What You Need
A compost pile usually stays where it is placed for years, so it’s a good idea to place it with some care. If you are building a conventional pile, make sure that it’s close enough to the house so that carrying out kitchen scraps doesn’t become so much of a chore that you quit doing it. Actually being able to see the pile from the house means that you’ll know if and when marauders are getting into it. And if a dog is the culprit, you’ll be able to see which of the neighborhood critters is to blame, without having to stake out your own back yard.
On the other hand, since most piles aren’t known for adding aesthetic value to a view, it’s usually best to place them off to the side or tucked out of the way, rather than where they’ll dominate the view from your living room windows.
Choosing a site that doesn’t dominate anyone else’s view can help ensure that neighbors remain on speaking terms with each other. Compost piles have strained relations between more than one set of neighbors. When the disputes aren’t over what the pile looks like, they’re usually over what it smells like. Maintaining the pile well enough to ensure that it doesn’t start to stink is just common courtesy.
Since compost may need occasional watering, it should be near a water source. On the other hand, heavy rains can wash nutrients right out of it, so if you’re not planning to cover it, try to situate it under a tree so that it’s protected from all but the worst deluges.
Whether to place your compost in the sun or not depends on what kind of bin or system you use. Open-air bins do better in the shade because direct sunshine can dry them out quickly. The aerobic composting process generally provides all the heat they need. On the other hand, enclosed bins are protected from evaporation, and the slower anaerobic ones, in particular, get a real boost from the heat of the sun.
A Container or Bin (if you want one)
This may seem obvious, but make sure your compost bin, if you plan to use one, is ready before you want to build the pile.
Log Cabin: A simple one-bin system consists of 4 x 4s laid down like logs in a log cabin. Since their ends aren’t fitted, their sides are relatively open, ensuring good air-flow. When it’s time to remove some compost, the bottom board can be pulled out and bricks pushed in its place at the ends to support the other boards. This leaves space at the bottom through which to extract the finished compost.
Chicken-Wire Bins: These bins can be square, round, hexagonal, whatever. Some have wooden frames, some don’t. These are usually light enough so that when it’s turning time, you can just lift the bin up off the pile, set the bin down, and fork the pile back in.
The Basic Two-Compartment System:
Building a Basic Bin
This is actually a two-compartment bin, and one of the simplest to build and maintain.
Get yourself some chicken wire — about twenty-four feet of it, three feet high — and six two-by-fours. These, plus some wood staples, are all you need to build a very basic compost bin with two 4 x 4 compartments. If that’s too big for the available space, you can go down to 3 x 3, but below that the piles will be too small to compost efficiently, and it’s better to go to a one-bin system.
Build a basic frame out of the 2 x 4s — 8′ lengths for the sides, 4′ for the ends if you plan to sink them, 3′ 3″ if you don’t. Nails are fine for this job. A 3′ 3″ upright in the middle of the long sides, added on the inside after the chicken wire has been tacked down, provides both added stability and the basis for a divider.
The corner posts should be slightly longer than the chicken wire is wide, so that the wire reaches from the middle of the top 2 x 4 to the middle of the bottom one. You don’t want the wire ends sticking past the wood — especially on top, where they can snag your clothing and skin.
Build the long sides first, nailing the bottom crosspieces 9″ above the bottom of the posts. Dig 9″ deep holes for the posts, then set them in place with the horizontal pieces on the inside so that you’re not trying to bend chicken wire around the posts. Nail the end cross-pieces to the outsides of the posts, connecting the sides. If you don’t sink the posts, cut them shorter and nail a 2 x 4 at a diagonal across one or both of the ends for stability.
Set the roll of chicken wire inside near one corner and staple the end to the top 2 x 4, then work down the post to the bottom. Starting at the top ensures that the wire ends won’t stick up above the frame. (This may well be easier from inside, unless you have very long arms.) Unroll the wire along the side of the frame, tacking it down as you go.
Add a 2 x 2 in the middle of each long side, and if desired, nail boards to connect these two uprights, one on each side of the 2 x 2, about a foot up from the bottom. This slot can hold boards to divide the bin into two compartments. It’s also possible to do without the slot as the composting material in the bins will support the dividing boards.
When you’re done, you’re done.
If the wire ends present a problem, nail a thin piece of wood over them.
Angled Boards: An innovative system adapted from one on the market consists of 4 x 4 posts sunk about a foot into the earth for stability and outfitted on their two outside surfaces with 8″ bolts driven into the wood at intervals and at a downward angle. These bolts support wooden boards which can be easily removed when it’s time to turn the pile. For greater stability, sides and back can be outfitted with horizontal boards joining the corner posts, both at ground level and at the top of the posts.
Unlike most bins, this one provides free access to the pile when it’s time to turn it. No reaching over the top to get at the compost.
This design can be easily adapted to a one, two, or three-compartment bin. It’s also possible to put angled boards on the front portion of a chicken-wire bin.
The Three-Compartment Bin: Left to its own devices, compost takes about a year to fully mature, so for composters who don’t want to bother with turning or tending hot piles, the three-compartment bin makes life sublimely easy. Bin #1, let’s say, receives waste, bin #2 holds last year’s waste, which is gradually decaying, and #3 holds finished compost.
