Compost Awareness Week 2010: Composting Outside the Bin

| 4/28/2010 4:13:53 PM

Tags: composting, compost bins, homesteading, pee bales, compost, gardening tips,

Compost binMore people gardening means more people composting, because you can’t grow an organic kitchen garden without having a place to throw castoff plant parts. New composters, I fear, fall prey to the “gotta have a great compost bin” syndrome, and spend a lot of mental energy and money on things they don’t really need. Dead plants already know how to rot.

The upcoming Compost Awareness Week (May 3-8, 2010) got me thinking that low-tech compost deserves the spotlight for a change. The classic no-frills, slowly shrinking compost pile now has many names — cold compost, feed-and-forget compost, and even dump compost. Personally, I like to call it homestead compost, because when you’re living self-sufficiently by gardening a lot and cooking every day, eventually you end up with a darn good compost pile. Or maybe several! Our composting poll shows that for many readers, one composting project is not enough.

Compost Can, Compost Bin or Both?

As a long-time composter, I find that I do like having a stationary composter for collecting raw materials. The stuff from the kitchen compost pail is more attractive to unwanted critters than it is to me, and a stationary composter (or garbage-can composter) keeps coffee filters and slimy eggshells in a suitably secret place. But no miracles of decomposition happen inside my glossy black Earth Machine. Instead, it functions like a garden garbage can. When it starts getting full, I lift it off and the cone of contents becomes a compost pile in progress. I move the composter to a new spot and start filling it up again.

Various types of compost bins, pens and other enclosures seem like a good idea, and it’s a fact that at least one vertical retaining wall can go a long way toward keeping a compost heap moist. But compost enclosures in general tend to get in the way. I rarely turn a compost pile, but I am prone to chop away with a mattock when I decide that my homestead compost needs mixing — usually toward the end of the composting process, when the mountain has shrunk into a big lump. Unless you can take them down quickly, compost enclosures that limit access may be more trouble than they’re worth.

What about compost tumblers? Many gardeners wish for one, and they’re great if you need to sidestep issues with fire ants or other compost saboteurs. You can save money by building your own, but do keep in mind that a compost pile will cost you nothing. If you feel like smiling, read blogger Tyler Tervooren’s account of this lesson learned in How to Waste Time, Money, and Resources Building a Compost Tumbler, or a Lesson in Simplicity. 

A New Use for Old Bales

Finally, I would be remiss in letting another composting year pass without making you aware of pee bales, which many MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers may find of interest.  Perhaps a method that’s good enough for Wimpole Gardens (one of the United Kingdom’s top historical gardens) is good enough for your compost, too. Simply structure one side of your compost pile with a bale of spoiled hay, and direct volunteers to enrich it with nitrogen. Now that’s what I call homestead compost.

raynette connelly
12/16/2011 7:39:09 PM

Composting is a weekly ritual my dogs and I have come to enjoy. But recently, I've hear that Oak leaves and some other types of leaves can stop my garden plants from growing. Is there any truth to that?

7/2/2010 8:20:50 PM

While watching my contractor dismantle my old, faded, dried out deck, making way for a brand new shiny one....a thought hit me. Those railings and handrails might make a pretty neat compost bin. As soon as the thought entered my mind, I heard my mouth tell the contractor, "Hey buddy, take those apart in one piece, please, I have a plan for them" Of course, he looked at me like I was a crazy woman. I had one continual side of railing about 12 feet long and several "single" sections of 4 foot long. Top railing, bottom railing and all the spindles in pretty good shape, however ugly. I started working my vision. I dug a trench and place the bottom railing below ground level. Next, I took four of the four foot sections and attached then to the back section to make two ends and then placed two spaced four feet apart, making three bins all 4ft x 4ft square. I took three other sections, the more rickety and "unusable" ones, and placed them on the ground, as a grating to keep most of the composting material a few inches off the ground. Next, using the leftover 4x4 posts, I placed one in front of the ends of the bins, just an inch or so from it, and slid the handrails through these, making a sliding front. This isn't the prettiest compost bin I've ever seen, but it is the biggest one, not to mention, FREE!! I save all my leaves from fall in big garbage bags, shredded, to add to the fresh grass clippings in summer. I shred all my bills and newspapers and throw in all kitchen scraps!!

