Last Updated on April 3, 2021 by Regina Cal

The Ultimate Guide To Composting Basics

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I love to compost! What a great way to reduce waste, reuse leftover green scraps, and add heavy hitting nutrients to the garden.

When I started my composting journey, I was overwhelmed with all the fragmented information out there - along with a drowning seascape of ads. All I want to do is know how to freaking compost, already! I could hardly decipher how to compost, having to piece together tidbits of information from one site to the next, allthewhile being pummeled by too many advertisements on those high traffic gardening websites. 

Once I figured out how to compost, I decided to write this article. Clean, to the point, helpful composting methods that will get you composting easy and fast.

Composting is one of the easiest projects to get started, is pretty much fool proof, and is quick to deliver with rewarding, lush, dark, rich soil.

In this article, I will go over the basics of composting, different composting methods, how to compost year round, and how to even compost indoors. This article is pretty inclusive to get your basic composting skills off to a good start. 

Let's get started!


table of contents

Part One: The Basics Of Composting

Why Compost?

Essentially, you are making dirt, and dirt is good!

The main reason to start a compost pile is to create rich and nutritious soil for your garden. Note, this doesn’t have to be for a robust vegetable garden. This can be for your houseplants, decorative plants used in landscaping, even tiny kitchen herb gardens.

You can also use compost in areas where you are experiencing soil erosion. It can help break up dirt rich in clays or amend sandy soils for a more solid consistency.

Composting saves you money when feeding your plants. No longer will you need to buy expensive potting soils to amend your plants.

You are helping out the environment by naturally decomposing your own waste versus clogging up a landfill.

It is a great way to decompose your grass and leaf waste. Instead of buying expensive bags and filling up your trashcan, you can naturally eliminate your yard waste in an environmentally friendly way.

It really doesn’t take much effort to begin a composting project. Heck, the whole family can get involved and you can teach the kids a little bit of microbiology!

Compost replenishes and revitalizes old and exhausted soils and reduces soil erosion; it also prevents runoff from storm water.

In the scope of the bigger picture, replacing fertilizers with compost drastically reduces greenhouse emissions. Synthetic fertilizers are created with a huge amount of fossil fuels and impacts environmental and human health. Compost is organic and inert, plain and simple lush dirt, that replaces the need for toxic fertilizers and pesticides!

Organic compost matter improves the growth of plants by improving the structure of preexisting dirt. This is done so by breaking up clays and adding the capacity to hold more water and nutrients in the soil.

At this point, I have got you convinced to start a compost pile, right? You may even be excited by the sheer thought of composting! Composting excites me too, so don't worry. It's normal.

How Composting Works

I am not going to go into crazy scientific detail, but its good to understand the basics of how composting works so you know what to acheive to get your composting breaking down and fast.

The goal of the compost pile is to get HOT. Heat is how the waste matter breaks down into compost. The heat created by the composting is actually a biochemical reaction of the microbes within the waste matter. These microbes eat the materials which causes heat. The heat activates more microbes which in turn speeds up the process of composting. A cold compost pile is inert and will not break down.

Green Matter VS Brown Matter

There are two identifiers of material for your bin: green and brown matter.

Brown matter is high in carbon, decomposes slowly, and is the energy source for the microbes that break down the green materials.

List Of Brown Matter Materials:
  • leaves
  • hay
  • straw
  • sawdust
  • non-glossy paper
  • paper towels
  • tissue
  • egg shells
  • woody material
  • and wood ashes (sparingly).

Make sure to break down paper, leaf and woody elements by shredding or mulching them.

Green matter is high in nitrogen, quickly decomposes, and provides the microbes with proteins to reproduce. Green matter consists of all the vegetative materials, manure, kitchen scraps, fresh grass clippings and fresh yard waste.

How To Properly Layer Green And Brown Matter in a Compost Pile

The trick to get the compost pile active is to layer the green and the brown matter properly. This is known as the golden ratio and is a mix between art and science. The biochemical interaction between the brown layer and the green layer is where the magic happens and the microbes are getting properly nurtured. Getting the right ratio between the two causes the thermal effect that breaks down the pile quickly.

Some people nerd out and actually measure their green and brown matters into a scientific ratio. That is too much work for me! I go by feel. It's pretty easy to tell if your compost pile is working or not.

Simply put, if your compost pile is too wet and slimy, add more brown. If it's too dry and fluffy, add more green. It's not rocket science, although some people like to pretend it is!

This is how I layer my compost pile with success:

Start your pile with a layer of brown matter, about six to eight inches deep. Make sure your brown layer is mulched or shredded for a nice fluffy texture. The brown layer will absorb moisture and encourage aeration.

Then simply add green matter on top of the brown. Add maybe about two shovels full, about six inches. Then add another layer of brown. And then another layer of green. 

I always seal the pile with a layer of brown matter. It acts as a protective covering, helps seal in moisture, and looks more appealing. A protective brown layer can also help prevent over saturation of rainwater and can also insulate the pile from losing too much water as well.

How To Choose A Location For Your Compost Pile

First off, composting bins, when balanced correctly, do not stink. They should smell like dirt. Placement of your compost pile does not need to be based on smell.

However, a compost bin is not exactly pleasing to the eye, so placing it in a discreet location in your backyard is a better choice than placing it right by the front door.

