Butlers Brand Video: How to Compost at Home

Posted on August 26, 2016 by Chris Allen

Learn to compost at home from veteran butler Chris Allen.

Composting is an easy and ecologically smart way to process much of the waste the average household produces.

As the owner of A Butler's Manor bed & breakfast in Southampton, I manage a household that must handle waste effectively. Our kitchen can use up to five dozen eggs a week and twenty oranges a day.  That's a lot of eggshells and orange peels to throw away!  I've learned that being smart is often the same thing as being "green".  For us, composting wasn't simply an environmentally friendly thing to do.  It simply made life easier.

The goal of composting is not just to dispose of food waste, but also to produce nutrient rich soil.  This soil makes a great addition to any garden.  Composting requires three bins with a width and depth of roughly 3’ each. The bins must allow good airflow to the compost pile. To accomplish this, construct the bins from boards allowing several inches of space between each.  If you only have a small space, a cylinder of chicken wire formed into a circular bin works well.

Brown and Green, Worms and Water

A successful pile consists of layers of ‘brown stuff’ and ‘green stuff.’ Brown stuff usually should consist of mostly dry materials such as leaves, gray cardboard egg trays, coffee grounds and filters, and dead plant material.  You can also add used paper towels provided they have not been used to mop up grease or used with chemical cleaners.  This layer is acting as the fiber of the compost pile and is also high in carbon. The active ingredient in a compost pile though is the 'green stuff.'  This layer generates heat as it decomposes and is rich in nitrogen, which aids the growth of several bacteria that also speed the decomposition. Green stuff usually consists of mostly plant-based food leftovers such as salad greens, fruit and vegetable peelings, apple cores, lawn clippings, and chicken manure. You should never add meat or manure from an animal that consumes meat, as doing so could introduce dangerous bacteria to the compost.  

Let the worms do all the work

Adding soil from your garden adds bacteria and worms.  You want to add worms to the compost pile because they speed up the decomposition process in spades!  Worms work to consume and process all the material and convert it into nutrient-rich soil.  The layers of your compost should be mixed together in bin #1, letting air into the mixture and ensuring a good mix with no single layer being evident.  Maintenance is minimal.  Once bin #1 is full, shovel your compost it into bin #2.  After a few weeks in bin #2, your compost will be great soil that you can use anywhere.  Shovel your completed into bin #3 for holding.  If you don't have room for a third bin, you could always just shovel the compost as needed out of bin #2.  Remember to keep mixing the next batch of compost in bin #1, where you can continue to add new fodder.  Just be sure to mix the pile in bin #1 every time you add something new, and be sure to also add enough water to moisten, but not saturate, the fresh pile.  

The temperature serves as a gauge to how well the pile is working to decompose the materials.

A compost pile should always have a temperature between the range of 135º F and 155º F at its center.  If it is not within this range it will slow the breakdown of waste material.  A higher temperature would indicate that it's time to add some more 'brown stuff' and to turn it with a shovel.  A high temperature could be bad because it will kill off the bacteria and microbes breaking down the waste material into nutrients.  A low temperature would indicate the pile needs more ‘green stuff'.  Remember that worms are your friend, as they will work to process much of the ‘green stuff’ into nutrient-rich soil.

Butler tips for composting

After having worked as a butler for more than two decades, I find myself always in search of more efficient ways to keep house.  Composting is a great way to reduce the overall garbage output of your household, and also provides a huge supply of nutrient-rich soil for gardening.  Some tips I've learned about composting over the years:

  • Save all leaves from your garden during the fall.  Pile them up or shred them into the mower bag.  Empty the bags in a pile near your composting bins, where they can't be blown around by the wind.  You'll need these brown leaves for the middle of summer when your 'green stuff' is in abundance.
  • The smaller the material, the faster it decomposes.  The larger the material, the slower it decomposes.  
  • Don't put anything hard or woody into the pile.  They take way too long to decompose.  Thin twigs are acceptable if you snap them into smaller pieces.  Otherwise they can be there forever!
  • Don't add weeds to your composting bins.  Their seeds are often not killed by the compost's internal heat, and therefore survive to transform your composting bins into weed gardens.  
  • Don't lead the compost bins with too much of any one thing.  A mix is what you need.  Store the excess material in a place where it is out of sight to use later.
  • No meat, cheese, baked goods, or anything processed (except coffee grounds) should go into the compost pile.  You'll otherwise create a hotel for rats and other vermin.
  • If you're having trouble with flies hovering over your compost piles, add a layer of lawn clippings or brown leaves to the top of the pile.  The idea is to use inedible material to hide edible material, but be sure to mix this deeper into the pile the next time you add to the pile, then simply reapply another protective layer of inedible material.
  • Don't place the compost system too far from your kitchen.  Out of sight is good, but way back yonder is too far and you won't be so included to go there on a dark winter night.
  • If the result of your composting doesn't have the thick and slightly damp feel it should have, add brown leaves and a small amount of lawn clippings.  Continue to add and turn frequently.  It should form and keep a ball shape when you squeeze it in your hand.  You can also add peat moss to add water retention qualities to sandy or grainy compost.  If you get the mix right in the first place, however, these are not issues you will have to deal with.