The Mostly-Organic Compost Pile

When I began this homestead-oriented journey back in 2009, one of the first things I did was to start a compost pile… of sorts.

The previous owners of our house had a large area in the scrub brush at the back of the property where they had been dumping lawn clippings. It looked like a natural spot to start composting to me! I would just bury our food scraps in the grass with a pitchfork and call it good.

At the time, I didn’t realize it was far from an idea composting situation, but at least it kept food scraps out of the trash, and it probably helped to feed a few rats, mice, and other small critters back there.

The following spring, The Engineir built two large compost bins out of old pallets. These were a significant improvement over the grass heap, but were located adjacent to it, very far from the house. It was not convenient to take out the compost, so it tended to pile up in the kitchen and get smelly.

For Christmas that year, The Engineir got me a countertop composter, which helped to keep the kitchen odor down, but it was still a long damn walk to the back of the property, particularly in winter.

Also, the compost pile was mostly in the shade, had an open top exposed to rain and snow, and seemed to be growing more plants from seed than composting the organic matter.

Finally, last year, we bit the bullet and purchased A Proper Composter which we could put right up by the house. It is entirely possible to build an excellent composter, and I am not encouraging buying a plastic bin as opposed to building your own from more sustainable products, but I personally like this one for several reasons:

  1. It’s black, to absorb the heat of the sun to help keep things warm enough for the microbes to thrive
  2. It is designed to allow “just the right amount” of moisture through the lid
  3. It has side ventilation
  4. It is made of plastic and will therefore hold up for many years, whereas wood will eventually rot out
  5. It has a relatively easy-access door at the bottom
  6. The top lid stays open by itself when raised for ease of dumping out the kitchen scraps
  7. It holds 12 cubic feet of scraps and compost

As an added plus, The Engineir and our good friend Severin had fun putting it together (it was later moved outside the living room.) 😉

I had thought about purchasing a rotating bin, which would make turning the compost easier, but they were significantly more expensive for bins of the same size. Perhaps next time. For now, the pyramid composter is doing just fine.

The reason I started writing this post, before the long digression about the compost area itself, was to talk about what I used to put into the compost pile, as opposed to what I put in there now.

Initially, I had this vision of a 100% organic compost heap, because heck, isn’t that what it’s “supposed to be?” Healthy, organic, non-toxic stuff only, which would nourish our garden and therefore our bodies.

That’s a great plan, and if only organic foods came into our household, then it would work well! The truth of the matter, however, is that sometimes I do buy non-organic foods – either because the particular items I need are not available in organics, or are too expensive. If I’m willing to put those foods into my body directly, surely I should be willing to put them into the compost heap, too.

Additionally, I learned it’s fine to put tea bags and paper into compost bins. I am a huge fan of herbal teas, like Traditional Medicinals, Yogi, and Numi tea! Tea helped me to kick my soda habit.

Meanwhile, back at the composting topic, while I’m not putting our office paper (which is made with dioxins and other toxic awfulness) into the bin, I am putting paper tea wrappers and tea bags in there, strings and all. If I’m drinking tea the bag/string has soaked in, there’s no reason not to compost it. Of course, if the tea bags were synthetic, they would stay out of the bin, as they would not break down as readily and I don’t want plastics in there. Also, coffee grounds are great for compost, so I’ve been putting in organic and non-organic grounds alike.

Other things one might not think to toss into the compost: Hair from hairbrushes; pet hair; bird feathers; nail trimmings from human and pet alike; leftover whey.

There are some composting folks out there who say fats and oils must absolutely be kept out of the compost pile, because it will a.) attract critters, and b.) make the pile smelly. This prevented me from dumping sauces or stews with meat and/or fats in them into the bin, even in limited amounts. However, this past year I have found small amount of animal products and oils seem to have little impact on the pile’s odor or attractiveness to pests.

This is a current photo of our compost bin – it’s in need of turning, but you can see the various kinds of things I put in there.

Egg shells, banana peels, boiled soup bones, left-over fruit, potatoes, hair, cabbage, tea bags, paper tea bag packets, left over veggies, weeds, dog hair, and more.

I am far from a composting guru, and there are plenty of things I’m doing wrong (I don’t aerate or turn often enough at all, which slows the process down, and I’m not paying strict attention to green v. brown levels. The book Let It Rot is a great resource for people who want to learn more about the art (and science) of composting.

But the compost heap keeps composting in its own way, just as I’m homesteading in my own way, doing the best we can with what we have. There is no one perfect way to homestead! While we may envision what the perfect path is, it’s not always possible to achieve that perfection due to finances, or health, or energy levels, or time, or space, or any of myriad other reasons. We all just do the best we can, day by day.

Incidentally, my friend Jill over at The Prairie Homestead has a new ebook about just this subject, which I highly recommend. Like me, Jill started with a compost heap.

Do you have any composting experience or tips to share?

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2 responses to The Mostly-Organic Compost Pile

  1. Um, so why didn’t I ever think to compost my tea bags before?? *duh* Awesomely informative post- love that a compost pile was also your “gateway drug” into this whole homesteading adventure. 🙂 And thank you kindly for the shout-out on my eBook! 🙂

  2. Erin D.

    Compost heaps are apparently rather heady gateways, indeed. 😀

    I never thought about composting tea bags, either! I read it somewhere and had that same “DUH” reaction.

    Happy to help spread the word about your book- you did a great job!

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