Monday, May 16, 2011

Composting: easier than you might think

If you read gardening books, articles and websites today they'll almost always lead you to believe that composting is an art and science for those who are willing to put in the time, space, money and effort. They make you think that the rest of us are better off buying it in big plastic bags at the garden center. What they are not telling you is that your great grandma did just fine with her composting by tossing scraps and yard waste in pile in the corner of her garden or yard.  When she needed some compost, she dug down a little until she found the layer where the compost was ready and used it.

My very simple and cheap compost bin. I planted morning glory seeds around the outside, but they are not up yet.

Great grandma didn't have a $150 black plastic bin that spins, she didn't have a two or three bin system with compost in various states of readiness, she didn't buy special worms, she didn't worry about getting just the right combination of "brown" and "green" materials to compost and she didn't worry about keeping the moisture level of her pile or the temperature at optimum levels. She didn't run her leaves through a shredder before adding them to get them in the right size pieces. Wonder of wonders, she still got great compost for her garden for FREE! She didn't even have to haul it home. She didn't put her potato peelings into a plastic bag to haul to her trash can to set out on the curb getting smelly in the sun and then sitting in a landfill not composting for decades.

We moved into the house we live in in Utah late last summer. I didn't take time to build a compost bin then so I just picked a spot in the garden area and tossed my kitchen scraps in a heap every day. We just have three people in our family so we don't create all that many scraps. Even with all the fruit peelings from canning, pumpkins from carving, daily coffee grounds, egg shells and tea bags and everything else I just had a small pile by spring. Even in frigid Utah temps and utter neglect it continued to break down into nice black compost.

Above you'll see a photo of the inexpensive, easy compost bin I just built. It wasn't really necessary that I have a bin at all, but it does help to keep stray dogs and magpies out. The magpies tend to scratch through it for earthworms and spread the pile out. It also keeps light weight things like dry leaves from blowing out. Simple containment is nice.

To build this bin I reused a metal fence post that I found on the property to anchor it and keep it from blowing away in our high winds. I then staked it in three places with some plant stakes I had. A couple of inexpensive pieces of rebar from the building supply would work just as well. I purchased a roll of 3'x10'  1/2" grid wire from the building supply, gently unrolled it easing it out of it's tight roll, looped it into a circle and used a few plastic zip ties to fasten the ends together. Then I put the wire part over the fence post and staked a plant stake on the other side to secure it in between the two. I used some other plant stakes to pin the other sides down. $16 in materials for this bin that is sturdy and plenty big enough for us.

As I mentioned, there are very few "rules" of composting that you truly have to follow. Here are some common sense things to think about:

1) keep animal products and greasy food out of your compost. Animal products will smell nasty and anything fatty or greasy will keep things from composting properly.
2) don't keep your pile too damp or put too many "wet" or "green" things in it. This will produce a compost that smells like manure and attracts insects. You don't want that. You want compost that smells like good, rich dirt. Layering in "brown" things like dried leaves, corn husks or shredded newspaper will keep this from happening.
3) light and ventilation will keep nasty things like fungus gnats and flies out of your pile. Those black plastic bins are pretty good for dry climates, but an open bin can be better for other places.
4) stirring the pile will help everything break down faster, but if you only have one bin it will mix the nearly done and just added things together which will keep you from using the compost. For a one bin system you can stir it all up well in the early autumn and then just layer things in the rest of the year. In spring you can dig down to find the layers of completed compost.
5) if your pile is very dry it won't break down. This is only really a problem in very dry climates or sheltered areas.
6) consider above factors when siteing your bin. Mine is at the edge of a wooded area to keep it partly shaded so it won't dry out too much and partly sunny so it won't stay too damp. It's about 30 ft from the kitchen door so taking scraps out is easy and right by the garden for convenience.

We'll be moving soon so we didn't till up the garden space.  I couldn't resist planting some heirloom tomatoes for the next residents anyway. These concrete scalloped edging pieces were around trees all over the property I removed them and re-used them here.


  1. Sue - you are so AWESOME!

    I am going to share your link with a couple of friends who compost.


  2. Awww, look at Sue's comment :)

    Sue, this was very informative. I need to get Bruce to read it too so he'll get onboard.