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Compost Q & A: Meet a Master Composter, Part 1

Today I am pleased to introduce you all to a dear friend of mine, Sarah Ferry. Sarah is a Master Composter and she’s here to answer some questions about composting, submitted by our very own readers.

First of all, I asked Sarah to explain what a Master Composter is, and then she tackled answering your questions. We’ll start with the first set of questions today, and then take a look at the rest later this month.

Simple Organic: What is a Master Composter?

Sarah Ferry: Many cities have organizations or groups offering Master Composter courses to allow people in the community the opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge and experience in the area of composting. The purpose of these courses is to create more ambassadors for composting throughout the region by preparing people to properly educate the public on the virtues and process of composting.

The master composting program I participated in was through the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation in Encinitas, CA. This is a six-week course covering the science and mechanics of both vermi-composting (composting with worms) and backyard composting. This course is for all people from all walks of life and levels of prior composting experience.

If you are interested in gaining a greater understanding of composting and want to meet other people with the same interest and passion in your area I would recommend looking into a Master Composter course near you! (For example, if you live in San Diego and might be interested in the program there are courses beginning April 26th and 27th in Fallbrook and San Diego. Click here for more information.).

SO: I would like to know a bit more about composting on a balcony. We are just setting up a heap on ours, but aren’t sure about having it sitting directly on the (brickwork) balcony.

SF: If you are composting on a balcony your best option is to practice Vermi-Composting (composting with worms in a container). Vermi-composting is the solution for people who want to recycle their food waste but have limited space on balconies/ patios etc., and who cannot use the ground as a base.The worms break down all the food and organic matter in an enclosed container that you can manage with relative ease.

You can create your own worm bin using a Rubbermaid container or purchase one from a garden store bought version. I made one from a Martha Stewart tutorial and also have the Wriggly Wranch Worm Bin.

Photo by Christian Guthier

Make sure you are using California Red Wiggler worms; the type of worm is very important. The Red Wigglers are digester worms–great for worm bins– other worms are earth moving worms and will not do such a good job breaking down your food scraps! These worms can be purchased at a garden store or a special worm ranch in your area. For more resources on vermi-composting (worm bins) check out this article and this one.

SO: Since I can’t put a compost bin/pile on the ground at my rental (because it would kill off a section of grass), I’m looking into one of those tumbling composters (the ones that look like a teeter-totter, but with a barrel instead of a plank of wood).

SF: My first response to your situation is to recommend the worm bin as discussed above. Vermi-composting is the best alternative to backyard composting.

If you want to do backyard composting and cannot place anything on the ground as you mention, a tumbler would be the best method, however I do have a word of caution: with this method the compost gets very heavy (as it is full of moisture) and many of the tumblers have difficulty supporting such weight off the ground. Many times they eventually break or become too hard to turn, which results in material that is not properly aerated and slow to become compost.

So I would suggest forgoing the backyard composting at first and focusing on the vermi-composting worm bin, which is a patio favorite!

SO: What sort of vegetable waste to leaves/grass clippings/newspaper ratio do I need to effectively compost in a tumbling compost bin?

SF: The ratio of veggies/ grass/ leaves ratio is a simple 50/50. It is one part “green” (nitrogen) to one part “brown” (carbon). Greens are the nitrogen which are the vegetable scraps, grass clippings even coffee grinds (although those are brown in color they are actually nitrogen- a “green”). Browns are carbon- dead leaves/ paper/ hay.

In a backyard composting bin place in 50% browns to 50% greens and your pile will be balanced. In a vermi-composting bin you will create a bedding of brown (worms love shredded paper- a GREAT solution to junk mail!) with the food scraps on top and then more shredded paper bedding covering the food scraps completely (you don’t want flies finding them and taking over).

Photo by Steven Depolo

SO: Can I put eggshells, onion peels, or banana peels in my compost?

SF: Yes, you can put all of these in your compost!  With backyard composting you can put in most things without too much fuss– some things just take longer to break down than others (you will see those egg shells around for a while) but will eventually break down.

For worm bin composting you can add these to the bin- I always have without problem. If there is something the worms don’t like they will tell you by not eating it- but they are pretty hearty eaters! Just avoid adding meat, oils and dairy.

Thanks for all your great questions! I hope Sarah’s answers help inspire you to get your own compost system set up. I’m so excited that the new place my family is moving into already has a compost bin in the backyard waiting for me!

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Kara

    Ooooh! Great answers! Now I know to nix the tumbler and go for worms! I feel a tad guilty because I asked three of those questions (hopefully there were others who asked similar questions and I didn’t just take over the first question session…). I’m anticipating reading part 2!

  2. waggie

    I have a question about worm composting. What do you do with the worms in the winter? I would love to do worm composting, but I don’t know if I want to bring the whole operation inside during the winter. A) Our home is small, I don’t have space for another thing on the floor. B) I have a toddler who would constantly be trying to play in the “dirt”. I live in Washington state where it is more moderate, but it still does get cold. Would keeping them in a shed or garage be enough protection? I would hate to get all set up and going and then kill the little guys in the winter.

    • Kara

      This is a good question. I too would have to deal with winter here in Nebraska…

      • sarah

        I think worms are the perfect way to compost in cold places because they are so hearty. many worm bins can fit nicely under the sink counter and go unnoticed- but if you don’t have the space there they should be fine in the garage or shed in a moderate climate during the winter. You may experience a little slower rate of digestion but they should at least survive.

  3. Charis

    great article as i am starting my first compost pile in my backyard right now! thanks for the great tips. i don’t think i can do the worm one right now, but i am already collecting kitchen scraps.

  4. cell phone accessories wholesale

    Worms are really effective in decaying that garbage. When I make a compost pit I put some worms on it. Worms helps improve the fertility of the soil that would the plants grow healthy.

  5. Magic and Mayhem

    I just dumped all of my first load of compost of the season into a raised bed to get it ready for planting this month and make room for more in the compost ball. I love how black and soft it is, even with the veggie scraps that were recently added stirred in. 🙂

  6. Renee @ Loca-Faces

    Great post, thanks. I keep two bins going and try to rotate which is getting new stuff and which is just sitting, composting. I’ve found turning to be the biggest pain. My bins are the black plastic containers with screw top lids and a slide up bottom access. I haven’t had any issues with them other than just trying to get them turned over. I put a fork in both directions and mostly just try to stir it up and get air into it. As a result, my compost I think is much slower than many folks, but I love what I do get out each year and the amount of food waste that we don’t trash is fabulous! -Renee

  7. GreenerGreener

    I haven’t tried worm composting but Sarah makes it seem pretty simple so I’m thinking I’ll give it a try.

    I also wanted to mention a typo. The last sentence in the paragraph under the picture of the worm says “For more resources on vermin-composting…”

    I’m pretty sure composting with “vermin” would be much less desirable 🙂

    • Nicole

      oops!! That was left in from an auto-correct, I bet. Thanks for the catch! 🙂

  8. Ben

    I love composting. I’ve never tried it with worms before though. Thanks for all the questions and answers. That was really helpful!

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