Updated: November 2017

What is composting/composter? How does a compost pile work?

Compost 101: Composting How To -- How a Composter Works:
Talk about compost piles and composting, and lots of people think of hippies and new-agers trying to save the world. What is composting? What is a compost pile? The concept of composting is pretty simple, and has been used by humans for thousands of years. Composting basically involves allowing natural organic materials to decompose and form nutrient rich humus -- let's call it nature's fertilizer. In the old days, this just meant tossing out food, vegetable, and animal waste into a big pile, then using that material to mix in with your garden or crops as new, fresh soil. Today, composting means helping to cut down on landfill space - yard trimmings and food materials make up almost a quarter of all "stuff" thrown out in this country each year. Composting creates fungi and bacteria which do the actual heavy lifting of the decomposition process, creating nice fresh organic material that plants love. And using compost in your garden helps alleviate the need for chemicals and pesticides with all-natural materials instead. By recycling this material in a natural way, you reduce the need for landfills and garbage service, and you have a free source of fresh organic soil for use in your garden at home -- and you ARE helping to save the world! In this guide, we will cover the basics of composting, talk about setting up your own composting system at home, and find out where to buy the compost supplies and equipment you might need.

composting equipment

Once you learn about composting and decide to get your own compost bin (composter), you may want to check online at Amazon -- they carry popular composting bins from Achla, Earthmaker, and others. The list of bestselling composters is here (updated continuously).

For a basic guide to composting, check out CompostGuide.com.

What can I put in a compost pile?

Once you decide you want to have a compost pile, you need to do the basic task of adding your compost material to it each week. The trick is knowing what you can compost and what you can't. Here is a list of things that are OK to throw into a compost pile:
  • Food scraps
  • Fireplace ashes
  • Fruits, vegetables, nut shells, melon rinds
  • Eggshells
  • Leaves, house plants, grass clippings, yard trimmings
  • Wood chips
  • Animal manure (livestock, horses, cows, etc -- not household pets)
  • Clean paper, cardboard tubes, shredded newspaper
  • Coffee grounds and paper filters
  • Dryer lint (who knew!)
  • Hair and animal fur
  • Sawdust
  • Wool and cotton rags
  • - basically, organic, natural compounds coming from the plant and animal worlds

And now, the DO NOT COMPOST list -- do not put these things into your compost pile:
  • Anything from black walnut trees
  • Avoid dairy products (milk, sour cream -- they become rancid and really smell)
  • Animal fats -- oils, lards, grease
  • Meat and fish leftovers, including bones -- this and the animal fats also reek when they decay and attract rats and other animals
  • Dog and cat waste, kitty litter
  • Human waste
  • Weeds
  • Anything treated with pesticides or chemicals
  • Coal and charcoal
  • Diseased plants
  • -- any other non-organic materials (plastics, chemicals, metals, etc.)

Composting at Home - How do I build a compost pile?

The natural composting process that takes place on the forest floor is slow -- it can take up to 2 years for materials to be broken down and turned into new soil. For your own compost pile, you can speed up this process to 3-6 months by turning the material over, either by rotating the container or flipping it over with a pitchfork or shovel -- that's why you'll see a lot of pivoting or rotating composting bins and tumblers. When your composted material is complete, it is to be used for outdoor garden work and is not recommended for houseplants or potting soil due to grass and weed seeds that tend to be prevalent. Composting only works during certain times of the year if you live in cold climates -- once it drops below about 40F, your composting system will shut itself down as heat is required for the organic chemistry going on inside the compost pile. So how do you get started? Most people keep a small composting pail in their kitchen to collect daily food scraps -- this can be anything from a tupperware bowl to a commercial composting pail, but anything that is large enough and can be sealed airtight will work. When its full, you just take it out to your compost pile or tumbler and dump it in. You can build your own outdoor compost pile just by wrapping some chicken wire around stakes, or literally by creating a pile of your yard clippings and organic waste material -- just keep in mind that you don't want to attract animals to the smell of rotting food, so most people use covered containers or tumblers of some sort. Lots of online sites offer composting equipment for sale. Two models we like are the RotoComposter Compost Tumbler ($249) and the Achla CMP-05 Spinning Horizontal Composter ($159). The Achla is a sturdy little tumbling composter, making it easy to speed up the composting process -- it holds 7 cubic feet.

Check out Composters.com to start. They carry almost 50 compost bins and tumblers to choose from, ranging in price from about $65 up to $800 depending on how fancy the equipment is. You can get something simple like the Bokashi Kitchen Composter, which looks like a small plastic garbage can, just 16" x 10" x 10" at a cost of $62. This composter is designed for indoor use in small areas like apartments or condos (designed in Japan!) -- it uses a compost activator to encourage decomposition ($15 a bag). For $239, check out the Urban Compost Tumbler Deluxe which has an aeration system and a simple tumbling mechanism -- it looks a bit like a cement mixer which pivots at the hip. It is totally enclosed to keep pests away, and at 43"x33"x34" it can handle 71 gallons of waste material. Its designed mostly for food waste but can handle limited yard clippings as well. We also like the Bio-Orb U-Roll System for $139. This cool looking 36" sphere has a snap lid on one end for filling and emptying. And since it is round, you just roll it around the ground every 5-10 days to improve decompostion - no lifting, no forking. They sell a variety of composting supplies and tools here as well -- compost starter kits, compost accelerators, compost spreaders, compost screeners, even biodegradable disposable utensils for picnics! Lots of good stuff - feel free to browse!

You can also check out Gardeners.com for compost supplies at decent prices. They offer a nice rolling back porch compost tumbler for $199, a convenient choice for being both accessible and easy to use, yet still transportable - its about 3 feet by 3 feet in size. They also offer the most basic compost bins made of wire frames for just $10 - 3 of these bins are used in a traditional composting system, each about 3 feet square. They also carry a variety of compost pails for your kitchen ranging from $20-$30. We liked the stainless steel pail -- adds some class and style to any kitchen, while keeping scraps hidden! And another great item - bio-degradable (made of cornstarch, but looks like plastic) liner bags for your compost pail, 100 pack for $20. No mess, no fuss, just chuck the bag into the compost heap when full. Very nice site.