You do want to consider a convenient location with easy access. Placing your compost pile in the very far back corner behind the hedges isn’t really manageable. Just think of how annoying it is to take out the trash, any unneeded steps feel like drudgery! Same goes for composting. Place it in an easy access location that doesn’t require a lot of steps to get to.

You will need some workspace around the pile for basic maintenance and to retrieve the dirt once the composting is final.

You may have different compost piles for different types of matter. A leaf, grass, and woody compost pile may work better by the trees. If you have a vegetable garden, you may want to place your compost pile directly in the garden for passive soil amendment, or near the garden for easy compost access.

An important tip for placement is to place directly over soil or grass instead of on your patio or concrete. This will give your pile the benefits of healthy microbes, worms, and other natural decomposers.

Also, make sure to choose a location that is protected from the sun as the sun will evaporate moisture from the pile too quickly. You also don’t want your compost pile in a naturally wet area or an area where rainwater collects.

How To Properly Size A Compost Pile

The basic size for beginner piles is 3 feet by 3 feet and 3 feet tall. Any smaller of a size and your pile will not create the warmth needed for matter breakdown.

The maximum size recommended is 5 feet by 5 feet and 5 feet high. Any larger and your pile may hold too much water which constricts airflow to the center. Remember that the pile must be turned so going too big may be too cumbersome to work with.

Different Composting Pile Methods

There is really three basic compost pile methods: open heap, prefabricated composting bin, or DIY composting bin.

An open heap pile is the cheapest method, as you basically dig a hole in the ground and cover it up with topsoil. This option can be good for yards with lots of space, if you have a lot of organic matter to compost, and if your ground is easy to dig. There are downsides to trench composting; piles can start to sprawl, critters can freely access your pile, or your ground is not viable to dig up easily.

There are a bunch of fancy compost containers to choose from if you want a tidier pile. Stationary composting bins have a large capacity that you can fill, whereas a pile becomes a rounded sprawling heap. Having a lid on your bin is a nice feature as well; lids keep in moisture and curious critters out. A dark-colored bin helps with heating up the pile. Most compost bins are bottomless so the good microorganisms and worms can infiltrate the pile. Some of them also have doors for removing finished compost, leaving the unfinished matter on top.

Building a DIY compost container is pretty easy as well. It can be as simple as assembling pallets into a cube and throwing a tarp on top. A stackable milk crate composter is neat because the finished materials work their way to the bottom. A wire fence bin works really well for leaves, woody materials, and grass clippings. You can get creative with any materials you have. Cinder blocks, old plastic bins, even straw bales can be organized into holding organic matter.

The 3 Bin Composting System

I would like to note the success of the 3 bin system.

Essentially, you line up 3 bins. The first bin is the starting phase of your compost, all of your organic materials start here. Once that bin has been filled up, you transfer it to the second bin for the medium stage.

This matter stays put and is not added to while bin number one slowly fills up again.

start a compost pile with a three bin system

Once the first bin is full again, the contents of the second bin go into the third bin for the final composting stage and the first bin gets dumped into the second, so on and so forth.

The chain of composting command is foolproof and provides an ongoing system you can continually add to. 

The Easiest, Fastest, Foolproof Guide To Start Composting Today

Yep, I did it. I nailed the best composting system that is free, easy, and effective. Now, you can do composting however you choose, but this is what works for me, so I go back to it every time.

Step One: Dig A Hole.

I don't dig a very deep hole, maybe a couple of feet down at the most. I like to compost in a hole because here in the desert, it helps keep the moisture in and also the heat in at night. Shoot, you don't have to even dig a hole! Just mark out a 3 x 3 space for your compost heap.

Step Two: Add A Layer Of Brown Matter

I typically add about 4-6 inches of brown matter to the bottom of my pile. It makes for a nice nest of all the scraps you will be throwing into it.

Step Three: Add Green Matter

I place about 4-6 inches of green matter on top of the brown matter.

Step Four: Repeat Step Two and Three

I like to sandwich in a layer of brown matter in between the green layers to make sure the microbes are well aerated. It's like making a lasagna! A dirty, sloppy lasagna that you don't want to eat!

Step Five: Cap the Pile With Brown Matter

Another few inches of brown matter on top of the green seals the deal. I like to use leaves and twigs for the cap.

Step Six: Water Your Compost Pile

Your compost pile has to stay moist for the biochemical breakdown to occur. Now, overwatering can become problematic. You do not want a soggy stinky slimy pile. Rather, aim for the wetness of a sponge, moist but not soaking.

The amount of watering your pile will need will greatly vary with the climate you live in so adjust accordingly. 

Step Seven: Aerate Your Pile

Time to aerate the pile. Typically, aeration ought to be done about every 3 to 7 days for the first couple of weeks then once a week thereafter. If your pile looks matted and needs some fluff, go ahead and give it a turn. If you add to the pile, mix it every few times. A simple pitchfork will do the job, or you can purchase a compost aerator tool.

Step Eight: Enjoy Your Rich Dark Compost Soil!

Your soil is ready once the heat has diminished from the pile and you have a dark, luscious rich crumbly soil. You will know when its done, just like a fresh baked loaf of bread. But don't eat it. The compost. Not the bread.

Key takeaways to starting a compost pile:

Choose a good location that is not too sunny or hot but is protected from rain and wetness and is easily accessible yet concealed from neighbors.

Make sure your pile is no less than 3 x 3 x 3 and no greater than 5 x 5 x 5.

