would flip the pile in place, which seemed hard, messy and confusing. Putting it next to where it was, made it so easy to flip! That may seem obvious, but living in apartments for most of my life has apparently made my brain not think of space as an option. Having a 2nd spot blew my mind!)
  • If you don’t have an extra plot to flip the pile, some people dump out the compost onto a tarp, turn it and then put it back in its original spot. Or you can try the pitchfork or mixing tool options above.

HOW OFTEN

  • Turning or flipping a pile can be done once a week.
  • Turning it every 3 weeks or whenever is fine too, it’ll just take longer for the pile to be “finished.”
  • A pile can be turned as often as every three days to finish the project more quickly.
  • Whether it’s every 3 days, once a week, or however long, turn the pile 3-4 times for it to become “done.”

INGREDIENT TIPS

  • Horse poo really has a hard time breaking down. (Another gardening friend recently said that chicken poo or sheep poo work wonders! And cow poo, too, because their four stomachs break the food down more than a horse’s stomach.)
  • We still use horse poo though.
  • If we see something that is stuck in a clump, we break it up with our hands.
  • The Hollywood Orchard doesn’t worry about avocado pits or too many acidic fruits. Our philosophy so far is that it’ll all break down eventually.
  • Remember to chop up whatever large things go in the pile, food, twigs, etc., to help it “digest” more quickly. What does large mean? A whole orange is better halved or quartered, a branch is better in 3 inch pieces or at least smaller than it started.
  • We usually use sheers to chop the ingredients. Whatever container holds the ingredients beforehand, a bucket, a trashcan, or whatever, we stick the sheers in and just chop around crazy until it feels like the right size. Or until we’re too tired to keep chopping.

PILES IN WOODEN BINS

This option is sort of a mix of the other two. It’s like an open-air pile in an enclosure. I don’t have experience with this, but will soon! We’re currently making one. I’ll update as we learn more. Below are some examples (click images for info). Here are more.

EVERYONE DOES IT DIFFERENTLY

Would love to hear how you do it.

For general composting info, check out How What Where to Compost.

Need inspiration? Maybe this will fluff your muffins: Why to Compost

My favorite context for the word “bin” (at 4:10): Life in Quarantine After 55 Days

Compost by faisalovers from the Noun Project

Advertisements

How What Where to Compost

These guidelines are true for any compost, whether it’s done in a bin, in a pile, or in the ground. (More info: Compost Bins vs. Piles)

  • Compost needs about 50% green ingredients, 50% brown ingredients, oxygen and water.

GREEN

  • “Green” is anything with moisture. It can be any color. Food scraps, grass, leaves, coffee grounds, (non-pet) manure…
  • Green is nitrogen-rich.
  • If there is too much green, it will get very stinky. If this is happening, add more brown. (Also, too much green means too much nitrogen, which means it could burn plants if it was used as fertilizer in this stinky form.)

BROWN

  • “Brown” is anything dry. Dry leaves, brown paper bags, wood chips, egg cartons…
  • Brown is carbon-rich.
  • It helps to cover the compost with a layer of only brown to keep the smell enclosed.

OXYGEN

  • The compost needs oxygen to work. That’s why it’s important to turn bins or flip piles when making compost, to let oxygen reach different parts of the compost. Also, make sure there is air circulating around the compost.

WATER

  • The compost needs moisture, so add water to give it more oxygen and help it cook.

MORE INFO

  • No: No meat, dairy, fish, or animal food oils can go in the compost, unless it’s bokashi (More info: Compost Indoors or Meat & Dairy = BOKASHI). No pet waste because sometimes it has bacteria that can survive the heat of the pile.
  • Shrinkage: Whatever size the compost starts out, it will end up being much smaller when it’s done. (Sort of like cooking fresh spinach)
  • Organic: If you’re trying to make organic compost, make sure yard trimmings you use (fresh grass, brown leaves, etc) come from a yard that doesn’t use pesticides. Anything that is non-organic, we still compost in our city’s green bin.
  • Chop it: We chop up twigs and branches with shears before adding them to the compost. Making everything into smaller pieces helps the compost digest more quickly and easily, like chewing for our tummies.

IT COOKS INTO CLEANLINESS

A few years ago, a farmer friend of mine taught me that compost piles get hot and they are actually cooking the carbon-rich brown & nitrogen-rich green scraps. They get so hot, about 140 degrees, that the creatures one might worry about staying inside the pile (bad bacteria, bugs and any rodents who might smell tasty treats inside the pile) can’t live there anymore. It’s too hot so they leave. Pretty cool, huh? (Pun inaccurate and not intended.)

