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How Not to Compost: A Trial Test from Last Winter

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Green Waste Composting

Here is one failed attempt at composting over the winter that is a good lesson on how not to compost.


One of the best ways to enrich the nutrient content and texture of your garden soil is through composting. Composting is the accelerated breakdown of large organic material such as apple cores, orange and banana peels, vegetable scraps, etc. into a much smaller, nutrient-dense matter that eventually becomes what gardeners refer to as “Black Gold” due to its rich dark color and value as a safe and natural fertilizer.

Back on the farm, we really did not have to invest the time and energy into active composting. Mostly because what scraps were left over went to the chickens and the hogs leaving little else left to place into a compost bin. What form of composting we did do was what I call “passive composting” where cattle were rotated from one field to another allowing nature to deal with the massive “cow piles” left behind in their wake.

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Living in the suburbs with a large backyard in which I created a vegetable garden, there were no farm animals about, so I had to turn to “active-composting” to improve my garden soil. As anyone in the suburbs can attest to, the soil in new suburban yards is only about an inch thick. Everything else below is composed of clay and a lot of building material waste. When a new virgin plot is marked for development, the original top soil is typically scraped off with a bulldozer and sold or saved for other development projects.

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During my first year with that suburban garden spot, I tilled up the ground to the clay-level and then added many bags of peat, topsoil, and humus to build up the soil depth. It worked well enough for growing tomatoes, but root crops like carrots resulted in some very bizarre-looking carrots.

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The next year, I turned to a variation of open-air pit-composting where I dug a hole about 2 feet deep and 3 feet in diameter, with a wire fence 4 feet high encircling the hole supported by 4 iron fence posts. The wire fencing was needed to prevent spill-off of added compost material and to fend off scavenging varmints. Everyday vegetable and fruit scraps were tossed into the pit and covered with alternating layers of grass clipping, leaves, and straw allowing nature to work out the composting.

During the summer, I watched the compost pile as it grew and noticed that if left untouched for a short while, I could actually see it shrinking rather rapidly and feel heat emanating from it. It worked. And thereby, required constant feeding to keep the composting process going. By the time Fall arrived, I dug out the pit and found it filled with the holy grail of Black Gold compost, including a large population of earthworms.

Technically, my compost pit was actually a form of vermiculture or vermicomposting, but it worked very well for composting kitchen scraps and yard waste all the same.

In a move to a different home in an older neighborhood, I wound up with a yard with at least one foot of good topsoil. Knowing the value of composting, however, I wanted to compost there as well, but knew that open-pit composting would not work due to the problems it would cause with rodents and other wildlife in the woods bordering my backyard. Now was time to consider a more-modern approach to composting.

Looking at buying a commercial composter, I found that while some looked quite capable for fulfilling my needs, they were also very expensive.

Turning to the Internet, I found a DIY composter project that seemed like a good approach that met the basic requirements of container-composting. Namely, a trashcan lying on its side on top of a stand fitted with castor wheels to facilitate easy rotating of the compost contents in the trashcan. The top not being air-tight, was strapped down with an elastic band to keep it in place.

With some scrap 2 by 4’s, a $13 galvanized trashcan from the nearby hardware store, four $1 castor wheels, and some leftover outdoor paint, I put together what I thought was a sharp-looking container composter at a fraction of the cost of a commercial composter.

My DIY Composter

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Do it yourself composter

To improve the DIY composter, I could have added a door on the side of the trashcan to allow easier adding of scraps to the compost ,and automated it with a Raspberry Pi controller fitted with a temperature sensor and an old electric motor. However, having created enough projects to know that it is best to start with smaller beta projects before building up to a final automated project, I was content to go analog and turn the DIY composter by hand and see how well it works. It’s a good thing I did.

What I discovered was that as long as the amount of organic waste tossed into the trashcan took up no more than about one-fifth of the trashcan space, I could rotate the trashcan easily once a week. However, as the added mass increased, it turned out that the galvanized metal was too flimsy to handle the weight rolling on the castors, resulting in the trashcan beginning to distort enough to prevent adequate rotating of the compost. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

With winter approaching, I resorted to making a trip to the garden every couple of days and just bury the scraps in small shallow holes throughout the garden. Not the best method, but better than doing nothing.

In addition to the burying method, I followed the recommendation of a neighbor who told me that she barrel-composted just by dumping her scraps into a large trash can and let nature take its course. I questioned her on whether that this method would work because it seemed more about rotting organic matter than it did about composting. But, she said that she had read about it somewhere and assured me that it fine worked for her.

Since I now had a defunct composting trashcan on hand and no time to build another composter, I decided to give it a try—but I made some sensible additions like adding layers of dead dry leaves between the organic scraps and some earthworms to the mix to see what happens.

This spring I dumped my trashcan of organic refuse into my garden and was greeted with the worst sour-sweet smell…I mean stench…imaginable. Rather than Black Gold, I had a pile of rotting organic matter, non-decayed leaves and no sign of any living worms. In other words, a total failure; and definitely, an example of how not to compost.

My Trashcan Compost Results After the Winter

Rotted Compost

Incidentally, shortly after my rotted compost debacle, a storm came through and blew over my neighbor’s compost can. What I discovered looking at her compost can was that what she had was not really composted organic waste, but just dumping old dry weeds and flowers into the trashcan for what will take an eternity to decompose on its own. Doh! I then learned from a gardening resource that trashcan composting does work, but you have to drill holes in the bottom of the trash can and throughout its sides to facilitate composting. Details, details.

Here’s a Video on Trashcan Composting

Final Words and a New Respect for Composting

The point here is that while there are a multitude of recommendations on the internet on how to compost to create “Black Gold” in your backyard, there are relatively fewer recommendations that explain how not to compost or what a failed compost project looks (and smells) like. Composting is a biological process. It can be done successfully on the cheap or it can be done with commercial composters; but, it has to be done under conditions that follow good decomposition practices. And rotting is not one of them.

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In subsequent articles, we will go into what constitutes good composting practices and how you can compost successfully this year to yield that Black Gold you need for your garden.

If you would like to share any of your experiences with composting, please send your comments and advice below.

Images courtesy of Pixabay and the author

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.