Choose a bin that is right for you, either store bought, do it yourself, or no bin at all.

Fill your bin with a good brown / green ratio. 6 – 8 inches of brown at the bottom, green piles on top, with occasional brown added here and there. An optional brown cap can help.

Aerate your pile once a week or a little more.

Once the bin is full, transfer over to the medium bin for incubation, or simply stop filling it. Remember to aerate your pile.

Once the heat has diminished from the pile and you have a rich dark crumbly soil, the composting process is complete.

Common Composting Questions Answered

Now, you may still have questions about composting. These are the most frequent questions I get asked.

Can I use meat in my compost pile?

Only use vegetative waste in your pile. Meat, dairy, and bones can stink up your pile, take longer to break down, and will attract pests such as raccoons, rats, and mice. Note that eggshells are ok in piles, just not the egg yolk or whites.

You can use meat and bone scraps to raise meal worms to feed your chickens, if you like!

How long does it take for my pile to be ready?

This all depends on how long it takes for your pile to get to incubation period, how often you add scraps to your pile, the time of year it is, how often you turn it, and the biochemical composition of your pile. It could be anywhere in the range of 4 weeks to one year. This is where the 3-bin composting method comes in handy. Your piles are always in a different state of ripening, from collecting green matter, to the middle incubation period, to the final stages. Turning your pile will have a huge impact and reaching the appropriate heat will greatly hasten the process. Over time, you will get the feel for the right ratios and how often to mix the pile. Not all piles are created equally!

Do I need to cover my compost?

Many composters like to cover their pile to keep vermin out and help with heat induction. Covers also keep moisture in and help the pile not dry out too quickly. A cover can be made out of the brown carbon base as well. Just add a few inches of mulched dried leaves or woody materials.

How can I accelerate my compost pile?

Having the proper ratio of brown to green will drastically increase the heat reaction within the pile. Brown matter is needed throughout the pile to increase aeration in dense areas. Just remember not to add too much. Mixing the pile on a regular basis will also add to breakdown speed.

You can also look into composting activators. These activators are comprised of nitrogen that provide nutrients to the microbes that break down the pile.

Do I keep adding scraps to my compost pile?

NOPE. This is a common mistake done by many a composters across the world. At some point, you want to stop adding scraps and start a new pile. Hence, the three bin system I keep talking about. It really works wonders!

Just simply stop adding scraps to your pile and start another one. That is what I like to do.

Part Two: Indoors Composting Methods

Don’t let living in an apartment or small abode stop you from composting! If done right, composting does not stink and can be achieved indoors easily! I have divided this part into two sections: Balcony Composting and Indoors Composting. 

Composting on the Balcony

Balconies provide lots of fresh air for composting which is an important component for a proper compost pile. Although you can't do a traditional heap pile on your balcony - well you could, but your neighbors might get mad, not to mention the compost juice - you can easily compost on the balcony with a simple plastic bin.

Apartment Composting on the Balcony

Choosing the Right Container for Balcony Composting

You can either choose to purchase a compost tumbler, a premade compost bin, or make a bin yourself. The premade containers that you can buy are fairly cheap, but a little DIY spirit can save you the expense and its kind of fun too.

The DIY container you choose will have to be large enough to start the thermal process of composting, but small enough to fit on your balcony.

Typically, the smallest bin you want to use is 3 feet by 3 feet and 3 feet high to maintain the thermal process. However, not many prebuilt containers are to these dimensions, so look for a container that is more or less 85 liters. A 75-liter container should work just fine. You can use a storage bin, plastic garbage can, or even an old cooler. Choosing a dark container works well if your balcony gets sunlight as it will help with the thermal process.

Prepping the Container

One of the main ingredients of composting is oxygen! Your compost needs to breathe for the microbes to properly break down the organic material. Drill holes in your container about every couple of inches, and that includes the bottom. Liquids need to escape the container to avoid putrefying.

Build A Base For The Composting Bin

The bin needs to be elevated with enough space for some sort of drip pan to catch the liquid. Place your bin atop some bricks or cinder blocks and allow for enough airflow to permeate underneath. You can also use wooden beams if your bin needs more support.

Note: If you live in a colder climate, you will need to insulate your bin in the winter. You can do this easily with bubble wrap. The bubble wrap will allow for continual airflow into the container yet help retain its warmth to avoid the pile freezing up.

Composting Indoors

Composting indoors is not as scary as one would think.

It is pretty much the same as composting on the balcony, except you do not drill holes into the bottom of your bin. You do need to be more attentive to several factors that you wouldn’t have to worry about with the outdoor version.


Moisture control

Since your bin does not have leakage holes, your compost can get too wet and slimy. This can be controlled by adding more brown matter into the mix. You want your mix to be fluffy and aerated at all times.

The contents you put into your indoor composting bin

Smelly green matter can stink up your home, such as onion peels and garlic. It's probably better to just chuck those. Watery materials like melon rinds or squash could add too much sogginess to your container. Definitely do not add any meat, bone or dairy products to your indoor bin!

The size of the material 

You want your contents to break down even faster indoors, so chop or shred your green and brown matter before adding to the pile.

Aeration

Turn your pile often to avoid dry spots and especially soggy spots. You need to be turning frequently with a hand shovel or trowel. You could add some breathing holes to the lid of the bin or very high up on the sides. 

Let’s talk about worms!