When a pile is flipped, sometimes there is ash inside. A pile covered in winter snow will still cook and sometimes steam will still rise off of the covering snow! The Hollywood Orchard hosts a 6th grade field trip for the local school and a few days before the kids come, they put an egg and potato inside the compost so when the kids arrive, they can see the egg is hard-boiled and then play hot-potato with the weird stinky potato!

When the compost has been turned a few times to allow the whole thing to cook, there will be only good bacteria and healthy, nutrient-rich compost.

WHAT TO COMPOST

  • No meat, dairy or animal products (bones, butter, fish skins) or pet waste

Nitrogen/ “Green”:

  • Fruits & veggies
  • Peels, skins & cores of fruits & veggies
  • Herbs & spices
  • Nutshells
  • Coffee Grounds
  • Egg shells
  • Pits & seeds
  • Grains & beans
  • Tea bags without the staples
  • Chemical-free hair
  • Chemical-free fingernails
  • Feathers from the down sofa or birds outside
  • Fresh house plant leaves
  • Store-bought flower bouquets (only for the city green bin if your goal is organic)

Carbon/ “Brown”:

  • Shredded brown paper bags
  • Paper egg cartons
  • Toilet paper rolls
  • Brown, dry leaves (you can get them from parks sometimes, ideally they’d be from a pesticide-free yard)
  • Vacuum cleaner or sweeping dust
  • Ash from a firepit that used wood
  • Dry house plant leaves
  • Wood chips (ideally chemical-free/ non-treated)

COLLECT THE COMPOST

Collect your food scraps in the freezer or fridge, so they don’t smell or attract bugs. You can keep them in glass or plastic tupperware, or you have regular plastic bags, you can use those and wash them out and re-use them. Or use compostable bags. Or to create less waste, you can keep them in a bowl with no lid or a brown paper bag that can be tossed in to the compost.

You can also collect scraps in a smell-absorbing compost bucket on your counter-top. (We use this one. During the summer ant-parades, we keep it in the fridge.)

WHERE TO COMPOST

When you’re ready to compost, put your food scraps and brown compostable waste in:

  • your yard in a compost pile above ground
  • a pit in the ground with or without doors to seal it
  • a fenced in compost area
  • a plastic compost bin that turns
  • a wooden compost bin that allows for air circulation
  • a homemade compost trashcan with holes drilled in the sides

More information on this part of the process: How to Compost in Bins & Piles

NO ROOM? PUT YOUR FOOD SCRAPS IN…

  • your green or brown bin from the city
  • your indoor or outdoor worm bin (no acidic food or oils)
  • an indoor bokashi compost bucket
  • your friend’s compost
  • the compost collection of a community organization, farmer’s market or restaurant that accepts compost. (See more info below)
  • a compost hub
  • a compost co-op

For folks in Los Angeles:

  • LA Compost collects food scraps at:
    • The Atwater Farmer’s Market, every Sunday 10am-2pm (double check the LA Compost site)
    • The Los Feliz Farmer’s Market, 1st & 3rd Sundays 9am -1pm (double check the LA Compost site)
    • A slew of community hubs listed on their website
    • Community co-ops

NEED HELP?

It seems like it’s possible that everyone can participate in some part of the compost cycle. But getting started may be difficult without seeing the magic in action. In my experience, composting can a passionate team sport or an invigorating ice-skating solo. Reading about it may be all you need to start on your own, but it can also be helpful to find some experienced folks who will let you watch their process or answer questions about how they do it. You could also find a free class or offer to temporarily help a community garden with their compost. I learn so much by helping flip the pile every so often at our beloved Hollywood Orchard.

If you want to do it in a group, there may be compost hubs or compost co-ops near you that you can join.

Whether working with others or solo, I suggest trying to get comfy with the idea that trial and error is part of the process no matter what, and it can be exciting and beautiful.

For folks in Los Angeles:

  • The City gives some free workshops and discounted compost bins and worm bins.
  • Kiss the Ground also has free compost workshops sometimes, listed on their FB page.
  • Grow Good gives free classes from time to time. This LA Times article has more info.
  • The Burbank Recycle Center has a free compost workshop the last Wednesday of every month from 6-8pm from March – November, you just have to RSVP.
  • The Hollywood Orchard in Beachwood Canyon offers opportunities to work on their compost pile where the compost-curious can learn via hand-on practice. Join the Hollywood Orchard mailing list and ask to be informed of when we get together to work on our compost pile, then come play in the dirt with us!

