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Problems I've Faced With Home Composting

Food scraps and soil

Why I Want to Do Home Composting

For a long time, I've wanted to get into home composting. While there's always better that someone can be, I have been fascinated by the decomposition process nature employs to get organic waste back into a useful material. So, when I lived a bit further south in Texas than where I currently am now, I asked my landlord if it would be okay for me to compost on my apartment balcony.

I was quite happy about this. My plan was to take food scraps and shredded paper to make a useful fertilizer/soil amendment. I would then use it in a balcony garden to make food and herb plants. I've nearly always been keen on turning waste into something useful. So, I figured this was a golden opportunity to do so. Little did I know how difficult it could be to make good compost or the issues than can come along with it. I did do some research on the subject, but it was still my first time trying. There were definitely some issues with trying to do home composting on my balcony. So, let me share them with you.

Home Composting Issues

Maggot in rotten food

The major issues I found in trying to compost at home came from the following areas:

  1. Composting tumbler specific issues

  2. Getting the greens to browns mixture right

  3. Attracting unwelcome guests

  4. Problems with moisture

  5. Continuously adding fresh materials

From the research I'd done at the time, these things are pretty important to get right if you want to have good quality compost with a relatively quick processing time. I'm not bashful to say that I didn't get them right. I'll cover what I did, lessons learned, and a potential simpler process.

Composting Tumbler Specific Issues

I chose to get a composting tumbler to help me achieve my home composting goals. It seemed like a good pick, allowing for easy aeration. And the aeration process was pretty simple. The thing is that it's easy to mess up the easy aeration process with tumblers. This is due to the tendency to make ball clumps form. When these balls are formed, they reduce the surface area that is exposed to air.

Less air means either the composting process is slowed down, or the compost may attempt to go anaerobic. Anaerobic means without oxygen. Compost microorganisms tend to do better with using oxygen or aerobic processes to deal with breaking down organic waste. I currently have a hand held soil aeration fork to help break up these balls. But I didn't have that at the time I started. While the tendency to make clumpy balls may not completely be the fault of the tumbler, the compost is supposed to be moist and some materials may be more inclined to stick together if you roll them around enough. So, keep this in mind if you decide on using a tumbling style composting unit.

Greens to Browns Ratio Issue

Let's start off by saying what greens and browns are. Greens are materials that are rich in nitrogen, like coffee ground and fruits. Browns are things rich in carbon like sawdust and cardboard. If you get the ratio right, you should be able to have compost that can process with heat high enough to quickly change the waste into useful compost while killing off potential pathogenic microorganisms and bug pests.

If you get it wrong, you can have a compost that gets smelly, attracts unwanted guests, and/or breaks down very slowly. if memory serves, the tumbling composting unit I bought said the ratio should be about 3 quarters greens and 1 quarter browns by weight. However, I have seen this ratio essentially flipped the other way around, one to one, and other ratios. So, I'll be the first to admit that it can be a bit confusing.

This can be especially true considering that there are ratios out there that are ratios of carbon to nitrogen. Essentially all of the materials have carbon. Certain ones have significant nitrogen too. But that will greatly depend on which browns and greens you use. It can be a little complicated, and I believe it was part of my issue with my first attempt at composting.

Attracting Unwelcome Guests

It didn't take long before flies of various kinds took up residence in the tumbler. And there were a lot of the suckers. I don't think I had ever seen so many maggots at one time at the size ever. I seemed to have attracted black soldier flies. They actually were eating up a lot of the materials in there pretty quickly. They made inside the composter smell terrible, but the levels were going down. So, I was pretty happy about that.

Yes, I was happy for a time. But then a problem happened. See, I lived on the top floor of a two story apartment complex. One thing I didn't know about black soldier fly larvae is that when they get near maturity, they leave the compost bin and seek out soil. But there wasn't any soil where I was. Even so, they found their way down to the ground, and my downstairs neighbors noticed. So, I had to get rid of the composting unit.

When I got another one, I put plastic down on the balcony floor to keep the maggots from going downstairs. And it worked overall. But then they started finding ways inside. That definitely was not good. So, the second one had to go. I currently have another tumbling home composting unit. The saving grace this time is that I have a backyard large enough for me to put the unit far enough away that the maggots don't every come close to the inside of my home. And that's just fine with me. Needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, you will probably want enough space that you can keep any compost fairly far away from your home if you want to keep it bug free.

