GARDEN TIP: Composting

My compost bin

Now that you have plotted your spring garden and determined what seeds should go on your shopping list, I want to suggest composting.

After three years of playing with a small veggie plot and learning a lot of things the hard way, I got really serious about food production in spring 2011 with a newly tilled 12×28 plot. I also decided I had to have a compost bin because good soil is the number one necessity for organic gardeners. Traditional bins running upwards of $200 were beyond my psychological limit so I headed to YouTube. I watched several videos and settled on P. Allen Smith’s compost trash can as my plan.

After purchasing a 20 gallon plastic trash can, Poppie helped me drill holes in it just as P. Allen Smith had done. I used a bungee cord from handle to handle to keep ‘possums and ‘coons out of it. The obvious is never obvious to me and when the bungee cord didn’t fit exactly right, Momma and Poppie had to tell me to tie a knot in it. Do you know how many years it would have taken me to figure that out on my own? Sometimes Evie is right. I am SO stoopit.

I had studied composting books and learned that my compost bin needed a mix of browns and greens and it needed to be watered from time to time. I filled it up, gave it a squirt of water and waited.

Mostly, it sat there and did nothing. A ghastly assortment of critters that would have sent the bug averse screaming towards the next county had taken up residence. I didn’t see any worms, though, so I was okay with it.

I did not get rich, crumbly black gold in 8 or even 12 weeks as promised by P. Allen Smith. Maybe a compost scientist can get compost in 8 weeks but the rest of us? I’m skeptical. Still, I refused to give up. After three months, I dumped the whole mess out on an old plastic shower curtain and managed to scrape a shovelful from the bottom. One.

I think the biggest mistake I made was over-stuffing it in late August with the spent plants of pinkeye purple hull peas without cutting them up into small pieces. It took the critters more than five months to break that down enough for me to add new kitchen scraps to the bin. I had to revert to throwing my veggie peels out the back door in the azalea bed. I refused to throw anything in the kitchen garbage pail that held the promise of becoming dirt.

I now cut everything up into two inch chunks. I also made a mental note of the Worm Lady’s instruction to her vermicomposting students on the contents of their worm bins. She had them start with shredded newspaper. That’s probably the first thing I would put in my compost bin if I were starting from scratch.

Other things you can cut up and add to your compost trash bin are paper towel and toilet cardboard rolls, coffee grounds and tea bags, grass clippings and garden waste (except diseased), leaves, straw, nut shells, eggshells (toss them in a grocery bag, throw a towel over the bag and beat the living daylights out of it), and all manner of itty bitty kitchen scraps – bread, cabbage, celery, cores, peels, stems, pineapple husks, cantaloupe and watermelon rinds. Some sources have even suggested seaweed and kelp, aged manure, wood chips, branches, twigs and brush. No meat or fats.

If it stinks, it’s probably too wet, needs to be fluffed for air circulation, and more browns added to counteract high levels of nitrogen. If nothin’s happenin’, add more kitchen scraps, grass clippings, water and fluff it. Kitchen scraps of the green kind really seem to excite my compost residents.

One of the most annoying aspects of composting is getting your materials into the compost bin. I’ve experimented with several in-house storage systems, all of them plastic, bargain basement versions of the stainless steel kitchen composter.  I found myself making numerous trips to the compost bin rather than have the stuff yuk-out in the house. This means I am encountering those swarms of flying gnat-like things every time I open the lid on my compost bin. Agggh! They fly up your nose, in  your ear and you’d better keep your lips tightly shut! Wes Spence (Letters to the Editor, Organic Gardening, Feb./Mar. 2012 issue) offered an idea that I had begun to think about. His family collects compostable materials in a container in the freezer door. He claims that freezing compost material helps it break down more quickly. Far from being a mad scientist, I’ll take his word for it but I tell you what, after reading his letter, I stopped thinking about the freezer baggie plan and put it into action. This might prove the best solution because it doesn’t take up precious counter space.

Start thinking twice about what you are throwing in your kitchen garbage pail. Can it go in the composter? Can you run printer paper, envelopes and grocery lists through a shredder for the composter? Are you tossing the pulp from your juicer in the composter?

Pick up a trash can or two, and a bungie cord, while you are in the store getting your spring seeds. Another possibility are food grade 55 gallon drums, metal or plastic. I can get them for $20 in my city but would probably have trouble tumping them over to roll for mixing the compost. Still, the idea of $20 for 55 gallons over $15 for a 20 gallon trash can intrigues my frugal wallet. All you have to do to find them is plug into your browser the name of your city/state + food grade drums.

7 thoughts on “GARDEN TIP: Composting”

  1. You cut everything into 2 inch chunks… Really?
    I could see running stuff through one of those chippers that you see in the horror movies… maybe…

    How I compost

    Composting is a natural process, the stuff breaks down when it gets ready. Most of my soil amendments come from the stable, and every year or so, I may throw the top layers off my pile and get a truckload or so of nice fluffy compost… Nice stuff for starting seeds in, but not really enough for much… I’ve never understood those people that suggested they could get enough compost from their piles to garden with… And trying to get the pile to heat up? Waste… that heat burns up a lot of your material… cold composting results in a lot more product!

    1. Yeah, really, I cut everything into 2 inch chunks. My Dad has one of those horror movie chippers but I haven’t been able to get him to crank it up. The thing terrifies me. So I’m not composting limbs, pine cones or other useful stuff from the yard. I never heard of cold composting. Dad had a pile like yours one time but it had a lot of corn stalks in it and was too heavy to turn. Took forever to break down. You have a stable? With POOP? Send me some poop when you get ready to ship the cat down here for grasshopper snacks. Love the cat. Saw his/her pic next to the compost pile. Reminds me of my beloved snowshoe Siamese who has gone to kitty heaven. –Mizz Chairman

  2. Over the last three years that I have been composting, I have learned a lot. i do cold compost (wish it heated up enough to get rid of some of those seeds, but I haven’t got the hang of it). So, it usually takes about a year for mine to break down into compost. This last pile did horribly – but I didn’t pay much attention to the ratio. 🙁 Live and learn! I like your idea of using trash bins. And the idea of putting things in the freezer is a good one, too. The video works just fine here!

    1. Holleygarden — Did you see what Stone said? He cold composts, too. It’s been a while since I did my compost research and I don’t remember that term being used. I went the trash can route because I didn’t want unsightly piles and I wasn’t going to pile it in the woods because I’m staying out of the woods. Snakes! They are the adult cousins of worms, iffn you ask me. –Mizz Chairman

  3. I don’t know much about composting, but I seem to recall from my reading that you are supposed to turn that stuff every couple of months to encourage the decomposition of ingredients. As for the gnats that fly in your face when you open the lid – why don’t you wear a surgical or dust mask? Oh and thanks for the reminder that it is time to start my seeds. Ms. Priss

    1. Ms. Priss — You are absolutely right that I am supposed to roll my trash can composter on the ground to stir up the compost. I have found the lid wants to come off and the stuff is heavy, anyway, so I just don’t. What I do, instead, is periodically turn the whole shebang out onto an old shower curtain liner to rearrange and relayer the contents of the can. The surgical/dust mask wouldn’t really be sufficient. I need one of those beekeeper hats with the veil. –Mizz Chairman

Say something, will you? Your comment will appear after it is approved.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.