Composting kitchen and garden leftovers is a great way to reduce food waste and provide nourishment for the garden. However, I HATE turning the compost! It’s back breaking work that I’d rather avoid. So, here’s my secret weapon to turn compost easily!
For me, one of the hardest parts of an active compost pile is getting it turned, which helps the decomposition process and produces high quality compost faster. There are three solutions to this problem that I’ve found to be the most useful. One, is to use my chickens and pigs to turn my pile. Another is to utilize a worm-composting system, and the last is to use a compost-tumbling machine.
We’ll talk about each method below, but in case you’re new to composting, let’s start simply.
What is the Purpose of a Compost Bin?
The basic purpose of a compost bin is to provide a place to discard kitchen waste and garden trimmings that will decompose them safely and quickly. The result of that decomposition is called compost and it is full of nutrients that can then be place all around the garden to feed the soil and plants.
You can compost with only waste material, sunlight and water. This method requires that you turn the pile of materials over and over several times during the decomposition process. Typically, a pitch fork is used to bring material from the inside of the pile to the outside of the pile, and vice versa. This turning keeps the pile decomposing at an even and successful rate.
The other most common type of composing involves waste material, worms and water. This process is called vermicomposting and it does NOT require turning.
See the resource list at the end to learn how to do both, as well as learn the difference between compost and mulch. (They’re not the same thing!)
We discuss this and many other topics in our homesteading manual, The Do It Yourself Homestead.
Be sure to visit our shop to get your copy today!
How Often Should You Turn a Pile?
A vermicomposting system – one that uses worms – does NOT require turning to accelerate decomposition. The worms are constantly eating the waste materials and turning them into compost. No turning needed!
So, the first option to a no-turn compost pile is…WORMS!
However, if you have a conventional pile, you need to turn it every four to seven days to keep the outside materials moving inward. The reason this is important is because the hottest area of a pile is the very center. The heat is part of what helps to break down the kitchen scraps and turns them into food for the garden.
To learn more about how a compost pile works, please visit this article from Grow It Organically.
How to Kind-of Turn the Pile
So, we’ve already read that if you have a worm-composting bin, you won’t have to turn the pile. You do have to empty it, FYI, so it’s not entirely hands off. However, it’s a lot less labor intensive that a traditional compost pile.
But maybe you’re up to sort-of turning the compost pile – I have a suggestion for that, too!
If you use a compost tumbler – a simple machine that turns the pile with a simple turn of a handle – you won’t have to break your back with a pitchfork. I have a detailed post about why you might want to consider buying or building a compost tumbler below.
—>>>To read the article 3 Reasons to Use a Compost Tumbler, click here.<<<—
How to Turn Compost Easily
The easiest way to turn compost is to not turn it all! In order to do that, you’re going to need chickens and/or pigs.
*Please note, if you can’t keep chickens or pigs where you are, please use either vermicomposting to avoid turning the compost pile and/or a compost tumbler to make turning the compost simple.
Chickens Do It!
If chickens are allowed access to the compost pile, they will not only eat up much of what is there, pooping out valuable contributions to the compost, but they will also incessantly scratch and move the contents of the pile. They’re extremely effective at this—sometimes I wish I could set them to cleaning up my house (minus the poop).
Permaculturist Justin Rhodes actually uses his chicken’s scratching/pooping power to create compost for him using wood chip mulch. You can see that in the video below.
Pigs Do It!
Pigs will work into the ground for the most part, constantly tilling up the dregs of the compost as they root around looking for edible morsels. Usually heritage breeds, with their typically stronger snouts and disposition to root, are more naturally adept at rooting than others, but really any pig will be useful to you in this endeavor.
A chicken will eat pretty much anything, even chicken. Ew.
Pigs are a lot more discerning and won’t eat something they distrust, being highly intelligent little critters. Just to be careful, though, there are a few materials that I don’t put into my compost heap such as plastic, meat and anything poisonous.
For a list of thing NOT to put in your compost pile, please visit the resources links below.
Where to Place the Bin?
The general rule of thumb is to place your compost bin close enough to the house that you can easily access it. If it’s too far, you won’t go out there as often. It is what it is.
It’s also handy if you have the bin located near a hose so that you can easily clean out kitchen scrap buckets. Water is also necessary for an active pile, and you may need to water your compost pile every now and then. Water keeps the microbes that break down the materials active and healthy.
The compost should have access to some sun, as well, in order to break down as quickly as possible.
Place the Bin Near the Animals
If you’re going to use chicken and pigs to turn your compost, you’ll need to place it somewhere you won’t mind having a bit of a mess. There are several ways to set up a compost area so that it’s accessible to animals.
In a Large Space
If your space is large and you have a lot of animals:
- Pile the manure, kitchen scraps and homestead debris into one massive pile.
- Use logs or three-sided fencing to keep the large area basically contained.
- Allow your animals free access to the pile during the week.
I do advise you fence the area, especially if you’re using pigs and/or use a livestock guardian animal to oversee the process to prevent animals from wandering off. Keep the pile in an area that you and the animals can access safely.
In a Small Space
If space is limited:
- Create a three-sided box with pallets wherein you can dump all your compostable materials.
- Plan to set this up somewhere near the animal pens so that they can work them daily.
- Your livestock can access the materials from the open side or from the top.
- The box keeps the resulting compost somewhat contained.
- Once they’ve worked the pile to your satisfaction, keep the animals out by adding a fourth pallet to the open side.
During the day, the chickens especially may disperse the materials as they scratch, but a few swipes with a rake can usually get things back in order.
I never worry too much about mess with my piles and just let the animals do their thing. However, for those homesteaders in municipalities or who simply like things tidy, it may be an issue.
Is That All?
No, you will need to do SOME work! Here are a few chores you should plan on:
- Daily or weekly plan to go out to the animal turned pile and rake everything back into order. If the materials get too strewed about, the decomposition process will stop. Plus, the animals somehow seem to get bored with it more quickly when it’s all over – it’s like a treasure hunt when it’s in a pile.
- As you re-pile and add more materials, your animals will be adding their manure to the pile, providing more nutrients!
- After several weeks, you’ll want to shut the pile down so that it can fully rest and cool off. You will stop adding new waste materials to it at this point and you will need to block the animals from entering it anymore.
- Once one pile has been shut down, you’ll need to start another pile. That can mean setting up a new area, or removing your older compost to rest elsewhere and re-using the old spot for the new pile.
How Can You Tell When Compost is Ready to Use?
There are several things to look for in a finished pile:
- The material will not smell gross – it should smell earthy.
- It will no longer be “hot” – no steam, no warm to the touch.
- Your pile should be a lot smaller than when it started – this can be relative if you’ve kept adding material while the animals were going through your pile, FYI.
- You won’t be able to see anything you recognize – no carrots tops or onion skins.
- The material will be crumbly and light – in gardening lingo, it will be friable.
Heads Up: When using animals to turn your pile, they WILL poop in it. Animal manure is an excellent material but it does change the chemistry of your pile a bit. Your pile may have extra nitrogen in your resulting compost, so be sure to let it sit for at least a few weeks exposed to the elements to mellow out a bit.
When adding compost to the garden, be sure to avoid directly placing it on the leaves or stems of plants. This will prevent the “burn” that sometimes occurs with fresh compost that wasn’t quite decomposed all the way.
FYI, I do NOT sweat this. Some compost-makers are super fastidious about the chemical composition of their resulting materials. More power to them.
However, if it smells and looks right to me, I use mine right away and am just careful to not get it on the leaves and stems of plants – especially baby plants.
No Turn Compost Resources
Here are just a few more links that might help round out your plans.
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