WHY

Why to Compost

WHEN TO COMPOST

Whenever you’d like. Composting can seem tricky, but I feel like you’ll know when you’re ready. To me, love is the main ingredient. Add some to the compost, and some to yourself. It lets you keep trying until you figure out what works for you.

heart ruth signature

Compost Story infographic

 

Why to Compost

Carbon dioxide in the air is pollution. Carbon in the soil is healthy… Anything that is alive is made of carbon, including us.

When we sweep leaves away from our lawns, we’re sweeping away that area’s food. Those leaves, flowers, seeds and natural debris, that are often seen as mess, would normally stay and break down into food for the soil and become food for the plants in that space.

It is often said to rotate crops because one type of plant will eat certain nutrients in that spot and another type of plant would eat other nutrients, letting the depleted nutrients build back up for a while. But naturally, a tomato plant drops its seeds in the same place and grows again. Why? My guess is that a tomato plant would normally die in its spot, make green & brown waste, mix with rain or snow and other fallen leaves, and become its own food next year, replenishing the soil’s nutrients. Without humans taking away their “mess,” they feed themselves. It seems the seeds would ride the wind or in the belly of an animal and end up popping up in new places too, but they’d have peace-of-mind knowing they carry a cycle of food with them where ever they go.

But why do we care about feeding the soil to feed plants? Firstly, because CARBON.

When the soil is depleted, it can’t pull carbon into itself or keep it there. Carbon dioxide in the air is pollution. Carbon in the soil is healthy. It becomes food for the soil’s bacteria. Anything that is alive- plants, animals, soil- is made of carbon, including us. There was a balanced cycle of carbon dying and becoming new life, but we added too much carbon to the atmosphere with fossil fuels and took away the ground’s ability to absorb carbon with our agriculture practices. This combination is creating pollution that is killing the planet that keeps us alive.

Ryland Englehart, co-founder of Kiss the Ground, a non-profit in LA, shares that between carbon extraction via fossil fuels and our agriculture practices, “We’ve moved 880 giga-tons [880,000,000,000 tons] of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is heating up the planet and destabilizing our climate. Now, the oceans have absorbed a lot of this excess carbon which is resulting in ocean acidification and accelerating a mass extinction of sea life… Where do we put this excess carbon to get this cycle back into balance? The answer is literally… under our feet. It’s the soil.”

When plants photosynthesize, they pull carbon out of the air and turn it into sugars that go into their roots feeding bacterial colonies, mycorrhizal funghi, and aggregates. These creatures increase the root capacity by the thousands, turn the sugars into nutrients for the plant and create an environment that can store carbon for decades. “Plants pump it in and soil stores it. Nature’s living technology is amazing!”

Making our own compost and returning it to the land, pulls more carbon into the ground which helps heal climate change. (More info: watch this Kiss the Ground video.)

Also, putting the missing link back in the cycle by composting creates less landfill trash that would become methane gas.

When compost is added to an edible garden and the soil gets richer, the plants in the healthy, bacteria-rich soil don’t need pesticides or chemical fertilizers. They can be next to plants with disease and not get sick. It’s like our human immune systems: we need good bacteria (probiotics), nutrients and minerals for our organs to fight off disease. When our immune systems are strong, we’re less likely to catch something that would infect a less healthy person. Plants are the same way.

And the same way that we have to continuously eat nutrients to maintain our health, so do the plants. As we keep eating and creating food scraps, plants keep needing the scraps. Their need keeps landfills thinner and eventually, our bellies fuller. All while eliminating the need for hormone-disrupting, pollution-causing chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Helping the plant’s immune system ends up helping ours too. The garden food ends up having more nutrients for us, tasting better, and ultimately providing healing and prevention for many of our chronic diseases.

Plus plants in healthy soil need less water, which saves water. And people composting on their own land also reduces their city’s need to collect yard waste, saving more resources.

Lastly, if you are able to turn a pile, studies show that being around soil bacteria reduces depression (It’s the probiotics in the soil). And I believe any nature calms us in some way, from being around a lush forest to being around one fruit from one tree, even putting its peel-scraps in a bucket in my kitchen.

Overall, all pieces of the cycle benefit people, soil, plants, animals and the planet.

These are just my reasons though, why do you compost if you do?

How What Where to Compost