Are worms necessary for balcony and indoor composting? The answer is no, but they speed up the composting process and can break down even more materials.

Worms do take a little more care than just tossing them into the bin – they require paper shavings to be added in regularly, you need to watch how much green matter you place into the bin, and worms also freeze in colder climates for those who are balcony composting in the winter.

Key takeaways for indoor composting

You can absolutely compost indoors and on a balcony. A garage would be a great place to compost, or a carport. You can use a garbage can to compost. If you have to put the compost in a living area, a bin will work just fine.

Keep stinky stuff out of the bin to keep your apartment from smelling up and turn the pile often to keep up on air flow that does not occur indoors.

Too much moisture is your biggest risk of indoors composting as the pile cannot naturally drain off. You could collect this moisture and use it as a compost tea, but I suggest keeping the moisture in check, and making sure your pile stays fluffy like a sponge, not soggy.  

Get creative by adding worms and see how fast your kitchen scraps turn into dirt!

Part Three: Composting In The Winter

Composting in cold weather can be a challenge, but it's by no means impossible. You just need to give your compost pile a little more TLC than in the warmer months.

The key is to plan ahead before winter arrives in the fall. Trying to resuscitate a failing compost pile when its below freezing is a difficult task.

In this article, I give you 8 actionable strategies to prepare your compost pile for surviving and thriving through the winter months.

I also talk about how you can keep your outdoor worm compost pile alive in the winter.

Let’s dive right into it! (Not the compost pile, but the article!)

Why is it so difficult to compost during the winter climate?

Because the biochemistry of the compost relies on heat to activate the microbial process of breaking down the waste.

A frozen compost pile will become inert and will not reactivate until warmer temperatures come about.

Many composters are at peace with their piles hibernating during the winter. But you do not have to wait out all those cold months for your pile to keep being productive!

The trick to a compost pile producing in the winter is keeping your pile warm and toasty.

Look at the heat rising from this wood chip pile!

Winter Composting Strategy #1: Start with a healthy, productive compost pile

As the winter months draw near, your compost pile will have a better chance of success if it is healthy and warm going into the colder months.

A moist pile is good for the summer but has a higher chance of freezing in the winter. Therefore, you will need to add more brown matter to your pile in order to keep it a little drier, but not too dry.

Start by slowly building up the brown matter in your pile in the fall, and increase the brown matter as the temperature keeps dropping.

Finding the sweet spot between brown to green is more of an art form than a science, so check on your compost pile a couple of times a week and adjust ratios as necessary.

Tip: store bags of dry leaves for brown matter

Store extra leaves in the fall to amend your pile through the winter. Leaves are an easy source of brown matter and are an essential ingredient to keep the heat going in the pile.

The leaves will work to wick away moisture from the pile which is vital to maintaining the winter composting process.

Just a couple of contractor bags full of leaves should be more than enough to get your pile through the winter months.

Winter Composting Strategy #2: Insulate your compost pile

Your compost pile naturally makes its own heat in the decomposition process, but in the winter the heat can slow, and in extremely cold temperatures it can become altogether dormant.

Insulating the pile can help keep the warmth in and keep your compost kicking.

A dark-colored tarp thrown over the top and wrapped around the sides will attract the warmth of the sun and keep heat in.

You can also place a thick layer of hay on top of the pile to keep the warmth in and the cold out.

Winter Compost Insulation Ideas:

  • Hay bales
  • Cinderblocks
  • Cardboard
  • Pre-built outdoors composting container
  • Emergency blankets
  • Old blankets
  • Old carpet


Winter Composting Strategy #3: Place your compost pile wisely

If your pile is in a barren area that is exposed to the elements, chances are it will freeze solid during the winter.

Relocating your pile to a more protected area that provides shelter gives your pile a higher chance of surviving the winter.

Place your pile near a structure or around thick brush to help deter exposure.

Some more placement ideas:

  • Build a protective wall for wind protection
  • Place on the low side of a hill or mound, preferably away from the wind
  • Move your pile to a barn, garage, or outbuilding
  • Tuck into a grove of trees or stumps
  • Place in a small gully (as long as moisture is not a concern)
  • Surround with mounds of dirt

Winter Composting Strategy #4: Add your Materials in Thoughtfully

In the warmer months, we don't have to be so concerned about how often and how little material we add to the pile. In the winter, it is paramount to consider how much and how frequently we add to the pile.

Tip 1: add your materials in bulk

Adding in a table scrap here or there will do your pile a disservice in the winter.

When you collect scraps and add in bulk, the material will retain more heat. If you disturb your pile by stuffing in a little here and there, you are risking your pile losing heat.

Collect your green matter in an old coffee can or tabletop composter and only add to the pile once full.

Tip 2: Shred chunky, large material

Bulky matter will take longer to break down and require more heat to process them.

Give your winter pile a jumpstart with shredding, cutting, and breaking down both green and brown matter before adding to your pile.

Tip 3: Layer your materials properly

Maintaining the golden ratio of composting is key to creating the heat necessary for your pile to keep breaking down matter.

The typical ratio is 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. However, no two piles are alike, and taking the time to try and calculate ratios is a cumbersome task.

The best rule of thumb is to add 6 inches of brown to start your pile, add some handfuls of green in the middle of the pile, and add a final brown layer to cap it off.

Over time, you will get a feel for the ratios for your pile, and it becomes more of an art form than a science.