Moisture Problems

I didn't try to make the compost too wet. However, directly adding certain items to the tumbling unit inevitably made the compost too wet. And when I tried to dry it out using cross cut paper or card board, it seemed to greatly slow down the process. Too much moisture seems to greatly help in attracting bugs as well as hurting aeration. Too little moisture and the microorganisms don't have what they need to do the job.

At the time I started doing this, I didn't have a moisture probe. That would definitely be helpful in making sure that an adequate level of moisture was maintained in the compost. One thing I note is that when there were a lot of black soldier fly maggots, they seemed to thrive in an environment of excess water. I don't mind them because they seem beneficial from what I have read about them. And in their adult form, they don't look to be able to bite. That's definitely a plus. If you want to do compost right, you will need to mind your moisture levels. And if you are putting in fresh fruit and vegetable scraps, be mindful that they can have a significant amount of water in them.

Knowing When to Stop

This may seem self explanatory to some of you, but you eventually need to stop adding fresh material to your compost heap or bin. At least this was the case for me. Sure, the bugs and microorganisms broke stuff down, but once I added more material, the compost wasn't suitable to remove. So, I had a never finished compost bin. That's no good. The point is to use it at some point. It also means that there will always be a source of decomposing material for the bugs and microbes to get.

Two Solutions Were Born From This

Picture of text "solution" and magnifying glasses

OK. Well, I'm still composting and making soil amendments. I have a tumbler compost bin because it still was simple enough for my needs. If I had it to do again, I probably would get a two sided bin that had a finishing side and an additions side. But that's not all I'm doing.

Waste Food Processing Unit

The first thing I'm trying out is a food processing unit. It processes food scraps by drying them out and grinding them finer. This minimizes decomposition before you're ready to use it as well as allowing you to put in food items you usually couldn't for fear of attracting vermin or bugs.

The thing is, this is considered a soil amendment and not compost. This is due to the food scraps needing further breakdown by microorganisms in soil. To apply this, you take one part by weight of the processed food and add it to about 10 parts by weight of soil. You have to be careful with how much you put in the soil because, as I said, it still needs to break down.

If you add too much of the processed material to the soil, and you try to grow some plants, the material may cause competition for nutrients between plants and the microbes responsible for decomposition. Nature can be quite complicated can't it? So, that is one way to deal with waste food and organic materials.

An Attempt to Optimize The Composting Process

The second thing I'm trying out is to try to optimize the composting process to the extent I currently can. I'm doing this to try to compost faster and to have a system that keeps the bugs and nasty smells out of the equation. So, one major thing that compost needs is oxygen. There is about 21% oxygen content in atmospheric air. So, I'm using what should be a much more concentrated amount via an oxygen concentrating unit. I'm thinking that, as is the case with fire, more oxygen will help the process go faster.

I'm also using a vacuum to vacuum out the air in the compost, add the concentrated oxygen, keep it under a slight vacuum, and repeat the process when the pressure equalizes. I'd like some sensors for this, and hopefully in time I can get some to better control the process. I'm currently thinking that when the pressure equalizes, there is a build up of carbon dioxide which will require purging.

I also have a vacuum chamber heating pad to help keep the compost nice and warm but not too warm. I'm keeping it at around 50 degrees Celsius. That's around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The thinking is that heat should help keep the microbial activity high. A few times a week I will stir the compost mix up, which it's currently made up of mostly coffee grounds, tartary buckwheat, various spices, shredded paper, and compost starter. Of course it's kept moist, and while the moisture tries to escape, it doesn't have anywhere to go.

I am not certain that I got the ratio right, but I am monitoring the process and will post an update on what I've learned. I call this an experiment, but I'd really like some sensors to give me more data as well as making sure that the greens to browns ratio is correct. But, it is looking like it's working, so I will keep at it.

Key Things to Remember for Home Composting

There are many things to consider when trying to compost at home. But here are some particularly important things to remember if you want to give this a try.

  • Have enough space away from your home depending on your ratio of greens to brown materials. You may get some bugs and you won't want them in your home. It's often safer to err on the side of more browns than greens.

  • Consider a composting unit that has a finishing and adding chamber. You will eventually need to stop adding material so that it can finish. Two chambers can help keep the flow of materials coming.

  • Keep the compost moist but not too moist. It can affect what and how things grow and break down in the decomposing material.

  • Turn the compost every few days to ensure the microorganisms get sufficient oxygen to break down.

Stay tuned for my post on how my first attempt at optimizing the composting process goes. Turn your waste into something useful at home!

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