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Can I compost in a bucket?

QUESTION: Can I compost in a bucket? I don’t have a compost bin, but I do have some five gallon buckets sitting around.

ANSWER: For optimal composting, you’ll want a bigger container than a five gallon bucket. You want to have enough varied materials that the composting process can work, so you’ll have better luck with something at least as big as a large trash can. However, it is possible to make it work if that’s your only current option.

Compost is essential to renewing soil with nutrients that are vital to healthy plant growth. Even if you only have a few potted plants or a small flower bed, you can benefit greatly from making your own compost. All you need is a five gallon bucket and a small container with a lid (like a coffee canister) to collect your kitchen scraps in. With a little bit of patience and effort, you can make your own nutrient-rich soil amendment at home. 

Many people have five gallon buckets from their local hardware store or that perhaps from a local restaurant or bakery that was using it for food ingredients. If your bucket was used to store chemicals, do not use it. Wash it out well to get rid of any residuals such as salt or sugar, which could harm your plants.

Drill plenty of holes around the outside of your bucket to promote good air circulation and to allow the water to drain out easily. Oxygen and moisture are essential components to good compost, but excess oxygen and moisture can cause issues, so you want plenty of small holes. Large holes are a problem, as you don’t want the dirt to spill out, so use a ¼ inch drill bit when drilling holes into your bucket. 

Now that your container is prepared for composting, layer in organic material. Start with small broken twigs to help promote good airflow. Then add alternating layers of fresh green organic matter, such as grass, plant clippings, or vegetable scraps, and dry brown organic matter, such as dry leaves or straw.

Having a good balance of green and brown materials will help keep moisture levels at a good balance. The most common issue that composters face is not adding in enough brown materials to help break down their kitchen scraps. A compost pile with too much green stuff and not enough brown stuff will have poor air circulation and too much moisture. Without sufficient air circulation, your compost will become smelly and gooey, so make sure to add in plenty of brown material to balance out the green materials that you are trying to decompose. 

For each layer of green and brown that you put into the pile, add in a handful of ordinary dirt from outside. Don’t use potting soil, but dig up some dirt from the ground so that you get all the beneficial microorganisms into your compost pile to help break down all of the organic matter inside. When the bucket is about one third full, add a few sprinkles of water. Don’t overdo it with the water, as it is better to keep your compost too dry than too wet. Ideally, the compost should be moist to the touch, but never soggy. Add in more layers, dirt and water until your bucket is about two thirds full, leaving the top third empty to allow space for air. 

Set the bucket in a warm, sunny location, as heat will help your compost decompose faster. Don’t allow the compost to get too hot though, as excessive heat can kill the microorganisms that are helping your compost break down. A few times each week, shake or roll the bucket around a little bit to help turn and aerate the compost mixture. This will help accelerate the decomposition process and help to mix up the contents so that the food scraps don’t form into pockets. In about two months, you should have a nice amount of nutrient rich compost to add to your garden beds.

compost in a bucket?

How bad does a compost bin smell?

pyramid composter

QUESTION: How bad does a compost bin smell? I want to start composting in our back yard, but my husband says it will stink. – Leah H

ANSWER: A healthy compost pile should smell like earth—not a putrid, rotting, or otherwise disagreeable scent. However, compost that is out of balance can develop an odor that indicates a problem. How you should go about troubleshooting a stinky compost heap depends on the type of smell it is producing.

If your compost begins to smell like ammonia, it contains too much wet material that is full of nitrogen (“green” ingredients). The ammonia smell can be corrected by drying the compost out and adding more “brown” ingredients rich in carbon to correct the balance.

You can start by leaving the lid off of your compost container on a warm, sunny day. If the compost inside is still too damp, you may need to remove it from its container and spread it out so that it dries more quickly and easily. When you return your compost to its usual spot, mix in some carbon-heavy materials. Dried leaves are a good go-to for adding carbon to your compost, but if they aren’t available to you, you can use shredded newspaper or cardboard instead.

On the other hand, if your compost develops a sulfuric odor similar to a rotten egg, the stink is alerting you to one of a few problems. First, this kind of smell can result from including meat, grease, dairy, or fish in your compost. If you’ve been adding these materials to your compost heap, you should stop doing so immediately. In addition to causing an unpleasant smell, these ingredients can also attract pests.

A sulfuric aroma can also indicate that your compost needs oxygen, resulting in a surplus of anaerobic microbes. This problem is easy enough to resolve by mixing the compost with a pitchfork or compost turner, and perhaps adding air holes to the bottom or sides of your container if needed. Adding more “brown” carbon-heavy materials such as dried leaves can also help absorb any excess moisture and loosen the pile so air can circulate more freely. If you don’t have access to dried leaves, you can use shredded newspaper or cardboard to add some carbon to your compost in a pinch.

See our complete guide to solving composting problems.

Do compost bins need to be on soil?

compost bin on top of soil

QUESTION: Do compost bins need to be on soil? Can you put one on your patio or deck instead? – Richard D

ANSWER: Although it’s not required for your compost setup to rest on top of the soil, in certain circumstances it is preferable, though in others it does not make a difference. For one thing, if you are using a compost container that has a solid base, you can position it on soil or on concrete, as the compost won’t be coming into contact with what’s below its container anyway. It’s when your composting arrangement will not include a built-in base that it matters whether it will be located on soil, on concrete, or elsewhere. 