Just remember to go a bit heavier on the brown during the cold winter months and adjust as necessary. Keep your pile on the drier side, but not to dry.

Winter Composting Strategy #5: Do Not Turn the Compost Pile

Mixing the pile once or twice a week is standard in the spring, summer and fall. However, in the winter, when you mix your pile you displace the heat, causing your pile to cool.

The only time you may need to turn your compost pile is if your pile is getting slimy and stinky. Add some brown in and turn the pile gently.

Winter Composting Strategy #6: Add Hot Material to your Compost Pile

Adding some hot nitrogen-rich materials can keep the heat going as well. This can be coffee grounds, horse manure, or poultry manure.

You can also try super-hot nitrogen such as lobster, crab, shrimp, or crawfish, but keep in mind this will attract some unwanted critters.

If you think you don't have enough microbe activity in your pile, you can add a handful of potting soil to your mix for inoculation.

Special Note: When it gets too cold out, your pile will freeze no matter what you do.

Let mother nature take its course and tend to your pile when a warming trend occurs.

Winter Composting Strategy #7: Trench Composting in the Winter

Trench composting is an excellent solution for the winter as it is low maintenance and can help amend a section of your garden that needs some TLC.

Select an area of your garden that you want to add some composting love to. Dig a trench about one foot deep along the section. Pad the bottom of the trench with three to six inches of brown material (not necessary, but recommended).

When your compost bin fills up, dump the green matter into a section of the trench, and lightly cover with some brown matter and soil. Each time the bin is full, fill another section of the trench.

The heat from the ground will keep the pile insulated and the goodies from the compost will nourish your garden section.

Strategy #8: Move Your Compost Pile Indoors

In some regions, it gets far too cold to keep a compost pile warm. If you don't want to wait out those winter months, you can opt to move your compost pile indoors.

All you need to do is shovel your compost pile into a bin. You can either drill holes on the bottom of the bin and place a tray underneath to catch the compost tea, or you do not drill holes on the bottom and keep an eye on moisture control.

Can You Do Outdoor Worm Composting in the Winter?

It is possible to keep your worms alive and kicking in your outdoor compost pile, but there are some factors to consider.

The first factor to consider is the type of worm that is in your compost pile. Some earthworms always live in the upper soil levels and in leaves.

These worms do not dive deep for winter and die when the ground freezes. They lay eggs in protective sacks in the fall and the baby worms hatch in the spring.

Other earthworm species, like nightcrawlers, dive deep below the frost line to survive the winter.

The second factor to consider is how deep the frost depth is in your area. The farther north you go, the deeper the frost depth will be in the soil. You can determine the frost depth in realtime here.

The third factor is how you have your compost pile set up. An above-ground compost pile will have a higher chance of freezing rather than a pile below ground. If your pile is deep enough to be below the frost line, chances are you will still have active worms in your pile.

Key takeaways for winter composting

Yes, you can definitely compost during the winter, it just takes some thought and planning to make it happen.

The primary takeaway is that you need to keep your pile hot. Heat is key to your compost not freezing solid.

A pile that starts off healthy and hot will have a higher chance of surviving the winter.

A pile that is either below ground, sheltered from the elements, or even moved indoors will probably make it.

Just be prepared and take the steps needed in the fall before the freezing temps arrive, and your pile should fare just fine.

Part Four: Composting Toilet Systems Explained

Did you think the only thing you could compost is your leftover vegetable scraps from last night’s dinner? Well you are in for a treat, because your human waste (yes, number two) can be composted as well!

This makes me very excited! I am a huge fan of digging a hole in the ground and doing my business to allow for the natural process of my waste returning to the earth where it belongs. However, if digging a hole isn’t your style, then a composting toilet may be right for you. Composting toilet systems are in!

When your waste is entirely composted, it makes for a great fertilizer for your garden or trees. The cycle of life is complete!

Seriously though, our sewer systems waste tons of water and makes us dependent on the system in which the man has built for us. Composting toilet systems are a great solution to become independent from this system and can be applied for RV, cabin, and marine usage.

Let’s get to the down and dirty about composting toilets!

How Do Composting Toilet Systems Work?

A composting toilet works in the same way that your garden composter works, except that the toilet uses a special system that utilizes chambers to enhance the decomposition process.

The toilet is built to utilize nature’s thermal reaction to break down all the bad bacteria and viruses in the solid wastes that we produce.

This special process needs to have the right balance of moisture and oxygen to activate the microbes in order to break down the waste properly.

If this balance is achieved, the microbes create the heat needed to break down the materials that it feeds upon.

Once the microbes have finished digesting the waste, the leftover product is a rich, odor-free fertilizer that can be used to feed your plants.

Although each composting toilet system is built differently, there are three processes that must be completed for the toilet to finalize decomposition:

Eliminating moisture – Moisture control is a basic requirement of successful composting. Too much moisture and the pile will not have enough oxygen to activate the microbes. Not enough moisture and the microbes will not have a suitable environment to survive. A proper composting toilet will be able to drain excess moisture and keep the pile just right for the composting process to thrive.

Composting the solid waste – Maintaining heat within the pile is key for composting to take place. Although microbes will create their own heat naturally, given the right environment, some toilets have an electric heating component to help assist in the process and allows for quicker decomposition.

Finalized compost removal – Once the compost has been finalized, the rich organic soil will dump into a finishing drawer for removal. This finished product will be bad bacteria and virus free, is safe to handle, and does not smell bad. Having a finishing drawer allows for finished soil to be removed while the toilet is still composting added solids.

