Compost Awareness Week 2010: Composting Outside the Bin


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.

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! :)

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