Composting And Compost Bin Designs
By Kenny Coogan
With spring cleaning behind us, it is time to start the odd jobs of summer. Composting is a fundamental aspect of homesteading and is a perfect project to start now. Learning how to make compost not only allows you to reduce your mainstream waste flow but helps enrich your soil, which will enhance your livestock and food crops.
Some Assembly Required
It probably won’t matter if you purchase your composting unit at a big box store, or if you start with scrap pieces — you are still going to have to assemble something. Out of all the different units I have on my property, the best composter was free and built out of pallets.
“The Cadillac of composting,” Steve Allgeier says, “is a three-bin system where you have three different layers.” Allgeier is a Home Horticulture Consultant and Master Gardener Coordinator for the University of Maryland Extension office.
Dr. Joseph Masabni, who has been gardening for about 20 years both as a hobbyist and professionally as an Extension Vegetable Specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, agrees. “Three bins are needed ideally, each 3- by 3-feet. One for storing new material, a second for cooking the material, the third for storing the finished compost,” Masabni says.
The classic three-bin system can be easily built with pallets. Although there is no standard dimensions for pallets, a total of nine free pallets, which can be found at numerous feed and grocery stores, will allow you to create a large enough structure to delight even the most enthusiastic homesteaders. Most pallets that can be found at grocery stores are 40-inch squares. With your nine free pallets, you will want to build three cubes, side by side with open tops and bottoms. Having the bottom open will allow beneficial organisms easy access to start their decomposing jobs.
Since the cubes are next to each other, cubes that are adjacent to one another can share a pallet as a side. For the front of your compost bin, you can cut your ninth pallet in thirds. Using one third for each of cube’s front will allow easy access for turning the piles. Having a small lip on the front will also help keep the composting material in your allotted area.
“There are several different ways to compost,” Allgeier reminds me. At my home, I have a compost bin that consists of four uncut pallets. The top and bottom are open, like the suggested plan, but I have added a hinge to one of the sides. When I open the door, I can turn the pile to provide sufficient aeration. Although many times, the pile starts to fall out of the container when I do this. It then becomes difficult to push it back in far enough to close the door. The other slight problem with this is that it can be challenging to separate the rich hummus from the newly added materials.
“I tell people don’t become enamored with the sexy small composting units,” Allgeier says. “There are a lot of them sold out there, but the big disappoint is the amount of work you put into it and what you get out of them.”
Some of the better store-bought compost bin designs include those that spin. Much like fruit trees, greenhouses, and chicken coops, the largest one you can currently afford is the right choice for you. Compost bins that spin have the advantage of not needing to be aerated by using a pitchfork or shovel.
The best location for a compost bin is an easily accessible one. If it is out of sight, out of mind, and out of use, then why bother? My property, which is a little larger than one acre, has a lot of shade. Due to the shade, I have my edible gardens scattered amongst the sunny patches of my property. At each garden, I have a compost bin. Although these bins are away from my kitchen and backdoor, once the compost is ready, it is easy to apply the “black gold.” One of my gardens has a banana tree located about six feet away from the bin. It is the largest of all of my banana trees and grows with the most vigor. The banana tree most likely has a few roots under the compost bin. Convenience is key when it comes to compost placement — even my plants agree.
How it Works
“The compost works in a simple process,” Masabni says. “The microorganisms found in the soil, on the plants, or in nature break down the raw material to a mature compost to be used as a slow release food source for plants,” he adds. Compost improves a soil’s physical structure making it easier to till. Masabni also notes that compost can improve the chemical structures that buffer the potentially harmful effects of salts. Another benefit is that “compost improves the water holding capacity in the soil,” Masabni says.
“Composting is a way to accelerate a natural process of decomposition,” Allgeiger says. Mulch, yard and kitchen waste gets turned into hummus through composting, which can be turned into the soil. By working with the natural organisms and allowing sufficient air and water into the system, you can speed up the natural process of decomposition. You should turn it weekly during the warm season and monthly during the winter.
The ideal composting conditions will vary depending on where you live in the county. On average you will want to: use 25-to-1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratios; keep 40 to 45 percent moisture; maintain sufficient depth of material to help generate microbial heat (140°F to 160°F), and turn the materials weekly for aeration.
