Mother Earth Living

How to Compost at Home

Learn how to compost at home, indoors through winter, using this mesophilic composting system.
By Brett L. Markham
March 2014
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The author has designed a system for how to compost at home based on three five-gallon buckets and a small stand that allows for easy bucket rotation for aeration purposes.
Photo by Brett Markham

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The Mini Farming Guide to Composting (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013), by Brett L. Markham, is the next edition of his bestselling Mini Farming series. Markham offers a number of handbooks covering everything about self-sufficiency. In this latest book, learn all you’ve ever wanted to know about composting. The following excerpt from “Indoor Mesophilic Composting” explains how to compost at home with minimal odor.

You can purchase this book from The Mother Earth Living store: The Mini Farming Guide to Composting.

Tips on How to Compost at Home

Like many gardeners, you may have ambitions to compost your kitchen waste. The trouble is that it is a royal pain to carry the stuff to an outdoor compost pile every time you make and eat a meal. Where I live, everything is frozen solid for four (or more) months out of the year anyway, so you can’t dump stuff outside.

A lot of folk try putting their kitchen waste into a bucket that will be emptied into the compost pile periodically, but in many cases it becomes a smelly disgusting mess in less than a day. Putting a lid on top that will suppress the smell only makes the task of opening it difficult and the smell when it is opened even worse. And there is still the problem of wading through three feet of snow to a frozen compost pile. Can you tell I speak from experience?

The problem is caused by the fact that kitchen wastes tend to have a C/N ratio of less than 30, plus supply so much moisture that when they start to break down, the contents of the bucket turn anaerobic within hours. The smell attracts flies, and pretty soon you just want the bucket gone.

Luckily, the nature of the problem itself specifies a couple of solutions. I discussed the first solution in the chapter on anaerobic composting: anaerobic composting in double-sealed trash bags. The other solution is to boost the carbon content of the compost, soak up the excess water and aerate the mass. The result is compost with greatly diminished (albeit not completely eliminated) smell. And you can do it indoors in the winter!

To that end, I have designed an indoor composting system based on three five-gallon buckets and a small stand that allows for easy bucket rotation for aeration purposes. The sequence of events is as follows:

• Fruit and vegetable wastes are put into the drum composter. For every pound of waste added, also add an absorbent carbon source as described later. Cut things up small. If you throw in a whole plum or a whole banana, you will attract fruit flies and generate unpleasant smells. Small pieces are the secret to reducing odor in this system.
• Rotate the drum at least five times daily. Leave the door facing upwards each time.
• Continue depositing waste and spinning until the drum is one quarter full. Then remove that drum from the cradle, put the second drum on the cradle in its place, and start adding materials to the second drum. Once or twice a day, put the first drum back on the rack and give it a spin for aeration. Check it once in a while to see if you need to add any moisture.
• After the first drum has gone a week with no new additions and daily aeration spins, empty it into the third bucket, and cover with a screen.
• Repeat.
• As each new addition is made to the third bucket, give the compost in the third bucket a stir.
• Once the bucket is full, leave it covered with the screen for a week then empty it into a large trash barrel. Don’t cover the barrel. As you make new additions to the barrel, give them a stir. Your compost ages here.
• Use your compost in the fashion of ordinary compost after testing it for maturity.
• Note: the contents of the third bucket make great bedding for vermicomposting.

This system certainly works, but it is not without its flaws. While the bucket is being initially filled and for the first week of being tumbled without new additions, it will have some smell — though nothing as bad as a standard compost bucket. Because of that smell, it will also attract fruit flies. After the first week of being tumbled without new additions, though, there will be no noticeable smell and any fruit flies will be confined within it.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Mini Farming Guide to Composting: Self-Sufficiency from Your Kitchen to Your Backyard by Brett L. Markham and published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2013). Purchase this book from our store: The Mini Farming Guide to Composting.

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