michelle sarah leong
5/12/2010 10:42:39 PM

My fiance and I have created a compost bin out of a simple plastic container too! And we live in an apartment with no garden/backyard, so this is a great composting method for us. Do check out our composting experience which we record in detail: We welcome all feedback, advice and tips! :)

christy mcelligott_4
5/10/2010 7:43:03 AM

I have three horses and 12 chickens so I have a lot of manure to compost, as well as food and garden material. I saved panels from our old cedar picket fence (about 6' long and 5' tall) and made a three sided bin as wide as one panel and with four panels on each side. I used t-posts to hold them up, but plan to add wooden posts for more strength. I put the manure, bedding (pine wood pellets are MUCH better than shavings-- they absorb better and compost better) food, etc. in the bin near the front (closed) end, and keep stacking it and moving back down the length of the bin. After several months the oldest material has shrunk by half! I open the closed end and dig out several feet of compost (I wish I had a tractor and loader for this part!) and spread it on fields, dig it into a garden, or give it away. Then I close the front again, climb up the pile and pitch the material from the middle to the front and so forth working back until I have moved it all toward the closed end. (Good work out!) This stirs it somewhat and makes room for more fresh stuff in the back. This could be done on a smaller scale with wood pallets or hay/straw bales as the sides. I also put a tarp over the oldest material near the closed end to keep excess rain out. My chickens have access to the pile part of the day and get the extra seeds, bugs, etc. near the surface so flies don't get a chance to breed.

5/7/2010 5:25:21 PM

My main compost pile is inside a partial wall of concret blocks. I bury kitchen waste and just drop plant remains on top. Much of what I pull up I put in a large dark-colored trash can with a good top. I add a little water, leave it in the sun and put the compost on my pile from time to time. I use compost holes in my garden with old chicken wire fence around them and plant my tomatoes on the outside of the wire. I water the compost hole, the compost feeds them, the wire holds the vines up and I get lots of tomatoes until it gets too hot. WmG

5/7/2010 1:09:22 PM

Last year I started composting by throwing veggie peelings and old chicken bedding into a heap. Boy, what a mistake -- I attracted an entire family of hungry woodchucks! After they demo'd the pile, they attacked my cold frame. Because both the pile and the cold frame are located in the utilitarian section of our yard, I didn't notice anything was wrong until the Chucks found a weak spot in the fence around my veggie garden. I chased away the Chucks, reinforced the veggie garden fence and bought a huge indestructible plastic composter. Now the compost from last season is spread nicely on top of my veggie garden. And so far, no Chucks in sight!

barbara pleasant_3
5/7/2010 12:06:41 PM

Annie, emptying your kitchen canister daily will limit fruit flies in your house, but your outdoor composter needs attention. I suggest getting some natural fiber bedding at a pet store, and keeping it next to your composter, along with a scoop. Each time you dump your kitchen compost, sprinkle on a scoop or two of the woody stuff. This should give you better burial, and discourage flies who are looking for easy pickings. You may still see a few flying insects, because they are a natural part of the summer composting scene.

annie middleton
5/7/2010 11:08:01 AM

I live in a condo with limited patio space. Our composter breeds fruit flies by the thousands. So does our inside compost saver. Any suggestions?

carol _7
5/3/2010 10:37:51 PM

I'm fond of trench composting. We dig a trench 24" deep and as long as needed and fill with the bad apples from the apple trees. Cover with the dirt and whatever else. They'll rot. Tomatoes grow well there next year. :) Composting the bad apples in a regular pile draws raccoons and opossums and too many fruit flies for us.

knowing happiness
4/30/2010 2:57:15 PM

I found that attaching the compost piles (made of pallets tied together) to the chicken's run works very well. 1. More nitrogen in the finished compost 2. Something fun for the chickens to do 3. Less turning by hand, more turning by chicken foot They work for cheap too, eating all the bugs and worms that come along. I do have to have another compost pile for the coffee grounds and egg shells that I don't want the chickens to eat so yes, one compost project is never enough. You can see a picture of the set up at

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