The complete idiot's guide to low-cost, low-maintenance, and high-reward composting.

Step 1: What You DON"T Need

Well, I personally think that -ibles with a first step called "What you need" are a cliche (much like Altoids tins. [A delicious cliche at that] ).
So, I'm going against the flow, not letting the man keep my head down, fighting the power, etc...
And thus, in direct contradiction to the name of this step, here is what you will need:

1) A 10 gallon plastic bucket, like the kind 3" chlorine tablets are sold in.
(If you are going to use this bucket, wash it out first. Chlorine kills living things - look it up)

2) Some starter soil. Just grab a shovel, and dig some up. Any kind will do.

3) A shovel, or some other scooping/scraping/turning device. Actually, use a shovel, because I managed to wound myself with my rusty rebar and had to get a tetanus shot. It hurt. A lot. Trust me.

4) Water. The essence of life.

5) Compost material. Leafy yard clippings, plant-based kitchen scraps, paper, eggshells, whatever.

6) Patience, patience, patience. And for those of us with problems waiting, a computer/book/family pet for your amusement,

Step 2: A Necessary Part of Every Good Instructable Is...

You guessed it! A disclaimer. A disclaimer not only absolves the author (recon506) of any financial or other responsibility towards you, it is also a method of conveying one's hate for lawyers, sleezebags in suits, and other legal riff-raff that abounds in this great and economically screwed nation. (the USA)

<*cough, cough*>
The author, sole proprietor, and cynical bastard that wrote this -ible (recon506) hereby absolves himself of any responsibility (thus screwing you over) towards you, in respect to damages to life, limb, property, beloved family pet, hated sibling, your bank account, etc, etc, etc...
</*cough, cough*>

*I do not take credit for this flash video. I don't know who do give credit to. I just find it appropriate,

Step 3: Down to the Good Stuff

Go get yourself half a bucket-full of fresh and juicy yard clippings. (Sorry, no hamburgers this time)

Then go get yourself another half bucket-full of dirt from your yard. (I assume you have one)

Grass clippings are a good idea to start with if your grass is lush, soft, and a deep-green color. All other types of grass are either not juicy enough, or their cell walls are too hard for them to break down easily.

Step 4: Cake Time!

No, sorry. I lied.

This is not the kind of cake you will want to eat. This cake is only delicious to worms or the bacteria that are going to make your compost for you.

1) Spread an inch thick layer of dirt covering the bottom of your bucket

2) Spread an inch thick layer of clippings over that.

3) Repeat steps 1-2 until your bucket has only 2 inches left from the top, or you run out of clippings/dirt.

4) Top it all of with a half-inch layer of dirt on top, to lock the moisture and heat inside when it starts to ferment.

Step 5: It's a Waiting Game

Sorry, that was misleading.
There is still some manual labor involved from now on until the composting process is over.

Every week, you should check the moisture level of your compost bucket. The composting mixture should be uniformly like a wrung-out sponge. Too much water and you will drown your bacteria. Too little water and your bacteria will become little mummies.

Skipping a week or two isn't fatal (usually), but you can always remedy the situation by adding more water and sprinkling in some potting soil, courtesy of your neighborhood hardware store.

Furthermore, every week, after checking the moisture level, you should firmly close the bucket with the lid that came with it, tilt it on its side and roll it for about 4 full revolutions back and forth a couple of times. This loosens and counteracts the compacting action that may have occurred during the week. It also introduces oxygen into the compost, making the little critters (bacteria) happy. Next, tilt the bucket so it is standing right-side-up and spin it head over tail for about 5 revolutions. This makes the bottom soil rise and the top soil sink.

Step 6: The Science...

The way this works is a wonderful demonstration of nature's use of Occam's Razor.

Occam's Razor is a doctrine that states that the simplest solution is usually the right/best one.

Composting occurs when naturally-occurring bacteria in the soil (hence the soil I told you to put in) break up the organic matter, relying on oxygen and water as their fuel source. This breaking up of the organic matter releases the nitrates that the plants use to create amino acids, and puts it back into the soil (that I told you to put in) increasing the volume and nutritional value greatly.

Thus, now instead of having to waste time and energy converting potassium nitrite into other forms of nitrogen, the plants have a ready-made source at their finger-tips (root-tips if you will).

Basically - Occam's Razor in a nutshell.

There needs to be a balance between moisture and oxygen in your compost pile/heap/bucket. It's not an exact science, but trial and error will help you along towards being a compost master. You can tell if the bacteria are aerobic (active) as opposed to anaerobic (inactive) by the rotting-garbagey smell that accompanies the latter.

