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Wonderful, Rotten Compost: An Introduction


Compost is nothing more than plant parts broken down by microorganisms into stuff that looks like soil. It’s the most natural, and the most common, recycling program on earth and it’s happening in your yard right now whether you do anything about it or not. In fact, here’s a case where benign neglect is half the battle. By allowing leaves to remain where they fall, you mimic nature’s own composting system whereby the leaves (called “duff” in a natural system) decay in place and the nutrients are returned directly to the plant in a perfect, elegant little loop. Nature doesn’t need you for this. Go back to your hammock.



Compare this with the really dumb conventional practice of raking everything up on Saturday morning, putting it in trash bags and sending it to the landfill. You’ve gotta ask, “Why are people doing this?” The truth is, they don’t know. Their fathers did it and their fathers’ fathers and so on, and without questioning they, too, take rake in hand as dutiful suburban homeowners and repeat this folly of middle-class wastefulness. See, that stuff is a resource, not a waste material. Where are you taking it?? It’s organic fertilizer waiting to go to work! When you throw it away and then have to bring in, at considerable expense, inferior nutrients in the form of chemical fertilizers, you’ve created several problems at once — the waste of a resource, the effort of removing it, the cost of disposing of it, the impact on landfills, the expense and effort of buying and applying fertilizer, the damage done to plants and soils by the harsh, salt-laden elements in the fertilizer and the loss of natural mulch on the soil surface. You’ve gone to a lot of work to make things worse.


So perhaps you could write this down and tape it to the wall in your toolshed, or maybe have it engraved into the handle of your leaf rake:




(Why do you think they CALL them leaves??)

That way, when guilt finally drives you out into the yard, the last thing you’ll be tempted to do is destroy the automatic composting system that’s under your shrubbery.



FIRE: Many people live in areas where wildfire is a concern. Naturally, the more dry stuff you have laying around when a fire comes, the greater risk that your house will burn down. Even if that doesn’t happen, the leaf litter will burn up under the plants and kill them by toasting off the bark; not a happy scenario. If you’re at a high risk for fire, keep leaf litter down to a minimum. Rake it up and use it to feed your compost pile, which is described below.

DISEASE: Certain diseases are made worse by allowing litter to collect under plants. For instance, Camellia petal blight is commoner when the fallen flower parts are allowed to remain on the ground. Some fruit tree and rose diseases are also spread this way. If you have susceptible plants, first ask yourself why, and remove them if you can’t come up with a good answer. If you decide they should stay, resign yourself to the constant chore of cleaning up after them.

VERMIN: People talk about how rats and other filthy creatures live in mulch, but I have never seen any evidence that this is actually true. I think it’s another urban myth that’s been passed along from generation to generation like the alligators in the sewers. The only critters I know of that like natural duff are beneficial ones — earthworms, soil bacteria, sowbugs and other members of the Leaf Reincarnation System.



What most people think of when they hear the word “compost” is a pile or bin of steaming yard waste out behind the garage. It conjures up images of long days spent turning it over and over with a rusty, hand-blistering pitchfork, watering it with gallons of sweat, being chased by clouds of irate fruit-flies and ending up with a puny pile of brown dirt that looks no different than something you could have swept up off the driveway.


WHY COMPOST? Compost seems like an act of penance, a virtuous undertaking whose reward may only come in another life. Compost seems like a sacred practice of the lost tribes, something “real” gardeners do, in private and for mysterious reasons only they understand and are sworn on penalty of death never to tell the rest of us. So why would the average gardener ever want to compost?


IT’S NEEDED ELSEWHERE. Sometimes the valuable nutrients and microorganisms that are tied up in compost are needed elsewhere in the yard: a newly-planted flowerbed for instance, or the veggie garden. Even lawns benefit from compost. In fact, by manufacturing and spreading compost in your yard, you greatly reduce the need for fertilizing, and your plants will respond miraculously to being composted. I have seen many plants come back from the nearly-dead within a few weeks after an application of compost over the root zone and a couple of good waterings. You know what those “real” gardeners say? They say, “You can never have too much compost.” They say this with great feeling and a sense of wistfulness because no gardener has ever even had enough compost. Like sex and money, we imagine that others are getting more than we are.


