Composting question

OK, so I finally bought a composter. I’ve been saving up stuff in plastic containers all winter, and I dumped them all in. Now, my question: if I’m continually putting more veggie matter into the composter, then when does it turn to usable compost? For example: the stuff that I put in today, let’s say, becomes compost in two months (I’m making this up.) OK, so on June 11, I go to haul it out and spread it on my garden. But, included in the mess is stuff that I put in on June 10, which is still green leaves and strawberry tops that hasn’t yet decomposed.

Get my issue? How does it ever get to “crumbly, dark-brown earthy-smelling humus material with a soil like texture” [reading from the instructions] if new material was just added last week?

  1. You don’t just dump stuff into a composter, you set up a composter carefully, mixing apple peels with green grass and small-cut branches, so it’s neither too wet nor too dry. If you put a lot of weeds on it, you add a bit of caulk to produce heat immediatly to kill the weeds and their seeds off (during the composting middle stage, temps. of up to 70 C can be reached, but you want to make sure you aren’t bringing out the seeds of weeds later).

Depending on weather and temp, you may need to shade it or add water. Depending on thickness and variation of material, you might find it necessary to get a big fork and air it at the right stage (in the wrong stage, the heat is necessary for the fermentation process).

  1. There are three basic variations on how to get the composted earth out and let it compost in peace (and two months is a good average estimate, with three months still reasonable).

I don’t know what type of composter you have - the cheapest are just plastic rectangles that lock into a open-bottom tower. You either fill it up till almost full (or autum), cover it with grass/ branches and let it do its thing for the next two-three months, then open it and take out all the earth underneath the cover.
Problem: what to do with the apple peels from your kitchen in the meantime? Solution Variant 2 or 3:
you either put a seperator (plastic board) inside the composter, or set up a second composter. Close the first (layer) let it ferment, and fill the next (layer).
If you do layers, the composter needs to be of a type that can be opened at the bottom with a hinge mechanism, to take out the earth from the first layer when its done, while the second layer is still full.
If you bought a simpler composter type that doesn’t have hinges or layers, just a straight-up tower, I’d think it’s easiest to buy a second one and put them next to each other. (Then they don’t feel lonely, either. :)) And over here, these simple plastic ones cost about 20 Euros, so it’s not that big a deal.

If you’ve never composted before, either get a good basic beginners book (library, bookshop); make some garden friends who already have good compost going (if you have no friendly neighbours, there’s probably a gardening forum on the internet!), or look for how-tos on the internet.
Because if you do it wrong, you get a stinky mass and not good earth - you want the right kind of fermentation, not just rotting.

Or you could do it in batch mode. Have multiple containers; fill one up in a short period of time and let it process while you work on filling the next. How many you need depends on the volume and time it takes.

There’s two options: You can stop putting stuff in at some point, and wait a couple months of warm weather to get everything to compost (if you have two or three piles, you can always have one accepting new stuff and one finishing off).
Or, you can have one pile and regularly run it through a large screen. The not-yet-decomposed veggies and what-not will stay behind, and the finished compost will go through. This also has the side benefit of mixing and turning the pile, which speeds up the process.

On preview, I want to offer a slightly contrasting opinion to constanze. You certainly can be careful about the exact mix of nitrogen and carbon, be careful about moisture and reaching the optimum temperature, and so forth. You can also just toss stuff in and let nature take its course. With the laissez-faire method you can’t count on killing off weed seeds and things might take longer, but you’ll still get perfectly useable compost at the end of it.

I have a plastic bin a bit like this one. I just keep adding stuff in the top, and dig compost out of the hatch at the bottom. Yes, you sometimes get a bit of unrotted stuff out the bottom as well, but I just sift that out and throw it back in the top. I certainly don’t use a scientific method of composting, I just throw it all in. Shoving in a huge amount of grass clippings all at once isn’t a great idea, as it tends to clump up, so I try to mix that with other stuff. If I notice the heap is getting too wet, I’ll mix in some torn up newspaper or cardboard, but apart from that I just bung it in as it comes, and I get nice compost.

Using this method it will probably take a few months before you get the first lot of usable compost, but after that, you can dig out a bit at a time and then shove the rest down to make room. In an ideal world I’d have two of these bins, so I could leave one to do its stuff for longer, but I haven’t got round to it yet (and they take up space!)

There is more than one way to do composting.