Positioning your compost heap directly on top of the ground will allow insects to crawl up into the compost from the soil below, which is a good thing. These insects are beneficial to the health of your compost and will help to aerate the pile, speeding up the process of decomposition. That said, you’ll still need to use a material like wire mesh or hardware cloth as the base of your compost pile so that larger creatures, such as rodents, don’t follow the lead of the insects and climb up from the ground into your compost.

Another thing to think about is that if your compost is located too near to a tree, the tree’s roots can also infiltrate the compost pile by coming up through the soil—and they are likely to do so in their search for nutrients, which your compost materials are full of. The roots of the tree will be detrimental to the health of your compost and will inhibit your ability to turn the pile, so make sure if your compost will rest on the ground that you position it a good distance away from any trees on your property.

The final consideration is purely cosmetic. A compost pile that rests on concrete or another man made substance will inevitably stain whatever material is underneath it. The stain can decrease your property value in addition to being unsightly, so unless your compost situation comes with a solid base, putting your compost on soil is likely to be the best option for you.

Can you put tea bags in compost?

tea bags ok for composting?

QUESTION: Can you put tea bags in compost? We drink a lot of tea, and it seems like this would be a good source of organic material for the composter. Do the bags make it bad?

ANSWER: For a long time, tea bags have been considered compostable, but it has come to light that some companies use a sealing plastic called polypropylene, which is not compostable, in their bags. If the brand of tea you use does not use plastics in their packaging, feel free to compost them.

However, if your tea brand does use polypropylene or another plastic in its packaging, you should refrain from including them in compost. (Even if your tea bags include plastic, you can still open them and empty the spent tea leaves into your compost bin, then dispose of the tea bag itself separately.) You should also be aware that the metal staples or metallic envelopes some brands use are not compostable and should be discarded in the trash. 

Check the lists below for the brand of tea you drink to find out whether its packaging is compostable. If your brand of tea is not included, you may wish to contact the company to ask them about whether their packaging is safe to include in compost. In the meantime, to stay on the safe side, it’s probably best to stick with composting the tea leaves themselves and throwing out the bags and other packaging in the trash if information isn’t available about the brand of tea you use.

If you make tea with a Keurig k-cup machine, you can open up the cup and dump the contents into your composter before you throw out the cup.

The tea brands listed below have bags that are free from plastic and are safe to add to your compost pile.

  • Abel & Cole
  • Akbar: Tea bag is compostable; do not compost staple or paper envelope, which has a metalized plastic layer
  • Bigelow Tea Company: Bags are compostable, but sleeves contain plastic and should not be composted
  • Brew Tea Co.
  • Celestial Seasonings
  • Clipper
  • Co-op 99
  • Eteaket
  • Hampstead
  • Luzianne: Do not use staples or silver foil in composting
  • Lyons Tea (Unilever)
  • Numi Tea: Bags are compostable, but sleeves contain plastic and should not be composted
  • PG Tips (Unilever): Pure Leaf teas
  • Pukka Herbs
  • Red Diamond: Bags are compostable, but sleeves contain plastic and should not be composted
  • Republic of Tea
  • Salada
  • Stash Tea
  • T2
  • Teapigs
  • Teatulia
  • Teekampagne
  • Traditional Medicinals: Bags are compostable, but sleeves contain plastic and should not be composted
  • Twinings (Associated British Foods): Except for heat-sealed or string and tag teas
  • Waitrose Duchy 
  • We Are Tea

The following brands do use plastic or another non-biodegradable material in their products, so they should not be included in composting:

  • Aldi
  • Argo Tea
  • Betty’s Tea
  • Bushells (Unilever Australia)
  • Harney & Sons
  • Lidl
  • Lipton
  • Mighty Leaf: Can be used for commercial composting, but not home composting
  • Peet’s Coffee & Tea (W.R. Hambrecht Co. Inc.): Can be used for commercial composting, but not home composting)
  • PG Tips: Except for Pure Leaf teas
  • Taylors of Harrogate
  • Tazo
  • Teavana
  • Tetley
  • Twinings (Associated British Foods): Heat-sealed or string and tag teas
  • Typhoo
  • Yogi Tea (East West Tea Company LLC)
  • Yorkshire Tea

Why is my compost pile not heating up?

compost pile

QUESTION: Why is my compost pile not heating up? I have been composting for several months now, and nothing seems to be happening. Am I doing something wrong? – Jon W

ANSWER: There are a few different reasons a compost pile may fail to heat up. One possibility is that your compost may be too wet or too dry, or it may have too much of one particular material. It will take a lot more time for a large pile of just leaves, just sawdust, or any one ingredient to break down than it will if your compost has all kinds of ingredients and is well mixed.

However, you shouldn’t worry too much if your compost pile isn’t heating up. The concept of passive composting means your compost will continue decomposing regardless of how hot or cool the pile is. The only real difference is that a compost pile that isn’t hot will take longer to do its work. 

There are a few things you can do to help get things going in a compost pile that isn’t heating up. Ingredients that contain a lot of carbon (also called “brown” materials) won’t make much of a difference, but ingredients that have lots of nitrogen (referred to as “green” materials) will help the microbes go to work, heating up your compost pile in the process. Use moderation when adding nitrogen-heavy ingredients, however, or your compost pile can get out of balance and begin to stink or develop a slimy texture. 

Another thing you can do to help your compost pile heat up is to keep things damp—not dry, but not oversaturated, either. If the compost pile gets too wet, the microbes that heat things up won’t be able to get the oxygen they need, but if it’s too dry, the microbes can die of dehydration. If your pile gets too wet, you can spread it out to let it dry in the sun, then pile it up again once things are back to the right moisture level.