There are hundreds of compost bins for sale online and in stores, but they all share the same two problems: size and price.
For those of us with large gardens, most retail compost bins are either too small or too expensive.
Being the frugal gardener that I am, I sought a better way – after all, compost will break down in any number of containers. The stirring mechanisms in retail versions are a great idea, easy to use and speed the breakdown, but are they worth the price?
The zero cost solution if you have the room, is to make a cold compost pile: throw your table scraps and yard waste in a big pile at the edge of your yard and let it break down, turning it once a week. This is called cold composting. To get the pile to heat up a little more, surround it with bales of hay which will break down and add good carbon material to your pile. You can also trench compost – dig a trench in a fallow garden bed and add table scraps and yard waste directly into the soil.
The next best solution is to make an inexpensive homemade compost bin with a modified large black plastic garbage can, available at any hardware store for about ten dollars.
Watch the video How to build a compost bin with shipping pallets
What you need to build this homemade compost bin:
- Large black plastic trash can
- ½” drill bit and drill
- Two bungee cords
- Bricks or wood blocks
Air circulation is critical to composting, so the can needs holes – without them, the odor will be unbearable. With a 1/2″ drill bit, create 4 vertical sets of 6 evenly spaced holes around the can and 6 evenly spaced holes in the bottom for drainage. Also drill 6 holes in the lid of the can to allow rainwater in and air to flow through the pile. Oxygen encourages aerobic bacteria to go to work on your compost, which will keep it odor-free and speed the breakdown.
You’ll also need two bungee cords: one to hold the can’s lid on securely and one to tie the bin to a stationary object (like a porch railing) so it won’t blow away in a storm. Chasing a compost bin across your neighbor’s lawn in a thunderstorm while the can is spilling its ingredients is ugly.
Finally, raise your bin off the ground by placing it on a few bricks (or something similar) so that air can get under it and it can properly drain. If you like, you can place a receptacle under your bin to catch the fluid that drains out – it’s a great liquid feed for any plant.
You now have a homemade compost bin.
When you want to stir your compost, take the can off the bricks while keeping the lid intact with the bungee cords and give it a few rolls on the lawn.
Perfecting the art of composting can be tricky, but it’s essential to the health of your garden. Compost adds beneficial microbes to the soil and provides the highest nutrition for your garden plants.
The Art Of Composting
The key to fast compost is getting it to heat up. If your balance is correct, the pile should create heat on its own within a week or two (steam will actually rise from your pile) and you should have finished compost in one or two months. The heat is created by the biological activity in the pile, not the absorbed heat from sunlight (although the solar heat helps somewhat). Stir it frequently – the more oxygen that reaches the bacteria, the faster the compost breaks down.
When you add fresh ingredients to your compost, take a handful of soil from your garden and throw it on top – the soil contains microbes which will kick-start the fermenting process. Wet the top of the compost thoroughly, but not so much that it’s soaked.
At least once a week, give your compost a stir and check the smell. If it has a foul odor, either your carbon to nitrogen ratio (brown material :green material) is out of whack, or it’s too wet. Let the pile dry for a day or two and if it still smells, then you have too much green stuff (nitrogen), so add more brown material like wood ashes, cardboard, black and white newspaper or dried corn stalks. The smell should go away in a day or two.
What Do You Put In Your Compost Bin?
Years ago, the standard ingredients of compost were horse manure and straw , and this combination has never been topped for fertilization. But for those who don’t have access to this great gift, other ingredients will be necessary. Table scraps are excellent: use anything that’s fruit, grain or vegetable, but avoid meat scraps, because the smell may attract animals like raccoons, which will tear your bin to shreds trying to get it. Meat scraps may also turn putrid in your bin and create a horrendous odor. You can also add tree leaves, newspaper (black and white only), brown paper bags (shredded) non-glossy paper plates, plain cardboard, vacuum cleaner wastes, grass clippings, leaves, stalks, pet or human hair, wood ashes, coffee grounds, used tea bags, etc. The key to fast composting is to shred everything into very small pieces – the smaller it is, the faster it will break down.
How Do You Know When Compost Is Finished?
When compost is finished, it will look crumbly, be the color of chocolate and have a pleasant, earthy smell, not foul in any way. It will also be much smaller than the pile you started with – about two-thirds smaller, depending on your ingredients.
Dump it on your garden and start again! Your plants will thrive on it and you’ll reduce your personal garbage stream to practically nil.