Monday, December 7, 2009

composting (bins, piles, cans and heaps)

Compost is one of nature's best mulches and soil amendments, and you can use it instead of commercial fertilizers. Best of all, compost is cheap. You can make it without spending a cent. Using compost improves soil structure, texture, and aeration and increases the soil's water-holding capacity. Compost loosens clay soils and helps sandy soils retain water. Adding compost improves soil fertility and stimulates healthy root development in plants. The organic matter provided in compost provides food for microorganisms, which keeps the soil in a healthy, balanced condition. Nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus will be produced naturally by the feeding of microorganisms, so few if any soil amendments will need to be added.

Most gardeners have long understood the value of this rich, dark, earthy material in improving the soil and creating a healthful environment for plants. Understanding how to make and use compost is in the public interest, as the problem of waste disposal climbs toward a crisis level. Landfills are brimming, and new sites are not likely to be easily found. For this reason there is an interest in conserving existing landfill space and in developing alternative methods of dealing with waste. Don't throw away materials when you can use them to improve your lawn and garden! Start composting instead.

Compost is the end product of a complex feeding pattern involving hundreds of different organisms, including bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects. What remains after these organisms break down organic materials is the rich, earthy substance your garden will love. Composting replicates nature's natural system of breaking down materials

Humus is our goal when we start composting. By providing the right environment for the organisms in the compost pile, it is possible to produce excellent compost. We usually want to organize and hasten Mother Nature's process. By knowing the optimum conditions of heat, moisture, air, and materials, we can speed up the composting process. Besides producing more good soil faster, making the compost faster creates heat which will destroy plant diseases and weed seeds in the pile or bin.

making a bin, pile or garbage can composter

There are many different commercially available composters on the market. My motto is why pay for something that I can make myself either from materials on the homestead laying around or by purchasing a few cheap items to build my own. Therefore, I am not going any further with commercially available compost bins and will focus more on home made bins in this post.

Some gardeners lash together four pallets, leaving one corner loosely attached to act as a door. Others install posts in four corners, nail the pallets to the posts to form three sides of the bin, and wire the last pallet with some slack to allow access.

Make a simple, three-sided bin by stacking concrete or cinder blocks. Leave the fourth side open for turning the pile or for access to the finished compost.

Wire mesh bins can also be made. Simply make a circle shape out of the wire and place compost materials inside the circle you have made. Ones I have tried in this way always fall over and are quite a pain in the butt.

A simple pile in an out of the way spot works well if you have large amounts of materials to add to your pile. This is a slower method but if you have tons of compost then waiting for it to compost is not a big issue. We actually use two piles here. One for already cooked compost and one pile we are currently adding to. This gives us a constant supply of compost in large amounts and is pretty maintenance free.

For those that would like to compost in small amounts and are looking for something cheap and easy to make, i personally suggest the garbage barrel composter. following is a very simple plan , kids like them too because they can help in the process and not get disgustingly gross n nasty yet still learn the processes and it is hands on learning.

Types of composting

Passive composting is the route to go when you have plenty of time to allow things to decompose or have plenty of barnyard critters to help you in the process . Passive composting involves the least amount of time and energy on your part. This is done by collecting organic materials in a freestanding pile. It might take a long time (a year or two), but eventually organic materials in any type of a pile will break down into finished compost. Add grass clippings, leaves, and kitchen scraps (always cover these with 8" of other material). The pile will shrink quickly as the materials compress and decompose. Wait a year or two before checking the bottom of the bin for finished compost. When it's ready, shovel the bottom section into a wheelbarrow and add it to your garden beds. Continue to add greens and browns to have a good supply of finished compost at the ready. After the first few years, most simple piles produce a few cubic feet of finished compost yearly.

Managed composting

Managed composting involves active participation, ranging from turning the pile occasionally to a major commitment of time and energy. If you use all the techniques of managing the pile, you can get finished compost in 3-4 weeks. Choose the techniques that reflect how much you want to intervene in the decomposition process and that will be a function of how fast you want to produce compost.