The most popular composting toilets have three chambers: a liquid capturing chamber, the solid waste tumbling chamber, and the finishing drawer.

The liquid capturing chamber will either be a removable canister that you have to dump manually, as seen in the Nature’s Head design, or is an internal chamber that the toilet evaporates naturally, as seen in the Sun Mar design.

The composting chamber is a tumbling chamber that has a hand crank on the side. The chamber needs to be tumbled occasionally to keep the materials mixed and to oxygenate the microbes. Hand cranking the tumbling chamber every few days should do the trick.

The finishing drawer is a removable drawer that allows you to empty the compost without bothering the compost that is in production. As the tumbling chamber is rotated, the fine soil filters into the drawer. The compost within the finishing drawer dries out and is safe to remove and use.

How to use the Composting Toilet

The Sun Mar Composting toilet looks stylish in this bathroom

Placement and Installation – The main concern for placing your toilet is to make sure you have access to all chambers that need to be maintained or accessed. If your toilet comes with a vent and electric heater, make sure those components are not blocked in and have room for air circulation.

Most compostable toilets mount to the floor with brackets and screws. Installation is easy and can be done with the most basic of handyman skills.

Adding the base material - Before the first use, you need to add sphagnum peat moss or coconut coir into the base, per your manufacturer’s instructions. This is the “brown matter” that your toilet needs to activate the composting process. Brown matter is the carbon base that your waste will have a biochemical reaction with to ignite the microbes thermal process.

Coconut coir – this is essentially the byproduct of coconut shells that is mulched into tiny pieces. It is then dried and compacted into wafers or bricks that you bring back to a full fluffiness with water. It is also used as a hydroponic growing medium.

Many prefer coconut coir as it is reusing a byproduct that was once considered to be waste. Think of all the products that use coconut, that makes for a lot of wasted husks! These once discarded husks now are finding a new life in gardens and composting toilets.

Coconut coir ready for processing!

Coconut coir is also easy and compact to store as it comes in convenient bricks. You do have to do a little work to amend the bricks with water, but it is an easy and quick process.

Sphagnum peat moss – This kind of moss contains no soils which has made it a popular choice for conditioning gardens and landscapes. The sphagnum variety of moss is highly valued by farmers and gardeners because it is practically 100% free of weeds, diseases, and insects. It also holds moisture well and provides lots of airspace, which the composting microbes will love.

Sphagnum peat moss takes over 15 years to grow an inch!

Sphagnum peat moss is ready to go, out of the bag. No preparation is needed.

So why not choose sphagnum peat moss? There are some environmental concerns about the production and harvest of peat moss, which leaves many to opt for the coconut coir option.

According to the University of Vermont Plant and Soil Science, Sphagnum peat moss takes an astonishing 15 to 25 years to grow only a single inch! In addition, only 2% of the world is covered in peat moss, so there is not a lot to go around.

Many countries are trying to quash the use of peat moss entirely, as peatlands store an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. By destroying these lands, carbon dioxide gets released into the environment. Essentially, sphagnum peat moss is not an environmentally viable option for the health of the planet, which is counter-intuitive to having a composting toilet in the first place, right?

If you do decide to purchase sphagnum peat moss, make sure it is of the sphagnum variety, and not just peat moss.

Using your Composting Toilet – Once you have the toilet installed and the base added, simply use as a regular toilet. The toilet can handle many uses, about 60 – 80 number two uses. This can be an entire season without having to dump out the main chamber. For full time use, this is about a month.

Emptying the Compost Toilet - Depending on usage, about once a month, the main chamber needs to be removed and emptied. This is made into an easy process as the design of the toilet allows for easy removal of the chamber. Do not clean this chamber out, as any leftover wastes will inoculate the new pile with microbes. Don’t forget to add in your base material.

If your toilet has a removable liquid canister, this will need to be dumped every few days, depending on how often it is used.

Note that not all models have to follow this step. Some models have a finishing drawer which does not require the emptying of the main chamber, as long as it does not get over-full.

Cleaning and Maintenance – The beauty of composting toilet systems are that they require minimal maintenance and cleanup. Waste drops directly into the chamber and does not streak the bowl, unlike traditional toilets that swirl water and waste around leaving a streaky mess. The chambers do not require cleaning as you want to keep your colony of healthy microbes intact between dumping.

You will want to periodically clean your lid, toilet seat and bowl. The main takeaway here is to NOT clean your toilet with any chemicals! This includes chemical wipes. These chemicals will kill off the natural microbes in your tank and could ruin the composting process.

Natural deodorizing enzyme products work well for cleaning your toilet.

And that about sums up the basics of composting toilets.

Part Five: Common Compost Problems and Solutions

Problem: Why is my compost pile smelly?

Solutions: Compost may smell a tad ripe here and there, but a super stinky pile is not correct. In order to have a healthy compost heap, the pile has to achieve a balance of carbon and nitrogen to create heat. This heat comes from the microorganisms activating and digesting the compost. If this is off balance, your pile can become a stinky heap of mess!

