Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Want to cut down your garbage production AND improve your garden soil at the same time? Start composting! I wanted a compost box for many years before I actually got one. While waiting, I did a lot of research. All those pamphlets and garden books made composting look a little more complicated than I had anticipated.

Well, a working compost box or pile is NOT difficult to construct. The very simplest way to compost is to pick an out-of-the-way location in your yard and start dumping your lawn and vegetable trash in that spot. It's that simple. If you want something a little fancier, you can actually build a box to contain the compost. A friend built his rectangular compost box out of cinder blocks, stacked about three blocks high, with a wire mesh lid to keep varmints from digging through the contents. My compost box is constructed of four wooden pallets, wired together at the corners. (You can catch a glimpse of my fancy-shmancy compost box in the photos below.) I've also seen compost bins made of a length of steel fence wire fastened end-to-end in a circle/cylinder. Materials, construction, and size are entirely up to you.

What goes into the compost box/pile? Lawn litter - grass clippings, leaves, etc. Also, uncooked vegetable waste - potato peels, melon rinds, apple cores, corn shucks...you get the idea. Coffee grounds, tea leaves, and egg shells make great compost, too. I keep a gallon ice-cream bucket in the kitchen, into which I dump vegetable waste. This is taken out and dumped in the compost box each day during evening chores. This year, I've started adding shredded paper from Steve's office files as well. Ben adds his own special ingredient - chicken manure - when he cleans out the hen house. DO NOT add scraps of cooked foods or anything with fat,grease, or meat scraps in it. Blech!

Here is a picture of "compost" going INTO our box:

Let's see...eggplant peels, egg shells, shredded paper, grass clippings, asparagus stems, tea leaves. Looks delicious!

Contrary to the claims of most instruction manuals, you do NOT have to turn/stir, aerate, or water the compost (unless you live in a desert, perhaps), although doing these things will help the compost break down more quickly. But who's in a hurry, right? Really, given time this stuff will break down on its own. By the end of summer, my hip-high box is full to the brim with garden and yard litter. By the next spring, when I'm ready to come out of winter hibernation and start working in the yard and garden, everything has broken down into a relatively small pile of rich, black compost.

Here's a picture of compost coming OUT of the box:

This stuff is black gold. Any time I plant new flowers or trees or shrubs, I always work some compost into the soil at the planting site first. I dump a shovel full of compost into each hole when I'm planting tomatoes. The kids help me spread compost on the ground around established plants to give them a nutrition boost, too. The compost adds nutrients to the soil and helps loosen the soil for better water absorption and root development.

Here, Reuben has dumped a shovelful of compost at the base of one of our tomato plants. He'll probably give each plant a couple more "doses" throughout the growing season. Then in the fall, the tomato plants themselves will be pulled up and hauled to the compost box, where they will begin transforming into fertilizer for next year's garden.

We eat a lot of fresh produce in the summer - corn on the cob, canteloupe, green beans, peas, cucumbers, squash. That means we make a lot of vegetable trash - shucks and rinds and peels. We also generate a good deal of yard and garden litter, from mowing the grass, pulling up spent bean vines, etc. By toting these items to the compost box, we greatly reduce the amount of garbage that must be bagged and hauled to the bin (& eventually to the landfill). We transform something bad - garbage that must be trucked to the dump - into something good - rich compost for the garden and yard.
A few final thoughts: some folks have asked if compost smells bad. We don't want a stinky pile of rotting garbage in the back yard, now do we? Well, my experience has been that compost does NOT smell bad. Maybe because there are no oil or fat or animal products in the mix - nothing to turn rancid and smell rotten. When you walk through the woods in late fall and kick through the decomposing leaves, you notice an earthy smell. Well, that's compost, and that's what compost smells like.
Also, wouldn't compost attract vermin? I mentioned my friend's compost box, which he constructed with a wire lid for keeping critters out of the compost. If you're concerned about attracting raccoons or such, a lid might be a good idea. We live out in the boonies, and haven't had any problem with animals getting into the compost box, maybe because they have so much room and food at their disposal out on the farm! The chickens will occasionally hop into the box if they spy something tasty between the slats, but I don't begrudge them that privilege since they make their own contribution to the compost.
Composting is extremely easy. It's earth friendly. And, it's fun. Well, maybe not fun, but I sure get excited about the black gold I've collected come spring planting time! Got any questions? Send me a note. Otherwise, go get started on your compost box!


Jenny said...

"Go get started on your own compost box!"

"Get your own tots!"

LOL! But seriously, I was thinking....the former owners left TWO trash bins here. One is the company we decided to use. The other company has been bought out by someone else. Would an enclosed tub like this work?

Camille said...

Hi, Jenny!
Your extra trash bin would make a super compost bin. You'll need to drill holes in it to allow air inside - this is necessary for decomposition. Also, if you add a lot of "juicy" vegetable/fruit matter, add some grass clippings, leaves, or shredded paper to absorb the extra moisture. This will keep your bin from getting stinky. I found this great site that tells how to build a compost bin out of a plastic tub (the kind you get to store winter clothes in, etc.), and it could be adapted for your trash bin.


Camille said...

Okay, that link was truncated in the last comment. Let's try again! Go to www.organicgardening.about.com and click on the tab labeled "Compost" - lots of really good ideas!

Jenny said...

Thanks so much! I guess I'd better be sure that the new company doesn't want the old can back before I drill holes. LOL!