My Compost for a Bin

Compost, All Good, In Time

One problem with gardening, as I see it, is that much of it is about delayed gratification. Even a radish makes you wait 3 weeks after sowing the seed before you get to chomp on it. With a pear tree, that wait is a few years.

Which brings me to compost. Now that the flurry of spring pruning and planting have subsided, I’m starting this year’s compost cycle again — that’s compost for use next year. Delayed gratification again.Smelling compost
Food waste, yard waste, and compostable paper make up 31% of an average household’s waste which, if landfilled, ties up land and contributes to global warming. Composted, it feeds the soil life and, in turn, plants, and maintains soil tilth, that crumbly feel of a soil that holds on to moisture yet has plenty of space for air. You don’t get all this from a bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer or even a bag of any concentrated organic fertilizer.

The key to good composting is to have a good bin. Any pile of old vegetables, leaves, grass clippings, old cotton clothes, straw, or wood chips will turn to compost eventually. A bin keeps everything neat, fends off scavengers, and maintains heat and moisture within.Compost bins

Buying a compost bin is one option. Consider whether you’re making compost for your garden or just as an environmentally sound way to recycle what used to be called “trash.” You need a larger bin for the former use because you’ll be importing materials, such as leaves, wood chips, and manure, to bulk up the compost.

The Perfect Compost Bin?

Over the years, my home made compost bins have gone through several incarnations. Four wooden panels filled in with chickenwire made my first bin. Once a pile was made and settled a little, I removed the panels, pinned black plastic onto the compost cubes to keep in moisture, and set up the panel in the next location for a new “compost cube.” Aerating my compost pile of yoreThe next bins weren’t bins but just carefully stacked layers of ingredients, mostly horse manure, hay, and garden and kitchen gleanings. And then there was my three-sided bin made of slabwood.Compost, me turning, slab bin

A dramatic jump in functionality came with my bin made from 1 x 12 hemlock boards from a sawmill, notched to stack together on edge like Lincoln logs. The only problem with this system was that I had to periodically purchase and notch new boards as older ones rotted away.Wooden compost binsWhich brings me to my current bin which, now, after many years of use, I consider nearly perfect. Instead of hemlock boards, these bins are made from “composite lumber.” Manufactured mostly from recycled materials, such as scrap wood, sawdust, and old plastic bags, composite lumber is used for decking so should last a long, long time.

The boards I used were 5-1/2 inches wide and 1 inch thick. A couple of inches from either end of each 5-foot-long board, I cut a notch on each side to a depth one-quarter the width of the board and about 1/8” wider than the their thickness. Compost bin boardWhen finished, I ripped one board of the bin full length down its center to provide two bottom boards so that the bottom edges of all 4 sides of the bin would sit right against on the ground. Compost bin, bottom boardsBefore setting up a bin, I lay 1/2” hardware cloth on the ground to help keep at bay rodents that might try to crawl in from below.Compost bin, hardware clothWith the Lincoln-log style design, the bin need be only as high as the material within while the pile is being built, and then “unbuilt” gradually as I removed the finished compost.

Feed the Beast(s)

Okay, time to feed my compost “pets.” Nothing fancy, just any spent plant from the garden, kitchen trimmings, old clothes made from natural materials, hay scythed from my meadow, horse manure from a local stable, and occasional sprinklings of soil and powdered limestone.

Composted clothing

Leather shoes, underwear (not mine), jeans

For interest, I’ll sometimes throw old shoes or gloves into a pile to see what’s left once the organic portion of the shoe or glove has been stripped off.By paying attention to the textures of the materials as I add them to the pile, it generally stays well aerated. If I have a load of manure and will be building up many layers of the pile at once, I water the layers as I go; it takes too long to get sufficient water down into the pile after it has been built. Once a pile is completed, I cover it with a layer of EPDM rubber roofing material, cut to fit, to seal in moisture and keep out rain.Compost bins, being filled & filledFeeding compost

Piles built this summer get turned once next spring so I can monitor progress and make sure they’re moist — but not too wet — throughout. The compost is used throughout next year’s growing season.

So yes, there is delayed gratification before I get to use the “black gold.” Then again, making compost is enjoyable; I get some exercise and enjoy feeding the various fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms at work in the compost pile.My compost piles

26 Comments

  1. Chris Mattingly
    Posted June 19, 2019 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Lee, per usual you’ve left me feeling very grateful for what you’ve shared.