Fall is turn-over time. Say you’ve been adding refuse to bin #1 all year, and using the compost in #3. Bin #2 has stayed closed all year. Come fall, all the autumn refuse, or as much as possible, goes into the “add-to” bin, #1, where you’ve been putting garbage for a year. When it’s full, you sprinkle some finished compost on top and close the lid. That lid will stay closed for a year.
Then you empty bin #3 of the last bit of that year’s supply of finished compost, spreading it on the garden where worms and other soil organisms can start working on it that autumn and again in early spring. This empty bin becomes the year’s add-to pile. If there’s too much fall refuse to fit into bin #1, it becomes the first layer in #3. Throughout the winter, and all the next spring, summer, and fall, all yard refuse and compostable table scraps go into bin #3.
In the meantime, you’ve opened up bin #2, which has been closed for a year, and holds plenty of compost with which to finish the fall soil amendments. So now the add-to pile is in Bin #3, finished compost is in bin #2, while bin #1 is composting.
What’s on the Market
There are dozens, if not hundreds of composters on the market, which run the gamut from simple plastic rectangles to high-tech rotating barrels with baffles inside to ensure that the mixture gets thoroughly stirred.
They offer, in general, easier access and easier aeration than homemade bins do. Tumblers, for instance, usually consist of some form of barrel mounted on a spindle and outfitted with a handle. Turning the handle turns the barrel, mixing, tumbling, and aerating the contents. Tumblers usually raise the barrel up off the ground, which means less stooping. Many commercial composters also have trays or doors at the bottom so that one can remove finished compost without emptying the entire drum. Most are entirely enclosed systems, which means that insects, rodents, birds, and others cannot reach the pile.
Perhaps the simplest of commercial bins resemble square garbage pails: you put yard and food waste in at the top, and eventually pull finished compost out the bottom. The bins offer a neat look, protection from animals, and fair insect and odor control.
However, because they’re enclosed, they do not always aerate as well as home systems; and since most are small, they’re not always designed for hot composting. Turning them, even if you supposedly don’t need to, will help avoid anaerobic conditions, and will encourage a hot pile.
If you’re a gardener, you already own most of the compost tools you need. Indeed, only three things mentioned here pertain purely to composting — a compost thermometer, an aerator, and a screen — and a lot of people get by without any of these. This list of tools, then, is meant to be more suggestive than anything; it’s a look at what others in the business have found helpful.
A note about the first item: Food scraps make up over 12% of municipal garbage in the United States today. Unlike our yard waste, very little of our food waste gets composted. Instead, most of it goes to landfills where it decomposes anaerobically, forming the dangerous greenhouse gas, methane.
Even people who compost yard waste often find it too much of a chore to haul their kitchen scraps out to the heap. Yet this stuff that clogs landfills boosts compost heaps, adding valuable nitrogen to the mix. Setting up a workable system is clearly essential for moving kitchen waste out of the landfill and into the compost heap.
Receptacle for Collecting Kitchen Garbage
The centerpiece of food composting is a mid-size receptacle for collecting kitchen waste (it should hold about a gallon, or a liter and a half). Some people use a large plastic ice-cream tub, complete with lid, but such closed receptacles encourage anaerobic decay with all its attendant bad smells. If it’s emptied daily, though, anaerobic micro-organisms won’t have a chance to get started, even in a closed receptacle.
Any open receptacle can be used to collect food scraps, and if you’re keeping it out of sight (under the kitchen sink is probably the most popular place), a large bowl or old pot works just fine. Fresh vegetable and fruit scraps won’t smell unless they sit out for over a week, as long as they’re in an open container. It’s best to empty the container every two to three days, however. During fruit-fly season, the open container can become a problem, but some netting over the bowl, together with more frequent trips to the heap, will keep the problem under control.
In winter, the container can be emptied into a pail kept on a back porch or entry way where temperatures are low and decay slow. This pail need only be emptied once a week or so, whenever it gets full. This system cuts back on those cold winter trips to the compost heap.
Many people find it handiest to keep their compost container on the counter. At that point, they often want something better looking than an old bowl full of garbage. Several attractive compost pails are now available for this purpose.
The one-gallon Kitchen Compost Crock is easy to clean, but you can also use it with biodegradable bags which can be tossed into the compost heap along with their contents. These bags have the added advantage of making it unnecessary to haul the whole crock out to the heap. (It may be little, but it’s made of clay: it’s heavy.) The perforated lid keeps the contents aerated; just in case, it’s fitted with a anti-odor charcoal filter.
Though the Bamboo Compost Pail holds slightly less (3.24 quarts, or 3 liters), it’s still big enough for most households. It too has a perforated lid, this one outfitted with two charcoal filters. It too can be used with biodegradable liners. It costs more than the Compost Crock, but it may be worth it. Being made of bamboo, it is much lighter. It’s handle — a wide, flat, piece of bamboo — is far more comfortable to the hand than is the metal wire handle on the Crock. Finally, the Pail is fitted with a removable liner, which makes cleaning simple even without bags.
