Make a Compost Bin from a Trash Can

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PHOTO: JUDITH FEIGER
Bury a metal trash can to create a composter that is safe from bugs and rodents.

Flies, stray pets, and rats are attracted to compost piles
like mosquitoes to murky water . . . especially when the
rotting heap in question contains raw garbage. Fortunately,
we’ve never had a rat problem, but we used to be
troubled by all other kinds of pests whenever we put
kitchen wastes on our compost pile.

The heap itself consisted mainly of dried vegetation and
aged manure that’d been run through our shredder-grinder to
speed decomposition. And these
wastes–alone–didn’t draw many pests. Any time
we put fresh garbage on the mound, however, we
soon saw our backyard invaded by cats, dogs, and flies …
and the vastly increased “earthy” smell wrinkled our
neighbors’ noses.

At first, we attempted to remedy the situation by putting a
fence around the compost pile. This discouraged a few of
the smaller dogs in the neighborhood … but it did nothing
to eliminate the other pests (let alone the pungent odor).

We also tried burying the garbage in the pile … a
technique that took care of the flies, cats, and wrinkled
noses (and all but the hungriest hounds). I wasn’t fond of
having to dig into the compost every time I wanted to dump
my garbage, though, and the fence we’d erected earlier
didn’t make my shoveling any easier.

And then we visited my husband’s Uncle Byron (who happens
to be an avid organic gardener with more years of
experience than I have fingers and toes). And Uncle Byron
showed us how he turned garbage into fertilizer without
attracting vermin: He simply loaded his refuse into either
of two bottomless galvanized-steel trash cans which he’d
buried upright in the ground (only the tops of the cans
were visible).

“All I have to do is put my garbage in one trash can until
it begins to fill up,” Uncle Byron explained, “which
usually takes a few months. Then I start putting garbage in
the second barrel. By the time that container’s
full, the material in the first can has been converted to
compost and is ready to be used in the garden.”

Uncle Byron showed us the contents of the two buried trash
receptacles. One was filled with what looked–and
smelled–like fresh household garbage … while the
other contained beautiful, rich, humus-like material. Not
far away was a compost pile which–my husband’s uncle
told us–contained “digested refuse” from the second
can. It was completely pest- and odor-free.

Needless to say, when I got home I was anxious to try Uncle
Byron’s “double barrel” approach to composting. First, I
rounded up a pair of trash cans and made an opening in the
bottom of each. (The best way to do this is to have a
welder cut the entire bottom out with a torch.
Alternatively, several large punctures will suffice for
drainage purposes.) Then I buried the two barrels in the
ground, leaving just enough of their rims showing so that I
could fit snug lids on them (see photograph). And without
further adieu, I began to empty my kitchen garbage into one
of the two steel compost “Pits”.

The virtues of the new system were immediately apparent.
Cats, dogs, and flies were shut out … while odors were
shut in. At last, no more pests! Maggots did
appear once–after we put fish innards in the
can–but the heat generated by natural biodegradation
killed off the little varmints before they could develop
into adult flies. (Various “trash can” insecticides exist,
but I can see nothing to recommend them. And besides, even
though Maggots ARE repulsive I don’t mind them spending
their short lives working the soil in my subterranean
composter!)

It seemed like forever (actually, it was four months)
before that first small can was completely full. The
container might be brimming with garbage one day … and it
might be down to a third of that amount a few days later.
(in hot weather, the wastes seemed to “melt” like ice.)
Finally–when the barrel was nearly filled to
capacity, and stayed there–I mixed in a shovelful of
manure to help speed decomposition … then I closed the
lid tight and let nature take its course.

In the meantime, I started dumping garbage into the second
can. And–Sure enough–long before it was full,
the first container’s contents had turned into rich, black
compost, ready to be spread on the garden or used to
top-dress our flowering plants.

A bonus we hadn’t counted on, by the way, was
earthworms. The little squirmers were attracted to
the barrels in droves and–after coming in through the
openings in the cans’ bottoms–kept themselves busy
working the rotted garbage into a black, meal-like
fertilizer (which proved, once again, that worms are every
bit as much a blessing to gardeners as to fishermen).

We’re happy to report–thanks to our “underground
composter “–that we no longer have any problem with
pests, our neighbors never look at us with wrinkled noses
anymore, and we now have a garbage disposal that’ll never
choke on a bone or add a cent to our utility bill!