    I’ve been telling my clients that “composting isn’t easy,” contrary to popular knowledge. What IS easy is piling up kitchen refuse, trimmings, and brush, which eventually will turn to compost, but without a notable increase in temperature, resulting in a product that carries the same insect pests, fungal diseases, and weed seeds that may have gone into it. So my question – when you use your method (to paraphrase: layering, focus on initial moisture content, preservation of moisture, and a single turning and perhaps moisture adjustment after a year), do you get a product that is free of those contaminants? I think I’m asking in other words, does the compost heat up to over 130 degrees F for a number of days to eliminate those things?

    Thanks very much, and I can’t wait to share this with clients who will find new hope where they’ve had failure.

    • Posted June 22, 2019 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      My composts, except in winter, do usually reach more than 150°F. But temperatures that high aren’t necessary.Time also does the trick — more time if the temperature is not a high. Also, no reason that a compost of kitchen refuse, trimmings, and brush won’t heat up.It all depends on the size of the particles, their ratios of inclusion, moisture, and size of pile.

  2. William Turnbull
    Posted June 20, 2019 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the very useful info about compost bins. One question about compost: some folks say that only black and white newspaper should be put in the compost bin, while others say colored paper is OK. What’s your opinion?

    • Posted June 22, 2019 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      I think, but am not sure, that the inks used today are ok for compost. I generally avoid them.

  3. vicki H
    Posted June 22, 2019 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the information. Being a compost fan, I appreciate knowing your tips for even better success. Do you use a chipper to break down some of the garden stems and stalks?

    • Posted June 23, 2019 at 6:29 am | Permalink

      No chipper.If I need to chop something up, I use a machete. But I don’t put woody branches in my composts.

  4. David Sharp
    Posted June 23, 2019 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    How much compost on new veg/ornamental beds……to get things started? What about maintaining fertility in containers, a constant problem for me….?

    • Posted June 24, 2019 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      A one-inch depth of finished compost is sufficient to feed intensively planted vegetables for a whole growing season. I use 1/4 by volume compost in my potting mixes. I re-pot heavy feeders every couple of years or so.

      • David Sharp
        Posted June 24, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        New beds will have poor organic matter %, won’t more be better?

        • Posted June 27, 2019 at 10:26 am | Permalink

          Please explain the question better. No comprendo.

          • David Sharp
            Posted June 27, 2019 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, what I meant is that a new veg bed, with no prior composting, will have a low percentage of organic matter. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to add a lot more compost than just an inch?

          • Posted June 28, 2019 at 8:00 am | Permalink

            Yes. But one inch would be sufficient for fertility for a season.

  5. Ellen B
    Posted June 23, 2019 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I LOVE composting. My problem is with the “harvesting” of it. What do you do with all those spunky little red wigglers that served you so well? Save a bucketful for the next compost pile and send the rest of those brave little soldiers to their death on your garden beds? It’s a philosophical problem for me. 🙂 Thanks for any enlightenment.

    • Posted June 24, 2019 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      No need to add any special micro or macroorganisms to a compost pile. Pile up an organic material, and composting will happen; i.e. provide the food and they will be there.

    • Mirem Villamil
      Posted July 8, 2019 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      Ellen, you are talking about vermicompost, in which a species of earthworm does the work of decomposing – and you’re right, they don’t like our outdoor conditions in the Northeast. Lee’s compost is made mostly by bacteria and fungi, with invertebrates moving in only at the end of the process. Bacterial action is what makes it heat up. There are ways to harvest the worm compost and leave most of the worms behind: specifically, pile up the finished compost on a mesh nursery tray over a bin of clean, moist shredded newspaper or coir – whatever you use for worm bedding – and some food scraps. Shine a bright light over the compost overnight. In the morning, most of the worms will have crawled out the bottom and into the fresh bedding – avoiding the light and seeking out food.

  6. Ellen Blackstone
    Posted June 24, 2019 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Sorry if my earlier comment sounded a bit glib. I’ll try again in another one. I’m really curious to have an answer. Thanks.