According to the Washington State University County Extension, variations in moisture content between 30 and 75 percent will have a small effect on the maximum temperature in the interior of the pile. The compost pile’s moisture should feel like a wrung-out sponge. Studies show an association between the moisture content of the composting pile and the temperature distribution. Deeper piles cause higher temperatures and better temperature distribution.
When internal compost temperatures drop under 130 degrees F, eggs and cysts of flies and parasites will start to increase. Temperatures over 160 degrees F do not promote organisms that actively help with decomposition. Compost thermometers can be found at most extension offices or home improvement store.
What not to Add
“Human and animal waste, pet litter, also common sense stuff like automotive waste, cleaning solvents, and things with fats, are not good for your compost pile,” Allgeier says. Fats can draw unwanted critters. “Not just animal fats, but also salad dressings, sour creams, and peanut butter,” he added.
Masabni also recommends not using items that may have residual pesticides or herbicides. “Do not add horse or cow manure unless you know the source of the hay,” Masabni advises, as hay can contain herbicides containing aminopyralid or similar, toxic products. Other items to keep out of the compost pile include animal products such as dairy, egg yolk or whites, meat scraps, bones, used oil or fats. Placing diseased plants in a compost bin is controversial, with many homeowners choosing to not take the risk.
What to Add
Carbon: (20-30 Parts)
“Brown,” dry materials
Straw & spoiled hay
Nitrogen: (1 Part)
“Green,” wet materials
Allgeier also has noticed that there is an old wives tale that says to add wood ash to compost bins. This actually retards the composting process, he warns. “Adding something that is not digestible,” Allgeier says, “and that changes the pH of the pile, which will slow down the microbes,” is no good.
You’ve Got Gold! (Black Gold)
“The finished compost will be dark brown, crumbly, and have an earthy smell,” Masabni says. He also says that it will no longer heat up when you turn it. “A finished compost should look like the potting mix you find in bags sold in garden centers for planting,” he says.
“I generally look at temperature,” Allgeier says in regards to when it is ready. “What I mean by that is when you first start composting it is surprising how much heat it gives off.” He says it is akin to driving past mulch piles in the winter and seeing them give off steam.
In addition to being used for the fruit and vegetable gardens, compost can “also be used in raised beds planted with ornamental flowers or rose bushes,” Masabni says. Compost can also be used in pots or container boxes. “In brief, you can use compost anywhere you want to plant,” Masabni says.
Learning how to compost at home and creating compost promotes healthy soil life and organisms, increases water and nutrient retention. With no money, a basic compost bin design, and a little time and energy, you can start composting today and your garden will reap the benefits tomorrow.
Solanums in the Summertime
It’s not too late to have a great looking summer garden. May and June are ideal times for starting gardens. By late May, most regions of the continental United States are frost-free or nearly so. This means that warm season vegetables that we all enjoy so much can be planted. Check with your local cooperative extension office for specific gardening tips in your area.
With so many growing zones in the U.S., it’s hard to pick the best May and June crops to plant. Aside from the common tomato and pepper, there are some unique summertime Solanum family edibles that will make your kitchen tables burst with bold colors and flavors.
Bad odor: Add carbon such as leaves, wood chips, cornstalks, soy-based newsprint/snail mail.
Compost is moist and hot only in the center: Too small: add more materials, like above.
An excessive amount of flies: Aerate pile to bury kitchen wastes. Insect life is a sign of a productive compost.
Large pieces not decomposing: Pile may be too small. Remove items and cut or shred before adding.
Not hot enough: Too small: add volume to increase the size of the pile, water to promote organisms, nitrogen for them to feed on and air to start the aerobic breakdown OR compost may be finished.
Pile is warmer than 160 degrees F: Not enough air and carbon. Rotate pile and mix in carbons.
Vermin: Remove fat items such as meat, animal by-products.
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.
Kenny Coogan, CPBT-KA has a B.S. in animal behavior. He is a pet columnist and a regular contributor to Backyard Poultry and garden magazines. He has authored a children’s book titled “A Tenrec Named Trey (And other odd lettered animals that like to play).” Please search “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook to learn more.