What is the best compost method? In this infographic, discover the methods successful composters are using in their homes and gardens. If you want to compost, there’s a way to do it no matter where you live!
On-site or off, inside or out, simple or complex, this flowchart can help you navigate the possibilities. Below the infographic, you’ll find a short definition of each method and links to additional resources.
Click on the infographic below to view a larger image. Or click here to download a printable PDF.
What is the best compost method for you?
The best compost method is the one that fits your goals, space, and sense of style. If you’re not sure, I encourage you to start with your “best guess.” You can always change your mind! The key is to get started.
Taking action is hands-down the best way to figure this out. You’ll discover what you like and dislike, what works for your home, and what doesn’t. Many of these methods are cheap (or free!) and can be setup temporarily, so you can risk trying it out.
You might even try more than one method. At our house, we have indoor worm bins and outdoor wire bins, heaps, and sheet mulch. All of them fill a specific need and help us reach our goals for the garden.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the 17 compost (or compost-like) methods from the infographic. I’ll include links to tutorials and other related resources. Starting at the top and moving clockwise, here we go…
This post is an excerpt from our premium course and digital book about composting. In these products, you’ll also find pros and cons for each method, along with a step-by-step action plan to start composting (or improve your practice!).
SPECIAL! In October, you can preview a portion of the course for free. The introductory lessons about composting are available in our Quick Start to Composting online course. Click here to sign up for class!
1. Community Compost
More and more municipalities offer green waste pickup. Some even do city-wide composting! You can start by searching for “compost service near me.” If your city doesn’t offer composting, look into three other “Community Compost” possibilities:
- Private company – Compost Now is one example with multiple locations. You pay for the service, like other utilities, and get finished compost as part of the deal.
- Community garden – If your neighborhood has a community garden, they likely have compost piles, too. Connect with the garden leaders to see if you can contribute kitchen or yard waste to their efforts.
- Local farmer – You might also be able to find a farmer or gardener in your community who would add your green waste to her compost pile. Growers’ Markets are a great place to connect and support these farmers in your region!
A bokashi bucket is not technically* composting, but it is a good way to recycle your food waste in small spaces indoors. Bokashi buckets use anaerobic bacteria (in the form of inoculated bran you sprinkle over scraps) to ferment waste. The waste is basically pickled! The results are acidic organic matter that can be dug into the soil or added to a traditional compost pile.
*Technically, compost is the process of aerobically decomposing organic materials. Aerobic = with oxygen. Aerobic microbes need air and moisture to do their job, and they create heat as they work. Thus, a purist’s compost pile would always have plenty of air and water and get hot for an extended period of time. We’re using a looser definition here to describe the wide variety of ways to break down organic matter, although that “perfect” compost pile can happen using several of these methods!
3. Worm Bin
If you don’t mind handling earthworms occasionally (or often, if you have curious kids), a worm bin is a fascinating way to recycle food waste indoors. Vermicomposting, the official term for the process, can happen in fairly small spaces, too. Here’s our step-by-step tutorial for a DIY version that fits under your sink: How To Make a Simple Worm Bin.
4. Green Cone
Green cone digesters are another sustainable way to dispose of food waste. The cones are partially buried in the ground. The top opens and you drop food scraps inside. The buried part of the cone is a plastic mesh basket that soil microbes and worms can move through to digest the food.
5. Black Soldier Flies
While these are a sidenote in the infographic, allow me to give you a quick introduction to the black soldier fly. This little native insect can be part of a food waste recycling system that creates animal food and fertilizer.
You can purchase or build a bin to house the grub-like fly larvae while they eat food waste. They leave behind nutrient-rich frass and liquid.
Thanks to the larva’s instinct to pupate in a dark, dry place, you can design a self-harvesting system. The larvae climb up out of the food bin to pupate and fall into a collection bucket. You can feed them to chickens, fish, or other animals. (If some of the larva succeed in pupating, don’t worry. The adults are not annoying like house flies. They live for about a week finding mates and laying eggs.)
The simplest version of composting! Pile up organic waste and wait. 🙂
You can create good compost quickly using the Berkeley Method for your heap. By “hot composting,” you get finished compost in about 18 days, and you don’t have to worry about weed seeds or pathogens surviving the process.
Then again, you can be a laid-back composter with a heap. Aim to pile it up at least 3 feet high by 3 feet around, and then let nature do the work over the next 6-12 months. (Just be sure you’re not putting in diseased or seedy plants!)
7. Sheet Mulch
Sheet mulch or sheet compost puts your organic waste right onto a future growing space. It’s a great way to build soil while smothering weeds. You’ll find the scoop on a bed we made this fall in our Sheet Mulching Tutorial: How to Start a Garden Without Tilling or Digging.