  7. Ellen Blackstone
    Posted June 24, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I love the idea of composting and have been doing it for several years. With a small urban garden, I end up with almost more than I can use easily. My dilemma – and my question – have to do with the red wigglers themselves. I find it hard just to toss them on my garden beds, knowing that they will not survive there. (Or am I wrong about that? Is there something to do to alleviate that?) I try to give some away. I save a bucket of them to start the next bin. But then, it’s hard just to toss them, gazillions of them, along with the wonderful compost, onto a raised bed, knowing that they won’t do well there. Any philosophical advice, Lee? Thanks for any light you might shed.

    • Posted June 24, 2019 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      A lot of unseen macro and microorganisms die when their environment shifts (such as when a compost pile is spread on the ground). That’s life. Everything is part of a cycle, unseen or seen, long or short. Unphilosophically, perhaps, I wouldn’t worry about them.

      • Ellen Blackstone
        Posted June 24, 2019 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, Lee. I’m a Druid at heart. 🙂 No need to publish this comment.

  8. susan
    Posted June 24, 2019 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Hi. I love your compost bin design; sure beats mine, which consists of hay bales. Could you tell me the type or brand of composite lumber that you used. What I am seeing at Home Depot is very expensive.
    Thanks

    • Posted June 26, 2019 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Hay bales are excellent for compost bins — except you have to keep buying new ones and you have to make sure the hay has not been treated with Clopyralid or related, persistent herbicides. I used a variety of brands of boards; the cheapest came from a job lot place. Yes, they are generally expensive, but very longlasting.

      • Susan
        Posted June 26, 2019 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        Thanks. I use the decomposed hay the next year in the compost, but I didn’t consider whether the hay had been treated. Thanks for the tip.

  9. John Snell
    Posted June 30, 2019 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Winter composting in Vermont was always a challenge, from a cold pile to just getting to the compost bin in deep snow! My solution is to put all food compostables into 5-gallon sheetrock buckets stored in my garage where temperatures rarely drop very far below freezing. They are cold enough to not actively smell but warm enough to not freeze into a block. I also often times layer in a big of old potting soil to “seed” the composting process. In the early spring I take this wealth of material, usually 10 buckets for the two of us, up and layer it in with the clean up materials from my garden to form one big pile (about 3 cubic yards). A week later it is HOT. I may turn it once if I have time but generally by mid summer it is well on its way to being black gold.

    • Posted July 2, 2019 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Another way is to begin the composting process indoors (at room temperature). All you need are three buckets (five-gallon size should suffice) with loose fitting lids. Fill one with a mixture of equal parts dry sawdust (or peat moss) and dry soil, with a little limestone added. To begin composting, put an inch of dry straw, leaves, or shredded newspaper into the bottom of one of the empty buckets. Dump your kitchen scraps into the bucket as they become available, each time sprinkling on some of the sawdust-soil mixture to absorb odors and excess moisture. If you have a lot of scraps at once, dump in a little at a time, covering each layer with the sawdust-soil mixture. Chop up large pieces and let water drain from anything that is very wet before you toss it in the bucket. (Excerpted form my book, WEEDLESS GARDENING.)

  10. Jim Burkhard
    Posted July 10, 2019 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    This is a great looking design!
    One thing though…
    What was your source (and the manufacturer if you know) for your composite lumber? When I look in my local big-box stores, I see Trex and other makes of this, but it’s all intended for decking and as such has an “up” side that gets seen (smooth & planar) and a “down” side that isn’t seen (deeply grooved, presumably to save plastic). I have some concerns that if I were to buy this, the grooved side might cause some fit problems in the area of the notches. I’d rather use boards that are the same (planar) on both sides like a normal wood 1×6, but I haven’t seen those anywhere. In one of your pictures, I see a few grooved boards, but the rest seem so be planar on both sides. Have you tried both? Does it matter?

    What is the dimensions of the notch and distance of this from the end? I could eyeball it, but if you’ve got a measurement that you’ve already optimized….

    • Posted July 11, 2019 at 5:16 am | Permalink

      I used a number of brands although I don’t think Trex itself was one of them.One of the brands did have grooves; no problems. I made the notches a couple of inches in from the eds of the boards. The important thing, of course, is that the notches be equidistant from each other on the boards. The notches are slightly wider than the thickness of the boards and their depth is 1/4 the width of the boards. So if the boards are exactly 6″ wide and 1″ thick, the notches would be 1-1/8″ wide and 1-1/2″ deep.

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