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How NOT to Compost: 16 Ways To Screw It Up

how-not-to-compost-16-ways-to-screw-it-upI started my first compost bin in 2008 and I was so jazzed up and excited about it.  I was going to turn my yard and kitchen waste into black gold!  Grow awesome vegetables!  Save the earth!

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

I never thought about how not to compost, I figured stuff just naturally breaks down all on it’s own.

My first compost piles were too small, to dry, and too full of woody sticks.  I spent ages and ages turning them only to find that they hadn’t broken down at all.

I had my husband build a fancy-schmancy new compost bin that was going to solve all my compost problems.

Yeah, that didn’t happen either. 

This compost bin was hard to turn, too soggy, and packed way too full.

It eventually did break down into compost, but it didn’t look (or smell) that great in the process, and it was a pain in the neck to get it out.

Plus, with chickens, goats, and rabbits, I NEEDED more compost bins, so I set up a jumbo size three bin pallet compost bin that would make awesome compost.

And yeah…didn’t happen.

THIS compost bin took too much time for me to keep up with.  It was either too wet or too dry, to full or too small.

Because I was lazy and throwing ALL my kitchen scraps into it, including meat, milk, and oil it slowly became a bed and breakfast for the rodent population.

I did my best to get it cleaned up and stopped adding in kitchen waste.

Unfortunately, rats discovered that the neighbor’s dilapidated shed on the property line made a cozy house.

They also seemed to think the chicken feeder in our yard an excellent grocery.

It was gross.

It took quite some time and effort to get THAT little nasty homestead adventure under control.

Now, it wasn’t until we got new neighbors who actually took the time to clean up their side of the fence that I felt comfortable tackling the issue of the not-composting compost again.

(Hey!  Did you know if you let your compost get too dry you’ll find rat babies in it?  Yaaaaaay.  Not.)

Maybe you are just starting composting, and want to avoid trouble, or maybe you tried and it just didn’t turn into the crumbly, earthy goodness we all imagine.

But don’t worry, here’s a list of the best ways to mess up your compost!

(Aaaaaaand…I’ve actually done all of these…)

Here’s how NOT to compost:

  • Put the bin too far away
  • Make the bin too small
  • Put in large sticks and branches
  • Toss oils, fats, meats, and milk on the top of the pile
  • Let it get soaked with rain
  • Let it bake in the sun
  • Put in spilled dog food
  • Have no way to get the compost out of the bin
  • Put a lid on top that’s too heavy to move
  • Never, ever, EVER turn it
  • Keep adding more until it’s packed full
  • Harvesting it before it’s done “cooking”
  • Put in glossy paper
  • Accidentally dump your spoons in with the kitchen waste (I have found SO many spoons when harvesting my pile it’s embarrassing)
  • Chuck in the seedy weeds you kept meaning to pull
  • Assume the blackberry plants are dead before you put them in (those demons can root ANYWHERE…unless I intentionally plant them).

I know there are compost gurus out there that can make it all work, but that isn’t me!  Luckily, I’ve found some tricks that help keep the waste off the curb.


How I Compost Now

Now I have a little bit of a different way of doing it than the traditional compost bin, but it’s been working, and the soil is happier (me too!).

I give all my kitchen scraps from the day before to the chickens in the morning.

If they don’t finish it, any fruit or veggie scraps go into the compost bin.

Make Sure Your Compost Bin Is Easy To Access

I rarely have leftover meats; the chickens usually polish those off.

If I do, they go into the city compost can or the trash can (unless I have a nice hot pile going, which does happen occasionally when the stars all align.

For more information on composting “forbidden” things check out the Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, or Holy Shit by Gene Logsdon, and then go build yourself a composting toilet).

I do deep litter for the chickens, and it breaks down in place until it’s time to spread it on the garden.

If the chicken and rabbit bedding is dry enough it just goes right into the no dig garden for a layer of mulch.

The rabbit litter boxes have a lot of urine that I don’t want to put right on the garden.  Those go into the compost bin along with things that aren’t safe for the animals to eat, like onions, potato skins, and apple cores.

This is a much smaller bin that doesn’t take me long to aerate or check the moisture level.  It’s also closer to the house, so I check on it more often.

These changes have really made a difference in actually making compost and improving my soil, instead of just mucking around in big bins of yard, animal, and kitchen waste.

Another trick I’ve found is to let the chickens do as much of the work as possible.

Do you compost?  Is it smooth sailing or a disaster?

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Tuesday 15th of September 2020

I have a small container for my food scraps & it gets emptied daily. It goes into a tumbler bin, and I toss in some paper that has been dampened with water. I also toss in clippings from my organic vegetable garden when I prune my plants, after inspecting them for insects and plant diseases. Have you ever tried the compostable bags?


Wednesday 16th of September 2020

Nice! I have had the compostable bags break down in my backyard bin, but I don't usually buy them, just to save money. They are very nice if we need to use the city yard waste bin for composting though.

Stephanie Bond

Saturday 25th of July 2020

Enjoyed the article, thank you. Brought back a few memories of the not-great results of our first attempts, especially over-filling and trying to turn a bin full of over-wet material.

These days, we have lots of worms, good mix of kitchen scraps, grass clippings, dried maple leaves, and "poor dirt," which I find helps to speed it along.

As for sticks, twigs and small branches, one or two (literally) can be okay to create little highways for the insects. Mostly my dry sticks go into the bbq kindling bin, to help building awesome fire with charcoal for big bbq sessions.


Monday 27th of July 2020

Love the idea to use sticks for the BBQ!


Sunday 28th of June 2020

There are so many blogs about "how" to do it that I found the "what Not to do" very helpful. I almost made the mistake of putting it too far away (good thing my husband just finished it so it's empty!) Thanks for taking us on your journey!


Monday 29th of June 2020

Glad it was helpful!


Sunday 24th of May 2020

I make LOTS of sweet tea every day and I steep the sugar- water and tea bags together...think I can use the tea bags in compost,or will the sweetness just attract pests? Also,I can't seem to keep my indoor scraps in a bowl/bucket from looking moldy...can I still add to outdoor bin? Thanks for all the info!


Monday 25th of May 2020

Tea bags should be fine, as is moldy items. Now that we are in Texas I store a compost bowl in the fridge and take it out to the bin once a day. Otherwise it's too gross sitting out on the counter in the heat.

Tim Parker

Monday 18th of May 2020

Hi. I've had a fail or four, mostly because I get busy with other stuff. I made a two bucket composter & was religious about adding and rolling it. Not much happened. Do I need to start all over or can I just get better about the process? I loved your article and chuckled a few times. I live in Palm Springs, CA. What do u think about sun and shade requirements? Thanks!


Monday 18th of May 2020

I've not had a lot of luck with bucket composters, I think because they lack the micro-organisms and worms and other helpful things that migrate to an open compost pile. In California, it's okay to let it get hot, just make sure to keep it nice and damp, which may be a challenge over the summer.