8. Trench or Pit
Trench and pit composting are pest-resistant versions of the heap that put the finished compost right where you’ll grow. Dig a trench or a hole a few feet deep. Fill it with organic waste and cover it with at least six inches of soil. The bacteria and worms will start breaking down your waste in no time!
Pit composting can be used in small spaces since you can dig a small, deep hole using post hole diggers. David the Good, author of Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, used this technique to make melon pits.
Trench/pit composting works for pretty much any kind of kitchen waste, even meat and dairy. One word of caution: Avoid adding weedy or diseased plants to your trench. The trench probably won’t get hot enough for long enough to kill pathogens and seeds.
9. Upcycled Pallet Bin
At our house in Albuquerque, I made a three-bin system using old pallets and a handful of decking screws. Super easy, super cheap, and it held a LOT of material!
Look for pallets with an “HT” stamp. “HT” stands for heat-treated (versus chemically-treated). Three pallets is enough to get you started with a single bin. A fourth gives you a door! Collect seven to ten pallets to make a three-bin system.
10. Chicken Corners
Have chickens? Put them to work making compost!
Justin Rhodes, creator of Permaculture Chickens, documented his Chicken Corners composting system that uses a pallet bin and chicken power to make a cubic yard of compost every week. As an added bonus, he can feed his chickens for free while using this system.
11. Concrete Bin
A compost bin made from concrete blocks won’t rot and it’s fairly simple to build. Here’s a plan for a single bay that you could expand to three or four bays.
You could make it semi-permanent, but if you dry stack the blocks, you can still move it if your garden plan changes in the future.
If you live in a rocky place, you could also stack rocks (perhaps the ones you pull out of garden beds!) to create a bin.
12. Cedar Wood Bin
Since cedar is rot-resistant, it’s a good choice for wood when you build a bin from scratch. It’s more expensive than a softwood like pine, but it will last a lot longer (ten years or more). You can find plans online to build your own elegant wooden bin, like this one from Rodale.
Not a do-it-yourselfer? You can find cedar bins for sale at many garden supply companies.
13. Wire Bin
Wire bins are our top choice for composting. They are easy to make, inexpensive, long-lasting, and portable. In Lesson 2 of our free Quick Start to Composting Course, I show you how to set one up at your home.
You can use wire mesh with a 1/2 inch or smaller grid (a.k.a. hardware cloth) and add a top and bottom panel to you make your bin pest-proof. You can also add wire mesh to a wooden bin to make it pest-proof.
14. Plastic Composter
Do you need to buy plastic stuff to be a successful composter? Absolutely not. In fact, I encourage you to choose a compost method that uses repurposed or recycled materials.
But if you have serious concerns about rodents or other pests that are stopping you from composting (before you’ve even started!), you should consider a plastic composter. Look for a design that uses heavy-duty recycled plastic to reduce the impact of your purchase.
Be careful not to overwhelm the composter with too much fresh “green” material from your kitchen—it could get stinky fast! Keep “brown” materials (like leaves or straw) on hand to mix as you fill the composter. After a couple months, you’ll be able to scoop older decomposed material from the hatch at the bottom, as you keep adding new waste through the top.
15. Tumbler or Ball
A compost tumbler or ball is another pest-proof possibility. Plus, they add the fun of rolling the bin or ball.
Again, look for a heavy-duty recycled plastic to reduce the impact of your purchase. I suggest finding a dual-batch tumbler with two compartments, or buying a second ball. This allows you to fill one, while the other is composting.
Tumblers and balls are usually not large enough to compost large amounts of yard waste or animal bedding. But if your goal is to recycle your kitchen waste, a tumbler or ball might be just the right compost method to get you rolling.
16. Leaf Mold
If you have an abundance of leaves and a shortage of nitrogen-rich materials (like kitchen waste and animal manure), you can still create rich organic matter for your garden. Leaf mold (or leaf mould in the U.K.) is simple and inexpensive to make.
For best results, you’ll want to shred the leaves with a lawnmower, wet them down, and pile them up. You can use one of the bins we’ve already talked about to hold the decomposing leaves. While the result isn’t as nutrient-rich as compost, leaf mold is a great mulch and soil amendment.
For most of humankind’s history, we’ve been composting our own waste in one way or another. Today, we might think, “Yuck!” but using gallons and gallons of potable water to flush away our poo and pee is a fairly recent and not-so-sustainable development. It doesn’t really go away, does it?
In his Humanure Handbook, Joseph Jenkins make a compelling case for composting your own waste. When you’re ready to consider composting all the things, you can read an older edition of his book for free online or purchase the latest edition. (We’ve used his system, and it works well!)
Composting can be done in so many ways, but don’t let the possibilities overwhelm you. Choose a method and try it out. Make the decision to start today!
Let us know, which compost method is best in your opinion? If you already compost, what’s your favorite approach? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
And a quick final reminder…you can get a printable PDF of the Compost Method Infographic here.