No Compost Bin? Try Trench Composting

If you want fast compost without a compost bin, or if you’re preparing a new organic garden bed, just add your kitchen scraps directly into the area to be planted. This is called trench composting.

trench composting During spring and summer, kitchen scraps will break down in about 60 days, giving your soil a boost. If you’re also adding meat scraps and bones, make sure they’re buried at least 12 inches deep, as animals will definitely find them if they’re closer to the surface.

Trench composting is a great strategy to use over the winter if your compost pile is frozen. I can’t bear to waste kitchen scraps (all of that potential nourishment!) and this works very well for me, especially in beds where I grew heavy feeders like corn the previous season. I simply dig a hole in the vegetable bed, pour the scraps  in and cover it up with soil and winter mulch (usually straw). I do not include bones or meat, as I have a dog with a super sensory nose who would dig as far as needed to find them, even if they were twenty feet deep. She proved this years ago by digging up a beef bone which she had buried in a flower bed the previous year and I had planted over without realizing it. Good-bye Petunias. I also don’t use trench composting in my flower beds, as I don’t want to disturb any dormant bulbs or perennials that may have re-seeded.

Trench composting is also a great way to replenish the fertility of your vegetable beds in the fall, before you plant a cover crop or cover them with mulch for the winter. By the time you plant the following spring, earthworms and bacteria will have digested the kitchen scraps and your soil will be full of the nutrients your plants require.

This is how composting was done many years ago – the official name is Pit, In-Place or Trench Composting. I was recently reminded of this when I ran into an elderly couple I’m acquainted with. They hail from Germany, are fantastic gardeners and this is the only way they compost and have been doing so their entire lives.

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About Todd Heft

Todd Heft is an organic gardener and freelance garden writer who lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA and has gardened for most of his life. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His first book, "Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden" is available on Amazon now. Google

24 Responses to No Compost Bin? Try Trench Composting

  1. I says:

    The smell isn’t really a problem because the lid is vented and it’s far enough away from the house that it’s not a problem until you empty it.

    I don’t really care if there’s maggots in the bin because you only see them when you open the lid to throw stuff in.

    My biggest concern is that if I spread the contents in the fall and rototill them in will it be ready for planting season the following spring.

  2. I says:

    The smell and the maggots are both non issues for me. You only smell it when you shovel it out and you only see the maggots when you open it. The only thing I care about is the reduction of the waste that I throw in. If the maggots help with that I’m happy.

    Once it’s tilled in the smell is gone.

    So my question is is will the 7-8 months that the contents are spread on the garden and tilled in be sufficient to be properly composted.

    • Todd Heft says:

      Meat and grease may actually become more foul when buried. But the vegetable scraps and yard waste should break down just fine, assuming there’s sufficient nitrogen in your soil to aid the decomp process.

      • I says:

        I thought that many years ago Indians used to bury fish for fertilizer. Would that not be a type of trench composting with meat?

        • Todd Heft says:

          They did – but fish is not meat. Fish breaks down very quickly, as does their skeleton. Meat (beef) has tougher cells and is very slow to break down, especially the bones. Beef bones can take years to break down in soil.

      • I says:

        I will also be adding lots of lawn clippings and coffee grinds to the garden before the fall tilling so nitrogen should not be a problem. I plan on waiting with the fall tilling until just before the ground freezes and will dump 2 bags of grass clippings on the garden between the time the garden is harvested and the time it’s rototilled.

        I was also thinking about going to the local Starbucks and asking them to save their coffee grinds for me during that time.

  3. I says:

    I put in cardboard and newspapers on a regular basis. The smell is a short term thing so I’m not really all that concerned about it. My only purpose in doing the compost system is to keep the yard neat and reduce garbage to the landfill. The quality of the compost is of less importance. Throwing it in and tilling it into the garden in the fall and again in the spring is the best thing I can think of to destroy the waste, destroy the stink, and have the garden usable for the following planting season.

    • Todd Heft says:

      But the quality of the compost is very important, a significant fact you’re overlooking. Poor compost = poor nutrients.

      • I says:

        Oh I realize that compost quality is important. Thing is though that I am not really much of a gardener. My city has an awful garbage collection service so I’m doing this to counteract that-not for compost production.

