Apr 292010
Tips for getting the best answers to your composting questions.

When asking for composting advice, form good questions that give respondents enough information about the unique nature of your situation.

The internet is a wonderful tool for getting quick composting advice.  Many people are willing to share their composting expertise with those just getting started, as well as experienced composters who’ve run into a problem or want to try something new.  Some responders are more experienced than others, but the variety of perspectives can collectively provide a more complete answer to your question.

The key to getting useful information from online composting forums and blogs is to ask good questions that give respondents enough information about your situation to answer your question.  That includes giving information about your general location, your resources, and your goals.  Consider the following two questions:

Ambiguous Question:  What kind of Compost Bins on CompostMania should I buy?

There isn’t enough information to answer this question with anything but a personal preference or a laundry list of manufacturers.  If there was a single bin that was best for every composter, the other manufacturers would soon go out of business and only one bin would be offered.  Instead, there are a growing number of alternatives to meet a wide variety of needs.  A better question would contain specific situational information like this:

Better Question: What kind of compost bin would be best for me? I have a 40’ x 50’ lawn with minimal landscaping and two deciduous trees in front, and 40’ x 40’ vegetable and flower garden in the back.  I live near Gulf in USA so can garden most of the year except late Dec–Feb.  No wildlife problems other than an occasional mouse or rabbit.  I want to make high volumes of compost to apply to my garden.  Only other source of material is neighborhood yard wastes.

What a difference!

We know the types of waste and about how much waste he is generating, the climate, potential pests, and what he’s trying to accomplish.  With this knowledge, reasonable compost bin recommendations could be made or appropriate alternatives suggested.  Recommendations for this person would be far different than recommendations for a person in an apartment in Anchorage wanting to responsibly dispose of wilted potted plants and food scraps; and completely different than advice for a 40-acre llama rancher near Dallas who wants to sell finished compost as a side business.

Important Factors

So, what information is important to include when asking for composting help?  The six factors listed below are usually enough to get a conversation started in the right direction.

  • Geographic area in which you are located and type of terrain. (Provides clues to length of composting season, material sources available, weather challenges, temperature, humidity, and wind conditions, etc.  The advice given to someone who lived in a rainforest would differ from that given to someone in arid desert conditions or someone who lived in farm country.)
  • Type of home and space you occupy or from which your waste is generated, and number of people generating waste, e.g., apartment food scraps from a family of four, coffee grounds from a 100-employee office break room, 200-acre cattle ranch, 2-acre vegetable garden, 10’ x 10’ yard of patio home, etc.
  • Types and amount of waste you generate or have access to. (Different materials present different challenges.  Those challenges can be best met with certain methods or equipment.  In addition, the response to a problem can differ significantly depending on whether you are composting ½-gallon or three truck-loads of a material.)
  • Your objective. (Some people are focused on what they want to do with the finished compost, others just want to dispose of wastes responsibly and may have no use for the finished compost.)
  • People involved other than yourself and/or other than a healthy adult of average height and physical condition who may participate in the composting effort, e.g., disabled, elderly, children, hired gardener, ill or otherwise physically weak, short, etc.  (If you have special needs or circumstances, it is best to say so up front.)
  • Pests in your area, including wildlife and stray animals. (Potential pests are a safety and health issue and, as such, should always be brought to the forefront.)

As always on the internet, follow appropriate precautions regarding safety and privacy concerns when giving information about yourself.  You don’t have to give your street address or even your city, for instance.  You can just refer to the general area, e.g., southeast Louisiana or northern California or outside London.

Give Back

While you are online, be sure to answer any questions you can.  The best way to learn about composting quickly is to think through answers you know, organize your thoughts, and articulate them.  This is why all good Master Composter programs require a specified number of hours service to the education of others.

Join the conversation!  If you can’t answer all parts of a question, just contribute what you know or what you’ve experienced.  Describing approaches you have tried that didn’t work can be as valuable as describing an approach that worked!  You don’t have to have the world’s best answer, just start out with “My experience is . . . .”

Mary Tynes, Master Composter, www.mastercomposter.com

Image Credit (top left): http://www.flickr.com/photos/mezuni/2205003791/

  6 Responses to “How to Ask for Composting Advice”

  1. […] How to Ask for Composting Advice | CompostMania: When it comes to asking for composting advice, avoid general inqu… http://bit.ly/dcQ5M9 […]

  2. We have a Mantis Twin Composter with two bins on a stand about 3ft high. I read that a compost bin without worms is not as good as it could be. These get pretty hot when they are working and I can’t see a worm living through that heat. Will worms survive the heat of a composting bin?
    Doug Spangler

  3. Doug,

    You are correct: Red worms for example can’t tolerate temperatures much higher than 80’s and hot composters can easily reach 160’s. however once the hot compost is done the temperature will drop to normal.

    Also, your friend is correct to suggest that worm compost has more beneficial organism than just regular compost.

    A lot of commercial worm composters will start decomposing in large hot windrows, and they then later feed this finished compost to a large worm bin to enrich the soil. Giving you best of both worlds.

  4. I’ve bought several different worms from several different companies on the www. and I have had the best luck with Alabama Jumpers.I live in central TX and it gets very HOT,my pile gets very hot in the summer,I had several days where the thermometer was at 150-200 degrees,while turning the pile at that temp. I did see several worms(about 20-30),alive but not really moving.I’ve had bins that sit off the ground and their okay if you have a small yard.If you have a medium to large yard I would pick a place in your yard and build a simple one,mine is made from free chickenwire and some PVC tubbing,I found for free on Craigslist,under the “free section”.My pile is 10′ long x5′ wide and about 5′ high,last year I put 36 bags (brown leaf bags,you buy at H’depot or Lowes) of leaves in there from October thru January and 2 or 3 bags of green grass clippings and some fresh horse maure and of course a little rain,I only turned it 1 time and by April of this year,I had some really good “Black Gold”

  5. Anyone have any info on the Compost Message Board linked from this site?

    There doesn’t seem to be a way to post, and no other contact info.

  6. This is a great article. I think what you say about getting information on the internet about composting and sharing experiences, it’s very true. Here’s something that;ll help.

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