Why You Should Start a Compost  Bin

Starting your own compost bin will not only provide beneficial results for your garden, but it is also good for the environment. Composting breaks down waste materials from your garden and kitchen into a nutrient-rich, dark, soil-like matter that can be used to amend your soil. Rather than discarding garden and kitchen refuse in the trash and adding to your local landfill, composting will provide you with rich “black gold” to use in your garden and will save you the cost of purchasing materials to amend your soil. Compost is full of nutrients and therefore makes a great fertilizer for your garden. It also makes a great mulch.

The Compost Bin Itself

Although you don’t need a compost bin to make compost, it does make for a neater compost area and will generally provide for quicker decomposition by keeping materials evenly distributed. Compost bins can be purchased at most garden centers or you can easily construct your own bin. Compost bins generally don’t have a bottom (this makes it easy for earthworms to access the compost to help with the decomposition process) and have three sides, or have four sides with one side that can be opened for easy access.

Bins should ideally be at least three cubic feet in size. You may also want to have more than one bin so that you can be working on a new batch of compost while the other is full and is busy decomposing. Bins are typically made of wood, but can also be made of cement, brick, plastic, wire fencing, or whatever strikes your fancy. Be sure, however, to avoid constructing your bin with chemically treated wood as the toxins in the wood may destroy the very microorganisms that cause decomposition in the first place.

Best Location for a Compost Bin

Even a well-maintained compost area is generally not an attractive addition to your garden or yard. It’s best to locate your bin in an out-of-the-way spot that is hidden from view. You can always put up a fence or a border of evergreen shrubs or trees so that you (and your neighbors) don’t have to look at it. Additionally, as composting requires moisture, you may want to place your bin in a shady spot to keep it from drying out in the sun.

What to Compost

Refuse from your garden, kitchen, and lawn can be used to make compost. Kitchen waste that is suitable for compost includes vegetable and fruit remnants, egg shells, nut shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, and tea leaves. Don’t put any animal scraps, such as meat trimmings and bones, in your compost. Garden and lawn refuse can include garden debris (dead-headed flowers, etc.), grass clippings, grass clippings, dead leaves, pine cones, and pine needles. Don’t throw weeds in your compost as they may come back to haunt you later if they are not fully decomposed in your compost. Other ingredients that are suitable for compost include saw dust, straw, bird seed, sea weed, and manure, although dog and cat poop is not advised.

How to Make Compost

Although all the above mentioned compost ingredients will break down over time, you can speed up the process of decomposition by making sure you have a good distribution of dry ingredients (such as dead leaves and pine needles) and wet ingredients (such as vegetable remnants and fresh grass trimmings). In general, you should try to combine two parts dry to one part wet for the speediest decomposition. Also, the more chopped or shredded your ingredients are, the easier it will be for the microorganisms to break down the ingredients into compost. Nothing better for the job than one of those little back-yard chippers (ANOTHER reason to get one!) You will also have faster results if you layer the various ingredients rather than piling on thick layers of one type of material. In order to achieve this layering effect, however, you need to have enough materials on hand to fill your compost bin all at once. If you prefer a more freeform “compost as it becomes available” method, then just throw your ingredients in the bin at any time and let nature take its course. Just realize that this method will take longer to yield the finished compost.

The Elements of Making Compost

Air and moisture are two important factors when making compost as both assist in the decomposition process. As you add ingredients to your bin, wet them down a bit, but don’t saturate the bin or air will not be able circulate properly. Mixing and turning your compost from time to time (once a month is fine, once a week is better) will help to aerate the compost, thereby speeding up decomposition. Aeration will also keep your compost from become stinky. A great tool to assist with this process is the “Compost Aeratoricon.” This easy to use tool helps to mix the compost ingredients and circulate air throughout the bin. It may even spare you the chore of turning your compost with a shovel or pitchfork.

Explanation of How a Compost Tumbler Works

I am a big fan of the compost tumbler for a few reasons. All of the compost tumbler type composters will speed your detritus-to-humus process, usually cutting the time in half (or more!). Sure they’re a small expense, but going from six months to three weeks for compost is a huge gain. Why so much faster? Microbes are living organisms that break down organic matter; like most living things they need oxygen, that’s why you need to turn the pile, to keep it from going anaerobic. Without oxygen all the microbes die and rot and that’s why it gets stinky.  Turning that pile is hard work and it tends to get put off (Who really gets up in the morning and says “I feel great. Let’s go turn over two hundred pounds of decomposing humus!”).

The tumbler gets a few turns every time something goes in and VOILA! Perfect aeration means optimal conditions for microbes. More microbes mean faster breakdown which increases temperature which further stimulates microbial activity which increases temperature which… you get the idea. (Those of you who have read other pages on the site have heard me spiel about mycorrhizal fungi; these are the good guys growing here, too!)

This is an especially smart method for the senior gardener who might have trouble with those two hundred pounds of detritus; the tumbler makes compost so much faster you never get that kind of build-up, and the turning mechanisms on some models are so good a child can turn a hundred pounds of compost without effort.

I was skeptical when these things first came out, but all you need to do is open one of these when it’s working hard and get a blast of 120º air in your face and you realize that this is the best way to compost, bar none. I can recommend this to everyone out there, but don’t take my word for it. Find someone else who owns one and ask them; the rave reviews will sell you for sure.

Another quick point to consider; as microbes are the key factor in breaking down your compost adding a few to start the process is always a good idea. While you can purchase compost starter the right guys for the job will show up eventually. Once you get that first cooked batch, make sure to set some aside as starter for the next batch (any of you that have used sour dough bread are already using the exact same practice, hopefully with a different outcome, though).

How to Apply Compost to Soil

Depending on the speed of your composting technique, your compost should be ready in approximately six months to a year. Good compost should smell earthy, even sweet, and should be dark and crumbly. The compost should no longer resemble any of the original ingredients. To feed compost to your garden, spread the compost over the soil (about ½ inch to 2 inches thick) and then till or dig the compost into the soil.

When to Apply Compost

Early spring is a good time to do this. Compost also makes a great mulch when spread over the soil about 2 to 3 inches thick. Even though it is not mixed in with the soil, the compost will release nutrients into the soil below it. Spring and Fall are both appropriate times to mulch.

I hope these composting tips have provided you with the knowledge you need to get started on your own composting adventure. Composting is really quite easy to make. You will develop your own method as you find what works best for you with the ingredients that you have available. There is no fertilizer better than compost, and you can make it yourself for free!