  1. Your pile has too much green matter (nitrogen) in ratio to brown matter. Green matter is all the food scraps you put into the pile. Typically, a pile with too much green matter smells of ammonia. This green matter needs brown matter (carbon) to ignite the decomposing process. If your pile is stinky and slimy, add some handfuls of leaves, shredded non-shiny paper, or straw.
  2. Your pile does not have enough oxygen. The microbiome that is heating up your pile needs to breathe; if it is too dense in the middle of your pile, oxygen is not penetrating enough, therefore the microorganisms will die. To remedy this, aerate your compost by mixing it with a pitchfork or hand trowel. Also, adding brown fluffy matter like dry leaves can bring air into the dense parts of your pile. Mix thoroughly and make sure to get any wet or dry pockets in the pile.
  3. Your pile is too big. A pile that amasses beyond 5 feet by 5 feet and 5 feet wide can get too dense in the middle and be hard to turn. This starves the pile of oxygen and the microbes will die. Split your pile into two heaps.
  4. You are adding meat, dairy, bones, shellfish, or oils to the pile. These do not break down quickly and create a stench that plant-based scraps do not.
  5. You are not breaking down your materials. Large chunks of green matter take longer to decompose, giving it time to get stinky. Although this is not a common problem for open air piles, you may want to break down your green matter before throwing onto the pile. This goes for brown matter too; paper and leaves should be shredded, woody materials should be mulched.

Problem: Why is my compost bin stinky?

Solutions: A stinky bin is an unpleasant experience! Unlike a pile that is exposed to the outdoors, a container shields the elements from your pile, but can also cause problems as well.

  1. Your bin does not have enough oxygen flow. If it is a DIY bin, you might not have enough air holes drilled. Add some more holes. Turn your pile more frequently and add more brown matter to fluff up the pile for more aeration to occur.
  2. There are moisture pockets in the bin. Sogginess may be occurring in the corners of your bin without you even realizing it. Make sure when you turn the compost to get every nook and cranny of the bin.
  3. Your bin is not draining liquid properly. For bins with bottoms, drill more holes for moisture release. If possible, cut the bottom out entirely and place on soil that drains well.
  4. You are adding meat, dairy, bones, shellfish, or oils to the pile. These do not break down quickly and create a stench that plant-based scraps do not.
  5. Your bin is too big. If your bin is too big, the center will not get enough oxygen. It will also be harder to mix the corners, causing slimy pockets. Your bin should not be over 140 liters. Try downsizing to a 75 liter bin or break up your bin into two bins.
  6. You are not breaking down your materials. Large chunks of green matter take longer to decompose, giving it time to get stinky. Although this is not a common problem for open air piles, you may want to break down your green matter before throwing onto the pile. This goes for brown matter too, paper and leaves should be shredded, woody materials should be mulched.

Problem: Why is my indoor compost bin smelly?

Solutions: Unlike the great outdoors, indoor compost bins do not have access to all the bugs, worms, and microbiomes to assist in breaking down green matter. They require a little extra attention to get the ratios down correctly.

  1. Do not add stinky components. Stinky stuff such as onions and garlic can stink up your pile fast.
  2. Do not add slimy watery components such as watermelon and melon rinds.
  3. Do not add any meat, dairy, bones, shellfish, or oils to the pile. These do not break down quickly and create a stench that plant-based scraps do not.
  4. Your pile is too moist. Since your pile does not drain directly into soil, it has the danger of getting too soggy which can cause odor. Add some brown matter to fluff up your pile and absorb some of the excess moisture. Make sure that you are adequately mixing your pile thoroughly; moisture pockets like to build up in container corners.
  5. Your pile does not have enough oxygen. Overly moist, dense piles will starve the microbes of oxygen. Also, your bin may not have enough airholes to get oxygen into the pile. Drill more holes if you have a DIY container. If not, add more fluffy brown matter to increase airflow to the pile.
  6. Your materials are too chunky. This especially applies for indoor bins as the longer it takes for the materials to break down, the more likely they are to stink. Chop up your scraps into 1” cubes or smaller. Make sure to breakdown your brown matter as well.

Check out my Apartment Composting Guide to get started with your indoor compost pile!

Problem: How do I fix wet soggy compost?

Solutions: Wet compost will quickly become smelly and stops the microbiome process. There are several things you can do to remedy a wet pile:

  1. Keep your pile protected from rain. This can easily be done with a tarp or a layer of brown material. You can also relocate your pile to a protected area like under trees or an awning. You can purchase a popup cover as well to get through the rainy season.
  2. Add more brown matter to your pile. Getting the ratio of brown to green keeps your pile happy and healthy. Add some shredded leaves or paper to your mix to soak up excess moisture. Make sure your brown matter is shredded or mulched thoroughly so it breaks down faster.
  3. Turn your pile frequently. Make sure to add enough brown matter and mix in any soggy pockets your pile has.
  4. Relocate your pile. If your pile is in an area where moisture builds up, then move it. Shovel it into a bin and plop it on an area that has better drainage. If it rains a lot, place it under an awning or place a tarp over the pile. If you need to you can always elevate your pile with a mound of soil.

Problem: Why is my compost pile not heating up?

Solutions: The heat is the biochemical reaction that causes your pile to transform into soil, rather than to rot. Without it, your pile is just a stinky rotting trash heap! This problem is easily solved.

