Starting a Compost Pile or Worm Bin

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Photo by Judy White/
A log bin isn't strictly necessary when starting a compost pile, but it will allow for air circulation.

Compost helps plants grow better by improving the soil’s structure and water-holding capacity, and by increasing the supply of nutrients the soil provides for your plants. Regular applications of compost also help prevent plant diseases by making your plants healthier.

Starting a Compost Pile

1. Set a commercial or homemade composter on the ground in an easily accessible place. For a simple and inexpensive open bin, make a circle about 3 or 4 feet in diameter out of 3-to-4-foot-high welded wire or plastic garden fencing.

2. Add ingredients. Place a 4 inch layer of stemmy plants, sticks, or other coarse material in the bottom of the bin. As they become available, add kitchen wastes, dead plants, grass clippings and chopped leaves to the bin. Add water as often as needed to keep the material moist but not soggy (like a wrung-out sponge).

3. Turning the pile is helpful but optional. If you choose to turn, lift off the composter or bin and set it next to the pile. Then use a pitchfork to move the pile back into the composter.

4. The compost is ready to use when you can no longer recognize the original ingredients. Until you use it in your garden, keep your finished compost covered to prevent rain from leaching out nutrients.

Good Compost Ingredients:
Leaves, hay and other dead plant material
Fruit and vegetable trimmings
Herbicide-free grass clippings
Manure from horses, cattle, goats, poultry and rabbits
Paper or cardboard, torn into strips or hand-sized pieces 

Do NOT Add:
Meat scraps
Very fatty, sugary or salty foods
Chips or sawdust from treated wood
Clippings from herbicide-treated lawns
Manure from omnivorous animals (dogs, cats, humans, etc.) 

Compost Troubleshooting 

  • Bad odors are a sign that the heap is too wet or contains excessive green material. Turn to mix in air, and add more dry material.
  • Maggots are the larvae of various flies; many are beneficial insects. If you want to minimize egg-laying by flies, keep fresh kitchen trimmings buried.
  • Ants are a sign that the material is too dry. Add water, and cover the heap with straw, grass clippings or a piece of cloth to help it retain moisture.

Composting With Worms

Many people with limited yard space do their composting indoors by starting a worm bin. Worms kept in a vermicompost bin are the quietest, least demanding pets you will ever have. Aspiring vermicomposters are instructed to purchase a starter herd of red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), a species well suited to the mission and conditions in contained bins. But unless you live in a place with few or no earthworms you can simply practice “catch-and-release” vermicomposting. In fall, gently dig into the outdoor bin or composter where you’ve been putting vegetable and fruit scraps, and you will likely find a generous supply of red worms or a similar species that has a natural appetite for compostable tidbits. Catch a few dozen worms and release them to an indoor bin, and you’re in business.

Easy Vermicomposting
1. You can buy a specially designed bin for worm composting, or make your own by drilling about 30 holes around all sides of a 10- to 15-gallon plastic storage bin to let in oxygen.

2. Fill the bin half full with damp newspaper and/or unwaxed cardboard, torn into small pieces. Add 1 pint gritty soil (worms have gizzards, like chickens, to help them “chew” their food), 1 pint compost, and 1 cup plain cornmeal. Mix and dampen well.

3. Add worms and secure the lid. Keep in a cool place, such as a basement, where temperatures range between 55 and 75 degrees.

4. When adding food scraps, bury them in different parts of the bin. Cover them with 1 inch of bedding.

5. To harvest vermicompost, scoop out several handfuls of material from the bottom of the bin. Place the material in a cone-shaped pile in a bucket, and put it in a brightly lit place. After two hours, the worms will have moved to the bottom, and you can pick up the top two-thirds of the material. Return the worms to the bin, or release them to an outdoor compost pile.

Good Additions to Your Vermicompost Bin:
Fruit and vegetable trimmings, cut into small pieces
Grains (breads, cereals, rice)
Green grass clippings in small amounts
Coffee grounds with paper filters
Whole tea bags
Waste paper, torn into small pieces and moistened 

Undesirable Additions:
Slow-rotting foods such as citrus peels
Spicy peppers or pungent onions
Meat scraps
Oily or greasy foods
Very sugary or salty foods 

Vermicompost Troubleshooting 

  • Cover new materials to prevent fungus gnats and fruit flies from feeding on rotting vegetation. If gnats are present when you open the lid, collect them with a vacuum cleaner. Larvae can be collected from cubes of raw potato placed near the surface for 48 hours (throw the used potato baits into your outdoor heap).
  • Potworms are tiny white worms that sometimes appear in large numbers after new bedding is added. They will not hurt your vermicompost.
  • Runaway worms attempting to leave the bin are a sign of overpopulation or overly wet conditions. Add more dry bedding, or release some worms into your garden.

To Learn More

Worms Eat My Garbage
by Mary Appelhof

Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator: Edible Essays on City Farming
by Spring Gillard

Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.