Choosing a Composting System According to Your Needs

In my experience, the best composting system is one that actually does what it says it is going to do…make compost!

Over the past several years, we’ve tried a few different systems with varying degrees of success…

We’ve invested in Holding Units that require very little maintenance; Sheet Composting, which involves spreading a thin layer of organic materials over a garden area, and letting it decompose in place, over time; and Turning Units that require materials to be turned and mixed in on a regular basis.  Each of these methods has its pros and cons; however,  we’ve learned that the secret to a successful composting system has less to do with the actual system than it does with your personality, available space, and amount of time you want to spend on it.    Whether you invest hundreds of dollars and purchase one of those ready-made plastic compost bins from your local home gardening center, or create one for free, using materials you already have lying around your home, if you want to produce a lot of  “Gardener’s Gold”,  the key is to tailor fit the process to you.

Here is a quick, little guide to custom-fitting a composting system to your lifestyle and needs:

1.  If you don’t want to exert a lot of effort, and you won’t need a ton of compost, you’ll probably want to spend a little money and invest in a ready-made composting bin.  These are readily available in stores and online, these days.  They are usually plastic, portable units that look something like this:

The pros of this system:

  • one of the easiest methods of composting
  • requires very little maintenance
  • takes up very little space

The cons of this system:

  • can be expensive
  • lack of aeration causes the composting process to slow down
  • difficult to turn heap (unless it has an arm for turning)
  • can be difficult to get to finished compost

This is the method we used when we entered into the world of  composting.    Although it is very simple to use and requires very little maintenance, the amount of time it takes to generate just a little bit of compost does not make it a worthwhile investment for us.  We quickly found out that, for this system to work for us, we’d need to spend a lot of money, up front to purchase multiple units to provide the amount of compost that we’d require for our homestead.  With our budget, this is simply out of the question.  We need cheap and fast — holding bins just don’t fit the bill for us; but they may for you!

2.  If you’re looking for an easy, but inexpensive way to compost, you may want to give Sheet Composting a try.

The pros of this system:

  • no physical bin needed
  • easy to construct
  • requires little maintenance
  • very little, if any cost
  • results in an “instant” garden bed that is ready for planting in.

The cons of this system:

  • usually takes a full season for all of the debris to decompose
  • materials should be chopped into small pieces before adding to pile
  • best to wait until fall to construct
  • can create an eye sore while waiting for it to fully decompose

This is the method we utilized to create most of our garden beds when we first moved onto our homestead.  We moved onto our property in the fall, and found it was the perfect system to utilize at that time of year.  As we cleared weeds, and raked up leaves, we simply layered them, and other organic matter,  into the area of the garden where we wanted to create a bed, much like putting together a dish of lasagna.  (In fact, if you are interested in employing this method of composting, I highly recommend a wonderful how-to book called, Lasagna Gardening, by Patricia Lanza that will teach you all you want to know about this method).  If you don’t mind the wait, this is a great composting system!  We still utilize this method, in the fall, whenever we want to create new garden beds for planting in the following spring.

3.  If you have a lot of space, would like to produce large quantities of compost quickly, and don’t mind a little dirt and sore muscles, you might want to consider using a Turning Unit.

The pros of this system:

  • works faster than previous two methods
  •  inexpensive
  • chopping/shredding of plant material recommended, but not necessary
  • material is easier to turn

The cons of this system:

  • requires greater effort to maintain
  • difficult for people with physical limitations or limited strength to use
  • can require a lot of space, depending on how many units you need

This is the method we utilize, now,  for creating hummus and compost to add as topsoil to our existing gardens, or for filling planters.  For our large acreage, we utilize 7 units.  This is how our system works:

  1. We add organic material to wire cages (pasture fencing with 2″ squares that has been formed into a cylinder with no top or bottom)

We don’t pay particular attention to the ratio of material that is added, but go for a mixture of green and brown.  We add weeds (yes, even ones with seed heads, but don’t tell anyone that we do it!), decaying plant matter, grass clippings, leaves, spoiled fruits and veggies, and any kitchen scraps (skins, peelings of fruits and veggies mostly).  If you’re wondering what to add to your compost pile, here’s a short list from Penn State:

Do add: yard trimmings, garden debris, vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds and filters, and
horse, cow, chicken, and rabbit manure.
Do not add: meats, fish, oily foods (these are likely to attract unwanted pests), milk products, and
pet manures (except for manure from pets that are herbivores such as rabbits, sheep, and chickens–
their manure is a great source of nitrogen). Diseased or insect infested plants and weeds that have
gone to seed also should not be added.

2.  We keep adding material until each bin is full, then we flood each bin with water (more water is added, whenever the pile starts to get too dried out).

3.  We wait about two to three weeks, then we lift the wire frame off of the pile (usually, the pile will remain in tact when we do this).  We position the empty wire close to the pile, then “flip the pile over”, by starting at the top of the pile, and working our way down, we re-load the wire cage with the debris — the  top layer now becomes the bottom layer of the new pile, and the bottom becomes the top.

4.  After about two to three  months of flipping the pile (and continuing to water, as needed), we will usually find fully decomposed material towards the bottom of the pile.  Using a shovel, we scoop the material into this home-made compost sifter (a wooden box with the bottom removed and replaced with galvanized wire mesh) and use it to separate the fine, finished compost, from the rest of the still-decomposing organic material.  This is where a lot of physical strength is needed — if you’re looking for a total body workout, this will do it!

5.  The material that gets left behind in the sifter simply gets added back to the tops of the compost piles.  The soil particles will gradually work their way down to the bottoms of the piles, and the damp, decaying hummus will help to further speed up the process of decomposition in all of the bins.

6.  New material is constantly added to the bins, and the bins are constantly turned over, at different intervals, so that there is a steady supply of finished compost generated to add to our garden beds, and nourish all of our fruits, veggies, and flowers with a perfect concentration of  organic nutrients.

There are other “Turning Unit” systems, like the Three-Bin, or Multiple-Bin system.  While those methods work pretty well, we found that it is much easier to turn the piles using our method.  For some reason, it’s much easier to access all of the material in the pile better when we can remove the frame from it.  Yes, our method does take a lot of work, but we are still fairly young, and fit (at least we like to think that we are), so it perfectly fits our need, right now, for quick and cheap compost.  In the future I’m sure we’ll use a much less physically demanding method.  But, for now, we’re perfectly content with our composting system that does exactly what it’s supposed to do…make compost!

What method of composting perfectly fits your needs?  What method(s) do you currently use?  Do you have any composting tips that you’ve learned along the way that you’d like to share?


One thought on “Choosing a Composting System According to Your Needs

  1. Thank you for the composting advice. Yours was the best description I’ve read so far. I only have 8 chickens – I’m trying your method. Thank you

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