A 10 gallon bucket's worth of compost will take about 4 months to complete, and that is during an Arizona summer, with the average temp well over a 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I actually skipped the last two months of watering and turning my pile, but at that point it was self-sustaining. I have no explanation for it as of yet, but I'll try to figure it out and I will update this -ible when I do.

UPDATE: I have had a comment (kudos to GroovyGuru) about the time it takes to fully compost a certain amount of material. I am sorry if I was misleading in the above paragraph - most sizes of containers will in fact be completed in about 4 months. This is due to the fact that the increased volume allows for more bacteria to be present in the mixture, thus meaning that the bacteria to waste ratio will be almost the same for any amount of compost that you wish to create.



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    23 Discussions


    3 months ago

    Well, my brother into Horticulture he got a diploma in it. He likes planting plants so he is making Compost with peppers, citrus fruit which will be slightly acidic soil I assume (fruits), etc. Some soil but a lot of corn starch bags that will break down in 6 months-1 years.

    When the soil is ready we need to test pH and Potassium, Phosphorous and Nitrogen content.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    can I put my dog's poop in our compost? the manual says no meat, but the poop only used to be meat...


    9 years ago on Step 4

     Do you add the initial water at this point? If so, how much?


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Sorry about the delayed reply, I've been busy with some personal matters. I wouldn't drill holes in the bucket mostly because it would facilitate loss of water. If you are looking for increased airflow just stir the compost once every week or six days, but avoid stirring it more frequently as the that would actually deter the breakdown of whatever delicious kitchen scraps you throw in there.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

     Are you sure about this? I would think (IMHO) that more stirring (and oxygen) helps bacteria get in contact with every part of the organic matter, thus speeding up the process. I would even cut the tippings you put in the bucket in small pieces to help decomposition. And let as much air as possible in the bucket, to avoid anaerobic conditions ( = bad smell).

    Anyway, I haven't tried this myself yet, so I don't really know.

    Does anyone know how to make a cheap compost aerator for under $20.00? Please help also the city of gilbert is giving out free earth machine composters will post instructable about that soon, so is the City of Tempe but they just reuse old collection bins and drill aeration holes but its still Free!


    10 years ago on Introduction

    List of things needed, #5, plant based kitchen waste, like eggshells... Really, 4 months for a 10 gallon bucket? I have several old 30+ gallon garbage cans I was going to use, but if you tell me these things are going to have to sit a year...maybe I'll come up with something else...

    2 replies

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    The ideal size according to permaculture standards is a cubic metre of compost, which heats up real nice and should be ready in a month if turned weekly....also to kick it along you can piss in it...yes thats right urinate in your compost and add some rabbit, horse, cow, or various other poo....herbs such as comfrey, tansey and yarrow are what they call compost activators...catalysts for go get cranking for the ultimate in composting check out the jean pain method


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I don't think the volume of the compost matters as much as you think. This is mainly due to the fact that the ratio of material to bacteria is still the same, just proportionally larger. So, a 30 gallon bucket with proper care will indeed take as much time as my 10 gallon bucket. Thanks for commenting! -recon506


    10 years ago on Introduction

    At a local land fill they take the green waste and pile it 20ft high and put a lawn sprinkler on the top. The piles steam and they turn them with a front end loader! After 4 months they bag it and sell it or the local authority use it on the public gardens! The temp in the heaps gets very high and kills all the seeds and weeds. I believe!! Long live compost!

    3 replies

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I used to work in just such a yard. One night be parked the front end loader with one of its front tires pressed into the pile. Result? 3am fire brigade arrive to a call and discover front end loader engulfed in flames. The heat has ignited the rubber tire and set it smoldering. Once some diesel got hot enough, off it went.. Compost is dangerous - never ever park your car on top of your compost bin! EVER!


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I know! Its tough to get ahead these days.. I'm struggling to get finance for my under property development too. I can't understand it - something seems to have changed in the sub prime end of the market..


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Too bad my compost turned out wrong. It's watery,moldy and can kill all the olfactory glands in a 2 square mile radius.

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    That happened to mine too, and it being a rainy AZ winter I couldn't leave it outside with the lid off to dry out. So I drilled a 1/4" hole in the lid and placed the bucket upside down on a frame about a foot off the ground. The water drips out and the compost stays inside. So now voila! Dry (healthily dry that is) compost!


    10 years ago on Step 2

    I'm pretty sure the flash video is from Lemon Demon.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    My advice to you - don't bother. The bacteria will heat up the compost themselves when they are ready, thus artificially raising the temperature will cause them to make a frowny face and die.