A few years ago while considering ways to reduce our trash stream, we started composting at our house. It seemed a waste to dump food scraps in with the garbage destined for the landfill when we could so easily recycle it into useful food for our plants without it ever leaving our property. The concept is easy, simply create a pile with the correct ingredients and large enough for the little bugs and bacteria to do their work. Most people living in the suburbs like myself don’t necessarily want big piles of rotting organic materials just scattered around their yards, so creating bins to neatly contain the stuff is important. This will also keep pets and creatures from digging around in search of a meal.
Every year Americans throw out 35 million tons of food scraps and only compost 1 million tons. We threw out an additional 34 million tons of yard trimmings and only composted 19 million tons.
Building a Compost Bin
Searching the internet, you will find many commercially sold bins and plans to make your own. The commercially sold tumbling bins are more complicated than necessary and usually not very big. I chose to make my own taking into consideration a number of options, some as easy as using 3 old pallets to make a three-sided box leaving the front open to allow for easy access to your compost pile occasionally.I decided upon a design that would contain the piles on all four sides, but due to its clever stackable design allowed easy access when needed. It surely didn’t hurt that I had just dismantled some old shelving that left me with most of the wood needed for the project. I used Douglas fir 1”x6” boards, but other sizes and types would work if you have them available.
I made enough stackable segments to have two containers about 40” tall. First step was to cut the 1”x6” boards to a length of 32”, you could make it bigger if desired. Then measure the actual width (x6” is 5-1/2”, x8” is 7-1/2”, etc.) then add ¾” – my total was 5-1/2” + ¾” for 6-1/4”. This is the length to cut boards used in the corners (I used 2”x2”, but 2”x4” would work just as well).
Now it’s time to start assembling, a screw gun and rust-resistant screws about 1-3/4” will be needed. When assembling the corners the top of the corner block should be ½” below the top of the slats, this will cause the corner block to extend below the bottom of the slats about 1-1/4”. When stacked you will have a ¾” gap between the slats to allow your pile to breathe. As seen in this photo, when screwing slats to corner blocks I flare-out the top just a bit, this will allow slightly off sized segments to fit together.
After completing the segments, just stack them up and you’re ready to start making compost.
Building and Maintaining Your Compost Pile
So simple even a plumber can do it.
One part green to 2-4 parts brown; it’s not an exact science.
Food scraps such as; fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, bread, rice and teabags (but no teabaggers).
Grass clippings, garden slash.
If it grew from the ground, it can be returned to the ground.Browns:
Paper products such as; paper towels, napkins, plates and pizza boxes. Since paper contaminated by food cannot be recycled, this is a great use.
Some do’s and don’ts and in’s and out’s of composting:
Don’t add meat or diary products, even though they are compostable they are likely to attract unwelcome pest.
Don’t add weeds, home composters do not always reach temperatures high enough to kill the seeds.
Don’t over mix, once your pile reaches a size large enough to start cooking (approx. 30”x30”x30”) mix completely once and check moisture. After your compost has started cooking items added should only be gently mixed into the top of the pile, this will leave the now living core mostly undisturbed.
Do wear gloves when working with compost.
Do add water if the pile becomes dry. I find during the summer I need to water once a week. It should be damp, not soaked.
Do keep a covered bowl or container on your countertop so you may easily scrape your dishes. We empty ours every day or two.
Do check for warmth when adding new materials. If your pile stops cooking, check the moisture. Do you need to add more browns?
Do add air. Every couple weeks I drive the pitchfork into the pile, gently rocking it back and forth but without mixing it. Slide it out and repeat about a half dozen times, this should provide enough air to keep the bacteria healthy.
Oh rats! …Rats and other pests should not be a big problem. Rats are very shy, so if you are out dumping items every couple days they’ll avoid the commotion and find a quieter home. Raccoons and possums may come looking for a meal, but if you bury your fresh food scraps just below the surface it helps to cover the smell.
Okay Mr. Plumber when do I get my compost?
Well, after about nine to twelve months it should be ready for you to search for some compost. I stack a couple segments next to the compost-filled stack. Start transferring the material not completely composted to the new stack. Soon you will find the black stuff, I sift it through a ¾” mesh screen into a wheelbarrow then dump the large chunks back into the new stack. Shift the segments from the old stack to the new stack, as material levels require.
Homemade compost is desirable to vegetable gardeners, but it has other uses too. We put handfuls in potted plants or spread it around in the flower gardens. Compost tea is another use, recipe here.