The speed with which you produce finished compost will be determined by how you collect materials, whether you chop them up, how you mix them together, and so on. Achieving a good balance of carbon and nitrogen is easier if you build the pile all at once. Layering is traditional, but mixing the materials works as well. Shredded organic materials heat up rapidly, decompose quickly, and produce a uniform compost. The decomposition rate increases with the size of the composting materials. If you want the pile to decay faster, chop up large fibrous materials.

You can add new materials on an ongoing basis to an already established pile. Most single-bin gardeners build an initial pile and add more ingredients on top as they become available.

The temperature of the managed pile is important, it indicates the activity of the decomposition process. The easiest way to track the temperature inside the pile is by feeling it. If it is warm or hot, everything is fine. If it is the same temperature as the outside air, the microbial activity has slowed down and you need to add more nitrogen (green) materials such as grass clippings, kitchen waste, or manure.Turning or aerating your pile is a must in managed composting.

Highly managed composting

The following is for the highly managed pile and the optimum finished compost in the shortest amount of time. Decomposition occurs most efficiently when the temperature inside the pile is between 104 degrees F and 131 degrees F. Compost thermometers are available at garden shops and nurseries. It is best not to turn the pile while it is between these temperatures, but rather when the temperature is below 104 degrees F or above 131 degrees F. This keeps the pile operating at its peak. Most disease pathogens die when exposed to 131 degrees for 10-15 minutes, though some weed seeds are killed only when they're heated to between 140 degrees and 150 degrees. If weed seeds are a problem, let the pile reach 150 degrees during the first heating period, then drop back down to the original temperature range. Maintaining temperatures above 131 degrees can kill the decomposing microbes.

What to compost

Ashes, wood (in small amounts)
Cardboard, shredded
Corn stalks
Fruit waste
Newspaper, shredded
Peanut shells
Peat moss
Pine needles
Stems and twigs, shredded
Vegetable stalks Alfalfa
Coffee grounds
Food waste(no meat, bones, dairy)
Garden waste
Grass clippings
Hedge clippings
Hops, used
Vegetable scraps
*Avoid weeds that have gone to seed, as seeds may survive all but the hottest compost piles.
few if any soil amendments will need to be added.

what not to compost

Coal Ash - Most ashes are safe to mix into your compost pile, but coal ashes are not. They contain sulfur and iron in amounts high enough to damage plants.

Colored Paper

Diseased Plants - It takes an efficient composting system and ideal conditions (extreme heat) to destroy many plant diseases. If the disease organisms are not destroyed they can be spread later when the compost is applied. Avoid questionable plant materials

Inorganic Materials - This stuff won't break down and includes aluminum foil, glass, plastics and metals. Pressure-treated lumber should also be avoided because it's treated with chemicals that could be toxic in compost (see Safety Concerns Cut Down Treated Lumber).

Meat, Bones, Fats, Dairy - These products can "overheat" your compost pile (not to mention make it stinky and attract animals). They are best avoided.

Pet Droppings - Dog or cat droppings contain several disease organisms and can make compost toxic to handle. For those with pets and wanting to compost

Synthetic Chemicals - Certain lawn and garden chemicals (herbicides - pesticides) can withstand the composting process and remain intact in the finished compost. Poisons have no place in the natural micro-community of your compost pile.


  1. Do you have online sources for worms? I've called every bait shop in the area and they don't stock worms again until March.
    I love this article, it answers a lot of questions I had. So now I have my bin set up and I'm ready to compost...just need worms.
    Thanks for the great information.

  2. When we got our first batch of worms i got them from our local (cringe) walmart. It was by far the cheapest place to get them. I have not personally used the place i am suggesting but have a net friend that used them and was happy with their service. The site is jim's worm farm. glad to help you out with your worms.