There is the very careful method with “recipes” and maintenance and turning which can get you really high quality compost in three months or so. There are all sorts of things you can buy for this, like composting containers and screens and so forth.

Then there is the method I use: throw kitchen scraps and lawn clippings and leaves and stuff as it comes without a recipe into a hole in the ground/pile for six months, then let it set for six months while all sorts of worms and bugs and stuff do their thing.

One gets you compost in three months. One takes about a year.

Both give results.

This year, I got five cubic feet of compost out of the pile that “finished” this spring. While one pile is “simmering” for six months I have another pile I’m filling, and just switch off between the two of them. So I unload one pile in the spring, one in the fall. It works for me and is very low maintenance… but slow.

So - how fast do you want results? How much work/maintenance do you want to do?

I do recommend more than one pile, so while one is finishing off you have another you’re loading up.

you can get compost in maybe 3 months at the shortest, most likely at 6 months, could be a year if tough contents. this depends on temperature (you are still not warm), composition of contents, moisture and mixing.

depending on your composter (devices or methods) you would need one or two units.
compost needs to be kept moist and mixed. compost looks most like peat-moss/potting-soil mixture you might buy, it will be at the bottom of a stationary pile. if you have a rotating composter you will need two units, one to be adding to and one to not-adding-to for months; alternately is to empty it out into a pile to substitute for the not-adding-to unit. if you use a pile or stationary bin the compost will be the lower stuff, you take off the top to get at the lower compost. though with a pile method you still have it easier having two piles or stationary composters. you want to mix the compost in both the adding phase and the non-adding phase, if two composters then you can do this vigorously and quickly. if a single pile you need to mix the top of the pile separately from the bottom of the pile. two units or piles is so much easier.

if you saved stuff to put in all winter i would think that would be a slimy mess or fuzzy mold.

Yeah, I have a bucket in the kitchen where I put the compost scraps and it needs to be emptied at least every other day. When I get to part of winter where it’s just not practical to get to the compost heap (such as after this year’s blizzard, when it was under an 8 foot drift) I don’t keep that stuff, it goes in the trash. When I can get to the compost pile again I start saving the scraps for it again, but you really can’t just keep that stuff sitting in a corner of your house, it has to go into the compost heap.

I use two compost bins - they were selling off big coal bins cheaply, and I bought two. I fill one for a year, then leave it to rot. If I need a lot of compost urgently, the bottom layer is usually well rotted after a few months. However, with my two bin system, last year’s compost is available this year.

Temperature is a major factor. Compost will not rot substantially in cold weather. Each year, I know that spring has arrived because my compost bin starts to get warm. As the contents rot, they heat up. This is a good thing, because it helps to kill seeds of weeds and any roots too. It can become too hot to touch when it’s really cooking.

Moisture is another major item. If your material is too dry, it normally won’t rot. So, successful composting requires different skills in a dry climate - you may have to add water. However, if it’s too wet, you just end up with sludge. That can happen if you are in a rainy climate, and the compost is in an open bin under a tree which drips on it.

And of course everything possible should go in the compost. Too many people only use it for grass cuttings. Use it for any plant material, including waste fruit and vegetable matter from the house - banana skins and coffee grounds, potato peels and Valentine’s Day flowers. However, avoid woody material, as it will not rot in the timescale that you want.

More or less what I do, except that my bin doesn’t have a hatch on the bottom. It does have two mats. When I take the compost out, I put down one flooring, take the top square ring and out it on it, and shovel the uncomposted stuff to the bottom. When I get to the compost, I put it on the garden. Has worked for me for 10 years. I’m quite unscientific about it, but still get good compost. However, patience is everything.

I don’t put grass clippings in mine because we have a green can which moves to the lawn, and where we can put branches and other stuff that doesn’t compost very well. The garbagemen take it away, and in the spring you can collect bags of compost from them. I got 4 last weekend.

I think if I had studied the problem I never would have started, since I’d be sure I was going to do it wrong.

Thanks for all the comments. I do know about the recipe-approach, and I will try to get some balance but I don’t intend to be compulsive about it. My composter has a handle so that I can turn it over and 'round without having to shovel. No, I don’t intend to buy a second one. Up to now, I’d just dig a hole and toss the foodstuffs in and then bury 'em, and let nature take its course. I thought it’d be better (and easier, less digging) to use a composter.

Sounds like I’ll need some sort of screen.

Thanks, all.