  1. Your pile lacks nitrogen. Nitrogen comes in the form of green matter and feeds the microbes that create the heat. If you have too much carbon in the form of leaves, paper, or woody materials, your pile will become too dry and will never heat. Simply add more green matter or remove excess brown matter. Eventually you will get the feel for your pile as no two piles are alike!
  2. Your pile is too dry. If there is no moisture, there is nothing for the bacteria to live in. Make sure your pile stays moist like a sponge, but not soggy.
  3. Your pile is too small. If there is not enough materials, your pile won’t be able to retain the heat needed. You need at least 75 liters or 3 foot cubed.
  4. Your pile is too big. If air cannot reach the middle of the pile, the heating process cannot continue. The microbes need oxygen to survive and will die if oxygen cannot penetrate to the center of the pile. Break your pile into two if you have created a behemoth!
  5. You can add a compost inoculator for microbes. If you feel all the ingredients are right in your pile, simply add a scoop of dirt to add in some microbes. You can also try adding some hot nitrogen in the form of chicken or horse manure to really get things cooking.
  6. Your compost pile is too cold. This is especially pertinent in winter months. Insulate and shelter your pile with hay bales, a tarp, cinder blocks, old carpet, or anything that can hold in heat and allow oxygen to come through.

Problem: How do I fix dry compost?

Solutions: The answer may seem simple, but dry compost can be problematic especially in arid regions. Try these fixes:

  1. Add water. This is the most obvious of answers, simply spray your pile down with water until damp, but not soggy.
  2. You have too much brown matter. Carbon matter will quickly dry up a pile, especially paper and cardboard. Simply remove the excess brown matter or add in more green matter.
  3. Your pile is overexposed to the elements. Wind and heat beating down on an exposed pile will wick moisture away quickly. Move your pile into a more sheltered area, into the shade, and protect your pile with a layer of brown matter, tarp, or some sort of lid.
  4. Try trench composting. This is the exact same method, except you dig a hole in the ground in lieu of a bin. This will keep your pile sheltered from the elements and keep more moisture in. Just make sure to add a foundation of brown matter and cap the top with brown matter as well.

Problem: How do I get rid of gnats in my compost bin?

Solutions: Gnats are annoying little critters that love decomposing fruits and veggies, which makes a compost pile their dream come true! Even though you want to get rid of them, in outdoor compost situations, it is natural to have flies and other insects enjoying your pile.  If you don’t want them hanging around, then getting rid of them is not too hard:

  1. Cap your pile with brown matter. Make the fruit and veggie scraps inaccessible by adding a 2-4 inch layer of leaves, paper, and woody materials, shredded or mulched, of course.
  2. Make a fruit fly trap. You can buy one at most stores, but they can be expensive. You can easily make one with a mason jar, a bit of fruit, and a piece of paper. Place the fruit inside the mason jar, fashion the paper into a funnel, and place the funnel into the jar. The fruit flies go in but can’t get out. Easy!
  3. Remove the lid from your bin. It could be the case that the flies are living in your bin because the lid provides a sheltered dark place for them to thrive. Try removing the lid and monitor the results. If that doesn’t help, then place the lid back on.
  4. Dump boiling water on the pile. This can help kill off any flies or eggs that are growing in the pile. If in a bin, shut the lid and let the steam kill them.

Problem: How do I get rid of maggots in my compost?

Solutions: Maggots, or baby flies, do well in compost as they thrive in nitrogen rich environments that are in the process of decay. Although you might be considering exterminating them, maggots do assist in the composting process as all the rest of the insects and worms you may find. Indoor compost with maggots can be a problem as they will eventually turn into flies and infest your home. This is how you get rid of them:

  1. Make sure your pile isn’t too wet. Maggots love the wet and slimy stuff, so adding some brown material like sawdust can get rid of that moisture and eliminate them.
  2. Cap your pile with brown matter and make sure to bury your food scraps about 4 inches deep when adding them.
  3. Simply remove the maggot infestation and feed them to the birds!
  4. If using a bin, block the holes with a mesh screen. Make sure it is fine enough for flies not to penetrate but can still let air pass.

Problem: How do I make my compost less clumpy?

Solutions: The final material of compost should be a fine rich lush dark dirt, but sometimes this is not the case. This is due to the chunkiness of the material that has been placed into the pile. Some materials take longer to break down and if those chunks are large, they may end up as bulk in the final dirt. These can be made up of large seeds like an avocado or mango seed and chunks of wood. If you want finer compost, all you have to do is use a classifier or screen to screen out the larger chunks. Chicken wire works well for this job.

Problem: Why does my compost still have large chunks of food and material in it?

Solutions: One thing that is rarely mentioned across the net is that at some point you have to stop adding food scraps to your compost and let it sit (and mix occasionally) to finish the job. I like to call this the “incubation phase”. If you keep adding to the pile, the decomposition rate of the material will be at different levels and take different time periods to finalize. Once you have created a large enough pile, just let it be, and make another one. You can also try the 3 compost bin method. Some compost bins have a bottom drawer so you can access the final pay dirt which sifts to the bottom while the larger chunks keep composting.

Conclusion

If you have made it with me to the end of this article, you will have realized the reoccurring theme for a good healthy compost pile: heat, air, and moisture. It really doesn't take all that much to get a composting system going and you help keep waste out of the dump, which is always a good thing. Sustainability, self-sufficiency, and independence are the goals here at Maximum Off Grid and composting takes you one step closer.


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About the author

I created Maximum Off Grid to help others learn to become more self sufficient and practice sustainable living techniques. I love gardening, prospecting, being outdoors, writing and content creating.

Regina Cal

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