        I have to keep a weeks worth of garbage in the garage in all seasons so if any type of kitchen waste is included it attracts rodents and stinks up the garage. Same goes for lawn clippings, that’s why I have the Earth Machine.

        We have just a small garden that is for fresh eating vegetables so even if the compost isn’t perfect it should still be better than nothing. And for me the best thing is that the garden gets rid of waste that would otherwise stink up my garage.

        I realize that this is probably not the usual reason that people seek composting advice but it goes to show you people compost for many reasons.

  4. I says:

    I compost food waste in a buried digester. I made it with a 60 gallon barrel. I drilled many holes in the sides and bottom and buried it so 10″ are sticking out of the ground. I put fire pit bricks around the top and have an old disc blade for a lid. Yes it is gross when you shovel it out but that’s only till it’s rototilled. I put ALL kitchen waste in the bin. The bin is full after about a year so I shovel it out in the fall and add to it over winter and through summer.

  5. I says:

    Slightly off topic. In an earth machine compost bin that I put grass clippings and shredded newspapers in is it good to pack down the contents or leave them looser?

    • Todd Heft says:

      No, do not pack the contents down – they need air to decompose without causing an odor.

      • I says:

        Do you think that one summers worth of grass clippings will fit in the bin? I usually get 2 bags of clippings from each cutting and I multch cut every second cutting. I’m hoping that it composts and reduces in volume fast enough that 1 bin is enough. Main goal with that is to keep the yard clean and not have to bag up clippings for disposal. If the bin does fill and the level does not drop I will just mulch cut until the garden is harvested and at that time I can dump the clippings onto the garden until I till it.

        • I says:

          With spreading everything out in the fall like I do is there any issue with some stuff not being decomposed?

  6. I says:

    I have a buried pit that I throw kitchen waste in for a year at a time. I shovel it out in the garden before the fall tilling and also level out the regular compost bin. I also empty grass clippings on the garden until the grass stops growing. With the tilling in the fall and again in the spring the material is turned under the surface of the dirt and is not recognizable by spring time. Would you consider that a type of trench composting.

    • Todd Heft says:

      I suppose that would be a type of trench composting. However, I would suggest not tilling the material in and allowing it to lay on the surface – you’ll have fewer weeds that way.

      • I says:

        With the contents from the bin with the food waste in it if I don’t till it in it will attract mice.

        • I says:

          So I either have to till it in or dig a 60 gallon hole!

        • Todd Heft says:

          Perhaps. But my compost bin is a mix of food scraps and yard waste and I have absolutely no mice. Perhaps my neighbor’s cat is doing his duty.

          • I says:

            Also when I shovel out the bin it stinks to high heaven. Tilling it under helps with that. Living in the city I have to consider more than my garden and the faster the stink is gone the happier the neighbours will be.

            What I plan on doing is emptying it the same day the tiller guy comes.

            I like the idea of digging holes to bury the waste but with a very small garden every inch is spoken for. So the waste is stored for a full year and partially composts and just finishes in the garden.

          • Todd Heft says:

            Ah, there’s your problem. If the compost stinks, you’re either not stirring it enough to introduce oxygen, or you need to add more carbon-based materials, referred to as “brown” materials. Check out my article with directions:

          • I says:

            One other thing I forgot to mention is that I throw ALL kitchen waste in including meat, grease and dairy. That may be part of the pronlem with the smells but the house is far enough away from the bin that it dosnt bother me. That’s also why it’s important that I turn it under the dirt.

            My biggest concern is and this was not a problem last year is that I want to make sure all the waste is sufficiently broken down by planting season.

            After the garden is harvested I will dump all the grass clippings on the garden until about august/September when the grass quits growing. Then I will schedule the rototiller and make spread out the earth machine contents and shovel out the digester on the same day.

            The bottom contents in the digester will be about 1 year old and less higher up in the bin. It will stink awful!

            After tilling the garden will sit till approx mid May and I’ll get it tilled again at that time.

            Personal opinions aside, will that make for nice soil next planting season?

          • Todd Heft says:

            Do not through grease or meat in your compost pile – that’s what’s attracting the foul odor and the maggots you mentioned earlier.