Which Type of Composting Is Right for You?

From hot compost to worms, there are numerous ways to break down food scraps.

woman in ripped jeans stands next to diy cold compost frame outside in yard

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

If you are not composting at home already, then you should set up systems right away. As a sustainability consultant, I often advise gardeners on best practices for their gardens. This begins with talking about the fundamentals of water and fertility. Setting up suitable composting and rainwater harvesting or water management systems should be a top priority for any new gardeners; however, even if you have been gardening for years, your basic systems may still benefit from some improvement.

In this article, I thought it might be helpful to take a look at which type of composting to consider. You may choose to adopt one or more of the types of composting mentioned below. Read on to work out which type of composting is right for you, based on the advice I give to my clients.

Composting in Place

Composting is not rocket science. It is important to remember that decomposition is a natural process. It occurs on a forest floor and in the soil below a range of deciduous plants. When we talk about composting, what we are really trying to do is refine this natural process. As I tell clients, sometimes this may simply involve stepping out of the way and letting nature take its course. 

Composting in place can mean leaving leaf litter and other debris on the ground around our plants, rather than being too zealous in its removal. We may decide to give nature a helping hand. This could involve strategies like chopping and dropping dynamic accumulator plants to allow the nutrients they contain to return to the system.

At other times, we may wish to harness the processes of natural ecosystems to make new beds for a kitchen garden, or to manage and improve the soils in annual production zones over time. To do so, we may layer organic materials to break down in place in no-dig beds (a form of gardening that I consider to be the best for soil preservation). This is the same as composting in a separate heap or bin, but it takes place where plants grow, rather than in a separate location.

This is an easy and straightforward form of composting, but it does not create compost to use elsewhere on your property. It merely benefits the specific areas in question. 

Typical Cold Composting

Sometimes we may wish to create a separate compost heap or bin. A typical cold composting system is an aerobic process (materials decompose in the presence of oxygen). It is a process which simply involves layering brown (carbon-rich) and green (nitrogen-rich) compostable materials. These will break down slowly over time. 

I find cold composting to be easier and more straightforward than many other composting systems. As long as the needs of the basic microorganisms of the system are met, things should go smoothly.

There are, however, several downsides to composting in this way. One potential issue, and the most obvious one, is time. In cold composting systems, materials take a long time to break down. Weed seeds and pathogens can also make it through these systems unscathed, and food scraps can attract vermin. So there are certain things that should not be added to a composting system of this type. 



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There are several ways to speed up cold composting. One way is to use a compost tumbler or aerator. You might also consider fermenting material prior to composting in any way in a bokashi system.

Another sustainable solution is to enlist the help of special composting worms. Composting with worms is known as vermicomposting. The worms require specific conditions, but where these conditions are met, the worms improve aeration in the compost by tunneling through it and enrich the finished compost with their castings. 

When composting with worms, you can set up systems on a range of scales—even potentially on a very small scale indoors where space is limited. It is important to bear in mind, though, that worms can be sensitive to what's added to the system. I tell my clients that certain things that might be added to a typical cold composting system should only be added in moderation to a wormery, or not added at all. 

Hot Composting

Another option to speed up cold composting, and to kill off weed seeds and pathogens, is to set up a specific hot composting system. As the name implies, hot composting systems are simply systems in which higher temperatures are maintained. 

Hot composting can take place in a heap or a container of some kind. Either way, the goal is to provide optimal conditions to allow the decomposing materials to heat up. It is a lot faster than other forms of composting, but I find that more care is required to create the ideal environment for decomposition and to maintain the higher temperatures.

Exploring these alternative methods for composting at home may help you find the right solution for your home and garden.