A lot of what I learn is done as I go. I read, I research, and I experiment. I tend to get enough information to get me started and then go after it. This is something that I love. I love diving into new projects and figuring it out as I go along. However, while there are SO many aspects about self-education that I love, there is a inherent tendency to make a lot of mistakes. Making mistakes is part of the learning process for us all and I like it so much because I tend to find a fuller understanding as I problem solve. My indoor, turned outdoor, compost bin is a classic example of how self-educating can go terribly wrong and in the end become a really positive experience.
This is a story of a series of innocent mistakes becoming one big disgusting mess, and how, with help, Kendall and I were able to save our compost from the trash and our trash from the freezer.
We started the compost bin for a lot of really good reasons, but I was squeamish of worms and this was the beginning of things going bad because it led to mistake number one, neglecting the bin. Mistake number two was adding too many food scraps into one bin. It is something that many of us try to do in too many parts of our life–try to pack something too big in a package that is too small. A few victims of this are the bikini, storage lockers, to-do lists, that super cute pair of shoes that is half off, and…my compost bin. I should have learned that when I was having to put my full body weight on the lid to get it to close that I needed to figure out a new plan. Instead I continued on and unfortunately so does the list of mistakes.
These are my mistakes listed out as best as I could list such a complicated mess:
- Overall neglect of the bin–I got really excited about starting and not so excited or into maintaining it.
- Adding too many food scraps to one bin.
- Our CSA share was too large for us to eat and we were regularly adding whole pieces of uneaten, rotten produce.
- Major fruit fly infestation from neglect.
- Standing liquid from the decomposing produce and rain water (which we hadn’t accounted for when we put the bin outside to save our apartment from the fruit flies), and not adding any newspaper to keep the moisture level in balance.
- We began turning it too often in a desperate attempt to do something to save it.
- Not enough oxygen circulation.
So, what we ended up with was a bin with worms, standing vegetable/fruit/rain water, rotting food, fruit flies, maggots, and to top it off it smelled like feces. I don’t think it was possible for my compost to become a more nauseating bin of nastiness. We had just moved into a new apartment when the bin really started to go downhill. I was so embarrassed to be caught by my neighbors with the lid open, the foul fecal odor thick in the air, fruit flies swarming out all around me, and the swamp of rotting food; yet, out of pure determination I continued to open the lid and add my food scraps.
The situation got so bad that Kendall gently said to me that he thought our compost bin was a goner. We talked about throwing it out and starting over, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. There was a Seattle Tilth brochure that Kendall had picked up a couple of weeks ago about composting and it had a hotline number to call. Each time I called I talked to someone who was helpful, kind, and patient. They really want you to succeed in composting and for it to be something that over time just becomes a regular part of your life.
Here is the information that they shared with me that saved our compost:
- Stop adding food scraps to our bin until we got the problem under control. We didn’t want to throw our food scraps away so we put them in a garbage bag in our freezer.
- We needed to buy more worms and start a second bin. We were adding too many food scraps and the worms couldn’t eat through it all. Now, I rotate bins. I will have one bin function as my active bin for a couple of weeks while the other one rests.
- We needed to drill holes in the bottom of both bins, buy 2 more bins to stack underneath the compost bins to catch the “compost tea” which would now begin to drain. All the food we were adding had a lot of moisture in it and so when the food started to break down the moisture left the food and was trapped in the bin. Putting the bin outside made the moisture problem worse because of how damp Seattle is. The worms stopped eating the food because they were drowning. Tip: When it is time to dump the bucket of nutrient-rich “tea” you can dilute it with water and use it to water your plants or your garden.
- Stop turning the compost so often. While this does speed up the composting, this process creates a lot of heat and, therefore, creating a perfect environment for larva (maggots) and other critters. Compost bins are little ecosystems so there are going to be some critters especially if you have an outdoor bin, but it should not be overrun with them.
- Start layering the compost bin with newspaper. The worms don’t like to live in the same place they eat. The newspaper layer gives them somewhere to go. This also helps with the fruit fly problem. Now I always make sure the food scraps are covered by a layer of newspaper. So, I either add it under an already existing layer of newspaper or add more if it is time.
- Go on a fruit fly killing spree. It is important to get the fruit fly population under control because they multiply so quickly. I went outside with my spray bottle of cleaner and a rag and killed as many as I could. It is also important to keep the outside of the bins and the “tea” bin really clean in order to cut off their food supply. So, for a couple of days or weeks you will just really need to be on top of it pristine. We started slacking before we should have and the problem came back. Can you tell we have a problem with follow-through?
- Crack open the lids a bit to let oxygen in. I open my lids in the evening for a couple of hours. This helps with the fruit flies, the smell, and the composting of the food. Oxygen is an important part of composting. Without oxygen decomposition will slow down as much as 90%.
I now have two very healthy compost bins and couldn’t be happier about it. This has been such a great learning process for me and the care I have put into restoring it has even managed to create an affection for my worms and the role they play in keeping my ecosystem balanced and healthy. The biggest thing that I learned is that composting isn’t difficult, but that it is important to keep the contents in balance–if it is too wet, then, make it drier with drainage holes and dry newspaper; if it is too dry, then, add wet newspaper; there needs to be a balance between the worms and the food scraps; and just like all of us it needs room to breathe.
Having a compost bin doesn’t take a lot of work. However, it does need to be maintained and whenever I have begun to slack on this I am revisited by old compost problems.
Oh, and after canceling our CSA and going to the Farmer’s Market instead I found a new farmer who is starting a compost pile and would love to take the trash in my freezer off my hands!
I hope none of you are in need of saving your compost bin, but if you do and are able to be patient and give it a little extra care for while it is possible to rescue even the most hopeless bins.