THE GREENWASTE LOOP. Even in the best-planned yard, there comes a time when there’s just too much foliage of one kind or another to leave laying around. When the hedges get trimmed, when the leaves drop in the fall, when the lawn gets mowed — all these events and more produce sudden pulses of biomass into the system. Since these cannot be ignored, and since it’s no longer acceptable to send them to the landfill, the compost pile serves a basic need. Composting keeps green material (too bad it’s been given the unfortunate name “greenwaste”) within the system of your yard by breaking it down into a usable form.


Composting will help you be a lazier gardener because it solves so many problems at once. Instead of hauling waste out and fertilizer in, you make and spread compost. Instead of nursing sickly plants that are suffering from a lack of decent nutrients, you enjoy the beauty of healthy plants that are more resistant to pests and diseases.


how hard is this going to be?

“OK, I’m convinced. I’ll compost, I’ll compost already!” you say, “But how hard is this going to be? I don’t know if I can do this.” Relax. Composting is a lot easier than you think. Imagine something that you make in less than an hour, then mostly ignore for a few weeks, then spend less than an hour with to harvest the end product. Isn’t that easier than what you’re doing now?


Perhaps you’ve read complex “recipes” for compost, involving exact percentages of different materials, compost starter inoculants, special herbs gathered by tribal virgins, ram’s horns passed over the pile by the light of the full moon, dust of alabaster, eye of newt and all that. Well, I’ve read those recipes, too, and met the wild-eyed zealots who advocate their use. Maybe they work, maybe they don’t. Personally, I would advise you to forget them. Stuff rots. If you follow a few basic principles, the stuff rots somewhat faster. That’s it. OK? Let’s do it, then…




50% green stuff (lawn clippings, fresh leaves, etc.)

50% brown stuff (wood chips, branches, decrepit lawn furniture)

0% animal products (meat, fat, chili con carne, fish heads, dear departed Aunt Millie)


shredder-grinder or chipper (optional)

compost enclosure or manufactured composter (optional)



1. CHOP IT UP. Make stuff smaller by shredding or chipping. Shredding is what you do with leaves; you use a shredder-grinder. Chipping is what you do with branches; you use a chipper and then visit the chiropractor the next day to have him stop your entire upper body from twitching uncontrollably. Your goal is to beat the material up as much as you can and make it as small as you can. This increases the surface area to make it more accessible to the microbes that are going to do the real work. In my own garden, I chop everything up into tiny pieces with my pruning shears. This is less work than it sounds like; I just stand there snipping away until it’s a trash can full of little pieces of my yard. It’s more peaceful than using a noisy machine and the pruning shears are cheaper and easier to maintain than the machine and they don’t burn gasoline and pollute the air like the machine. Plus I have an awesome right wrist. Want to arm-wrestle?


2. PICK A SPOT. Find a place that’s out of the way, since compost piles aren’t usually all that good-looking. If you do have any friends who are real gardeners, they will admire your compost pile (you might want to invite them over now and then just so this will happen). Others will ignore it or look alarmed as they pass by, as if you had just audibly broken wind. If you choose a shady location, then the pile won’t dry out as quickly and you’ll be able to work in the shade when the time comes to harvest the material. You can even compost over an area where you’re planning to plant a garden; you’ll have a head start on fertility that way because nutrients from the compost will leach out into the soil below.


3. PILE IT UP. You don’t need a fancy compost tumbler or bin. Do that if you want to. A pile is fine. Now, one thing that’s going to happen as soon as you make the pile is heat. The pile will heat up and you want that to happen. Heating is the first stage of the process, and starting temperatures inside the pile should reach around 140-150 degrees in order to kill as many weed seeds and pathogens as possible. If your pile is too small, it won’t heat properly. If it’s too big, it may overheat. The ideal size is 3 x 3 feet up to 5 feet tall by 8 feet long and wide.


