For many gardeners, taking the leap to start composting is filled with anxiety. Instructions about brown and green ratios, assorted bin choices, and the niggling suspicion that a compost pile will stink, look unsightly, or draw rodents makes the whole process seem daunting.
The fact is composting is one of gardening’s simpler projects. It’s hands-down easier than starting a new planting bed or growing vegetables.
Compost Shopping List
You already have much of what you need to start composting: leaves, spent annuals, kitchen scraps and grass clippings. A mower with a bag attachment or a leaf shredder/vac comes in handy, too, for chopping leaves before adding them to the pile.
What you likely lack is a bin to collect the raw ingredients into a pile. You can purchase a bin or fashion one from wooden pallets, snow fence, cinder blocks or straw bales. Which approach you choose ultimately depends on how large a compost pile you want and how much you want to spend, in time and money.
Types of Bins
Composting bins fall into two categories: tumbling or stationary.
Tumbling compost bins create one batch of compost all at once (called batch composting). This bin is typically mounted on a stand with a handle you turn to rotate the bin. Your job is to gather material for a single batch of compost, fill the bin, and then turn every day or two. This method generates small amounts of finished compost in five weeks or less, especially if you shred material before you add it.
A tumbling compost bin is ideal for yards that generate small amounts of compostable material. Plan for a holding bin to contain compostables until the tumbler is empty.
Stationary bins perform continuous composting, in which you add material to the bin over time. Finished compost is ready in stages, with the earliest material added breaking down first.
With continuous composting, the bin design usually allows you to load from the top and access finished compost at the bottom through some kind of door. This bin should also have air vents and a removable lid.
Use a single bin, or fill multiple bins one by one, so the first bin holds (nearly) finished compost while you load fresh materials into the second one. Arrange multiple bins side by side or scatter them throughout your yard.
Continuous composting suits larger yards and folks who tend a mix of gardens (planting beds, container gardens, shrubs, trees, and/or vegetables). During the growing season, a continuous system can receive kitchen scraps, along with green material from weeding, trimming and mowing. This system also easily accommodates a large volume of autumn leaves.
In climates with strongly pronounced seasons, you can load a bin in fall by layering chopped leaves with green landscape material (annuals, grass clippings, healthy vegetables, tender bulb foliage, etc.) and harvest finished compost by mid- to late summer.
Bin Size Is Key
The most important tip for continuous composting is bin size. The ideal size is 3 feet square. This size pile easily maintains the temperature necessary for decomposing organisms to work.
Learn more about the right ratio of material to add to a compost bin in our article on How Compost Works.