Mix about half green material and half brown material. You can add a bit of soil, or manure or organic nitrogen fertilizer to speed the process up a bit. Don’t bother with the compost inoculants (also called “starters”) that are sold in nurseries and catalogs; all the bacteria you need for compost are already in your raw materials. Some people layer their materials, others mix them together. Be careful not to allow layers of grass clippings to form, as they’ll rot and smell really unforgettably bad, rather than quietly composting as you want them to. Also, don’t include weeds that have gone to seed, because many seeds remain viable despite the heat of the process, and so you’ll just spread them back into the yard later. Kitchen scraps are fine, but no meat, OK? No meat, no fat. Compost piles are vegetarians. Animals will eat the meat long before it ever has a chance to break down.


By the way, if your pile is open to the outside world, and if you don’t turn it regularly, mice and rats will come to live in it. This is not so good. So either make sure your bin is completely enclosed or turn your pile every few days. Keep in mind that mice and rats can get through even very teeny openings. I’ve been told that a rat can dislocate the major bones in its body, kind of like taking a snap-together model plastic skeleton apart, push them through a half-inch diameter hole one-by-one, and easily enter the forbidden lair of, in this case, your composting operation. Kind of gives me the creeps. My otherwise impenetrable recycled plastic bins are open at the bottom; I wrapped the bottoms with aviary wire, which is like chicken wire but with ½ inch diameter holes that the critters can’t pass through. I’ve had no intruders since then.


When your pile’s made, water it down real well to get things going. Covering it with a tarp helps hold the heat and moisture in.


Now go away and let the pile do your work for you.


4. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? The pile will begin to heat right away. Maybe steam will come off it for a couple of days. Keep it moist during this stage, and maybe turn it once or twice. Have fun pushing your hand inside (you can’t resist) to marvel at the amount of heat generated. (Be careful, though. It can be hot enough in the center to really burn you.)


After a while, the pile will cool down and you’ll notice how much smaller it has gotten. That’s the signal that the intense period is over and a long process of breakdown and curing has begun. If you turn the pile often, you could have ready compost in as little as a month. But what’s the rush? Lazy yards should have lazy compost. Turn it now and then if you think of it, and definitely keep it moist. Pull back the outer layer once in a while to see how the center’s doing. After a few months, you’ll find a big heap of delicious brown material inside, ready to be harvested.


5. GATHERING THE COMPOST. Perfectionists sift the finished compost before using it. It’s not a bad idea, especially if you’re incorporating it into the soil. There are always chunks of undecomposed material in the mix and they can be awkward to work with. But it’s perfectly OK to simply shovel the compost up and haul it away to be used. If you do sift, use an old nursery flat, the kind they sell ground covers in, as a sifter. It’s free.



Incorporating compost into flowerbeds and vegetable gardens will make a huge difference in the growth, vigor and productivity of the plants. You don’t need much; a half-inch layer dug into the top 6 inches of soil will do. Too much can actually stifle plant growth.


Spread compost in beds, under shrubs and trees, and even over the lawn. Water it in and stand back. Compost supplies everything your plants need and can be used in place of fertilizers. In some cases you may have special problems that need the addition of trace elements or other special treatment, but the compost will handle most of your plant nutrition.



You can also enlist worms to do your dirty work. A worm compost bin can be a simple box or a ready-made multi-tiered annelid apartment complex. Either way, the idea is that specially trained red worms gobble up your kitchen scraps and garden clippings, and quickly turn them into ultra-rich worm compost that’s laden with good things your garden needs. In fact, worm compost is even better for your garden than plain vanilla compost. If you want to learn more about worm composting, visit http://www.cityfarmer.org/wormcomp61.html or see a pretty cool video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjjuYNilM60.


Composting is easy and it’s an essential part of closing the nutrient loop. A sustainable garden isn’t complete without some kind of composting system. Have fun with yours.