Other options are available as well. The Compost Pail looks like a stainless steel version of the Kitchen Compost Crock. It offers a different look and a lighter weight, but most importantly, it can’t break.
A plastic product, the Kitchen Compost Container, lacks the upscale look of the others, but it’s big (9.6 quarts, or almost two-and-a-half gallons) and it’s functional. If you’re frustrated because whenever you scrape garbage into your compost bowl half of it lands on the counter, then this may be what you need. With its large size and charcoal-activated filter, this pail can also serve as a convenient collection station between kitchen counter and compost pile, reducing the number of trips out to the pile.
Tools for Collecting Material
Clippers, trimmers, etc.: Most gardeners find they need a variety of clippers and trimmers. All of them help you produce material for the compost bin; some may help you cut it up so it decomposes more quickly.
Wheelbarrow or garden cart: You’ll need to transport piles of refuse to the bin, and these make it doable. A deep, high-sided wheelbarrow is also the best possible receptacle for sifting compost.
Rake: An old-fashioned leaf rake brings it all together.
Tools for Preparing Material
Like most things on this list, the choppers and cutters listed below are not required; adherents of the laissez-faire school of composting reject the idea that material needs to be prepared for the bin. Others, however, disagree. Chopping not only speeds decomposition, it also makes turning a pile much easier. If you have problems with flies or gnats, chopping and grinding kills larvae and pupae, creating a less friendly environment for future generations.
Hoes, Pulaskis, mattocks, lawn edgers: All of these can be used to chop or pulverize composting material on the ground.
Hatchet or Machete: These make it possible to chop refuse up into smaller bits, not on the ground, but at waist height. Some gardeners chop on a board laid over the top of the bin itself; when they’re done, they just tip the board and scrape the bits into the bin.
If you have space to pile up the leaves and pine needles that you collect, then there’s no need to shred them; they will break down eventually. But a small plot with a lot of trees may not offer this option, and eventually you may have to choose between sending stuff to the landfill or shredding it. Shredded material takes up far less space — the leaf-shredder featured here produces a single bag of mulch from eleven bags of leaves — and it will compost far more quickly.
Why electric? Because gas-powered machines make more noise and produce more pollution than do electric ones. Some communities are even passing laws that ban leaf blowers and that limit the hours during which lawn mowers and similar machines can be used.
The leaf-shredder runs off ordinary household power, has three settings (fine, medium, coarse), and can be used with a leaf bag (it comes with its own stand) or set on top of a standard garbage can. (It only weighs 17 pounds) Despite its name, it can handle not only leaves but also pine needles and paper. It can therefore produce a variety of materials suitable for mulch or for composting. It’s not a chipper — it won’t last long if you feed it a steady diet of sticks — but if the leaf (or paper, or pine needle) situation at your home has gotten seriously out of hand, this is probably one of the most environmentally responsible ways to deal with it.
Tools for Dealing with the Pile
Fork: There may be someone who makes compost in an outdoor bin without a gardening fork, but it’s hard to imagine. Perfect for moving any quantity of material either into or out of a bin or pile, perfect for turning piles, the fork comes as close to being an essential piece of equipment for the composter as anything does.
Digging or garden forks are sturdy items with three relatively short tines. Pitch forks and manure forks have longer, curved tines, and more of them; pitch forks generally have four, manure forks six or more.
Aerator: An aerobic pile will need to be turned, but with an aerator the job needs to be done less frequently. Aerators are designed to penetrate dense material easily; when they’re pulled back up, they bring to the surface some of the material that was at the bottom. There are two basic types of aerators, those with screws, and those with wings.
Winged aerators have two hinged flaps at the bottom of a three-foot long metal rod. These flaps, or wings, fold upwards, flat against the rod as you push it into the compost; when you pull the rod upwards, the wings catch on some of the material and fold outwards, so that they now stick out from the rod at about ninety degrees. As you pull the compost tool upwards, these wings drag a fair amount of material up as well.
This tool takes considerable strength to use, but works well if your compost is not too moist and if it contains chopped material. Long, fibrous pieces like stems from peonies, delphinium, lupine, tomatoes, or squash, or even hay, can be almost impossible to budge. Even getting this tool to the bottom of the heap can be difficult; the screw is designed to descend easily, but only the slightly pointed tip on the winged version facilitates its descent.
Screw aerators consist of a giant screw which is either attached to a handle or which can be attached to an electric drill. Some of these screws are quite delicate looking, some pretty hefty. The corkscrew design means that the tool will indeed penetrate the whole pile without too much work on your part. When you stop turning and pull the tool out, it hauls up buried material.
In the United States, almost all screw-type aerators available are in fact giant bits that attach to electric drills. However, it is possible to build your own out of a screw auger and piece of wood for a handle.
Thermometer: Of course, there’s no rule saying you have to use a compost thermometer, but it sure solves a lot of problems and eliminates a lot of guesswork. If you can’t get piles to heat up, buying a thermometer is not going to solve the problem. But if you finally get some heat, this is the only way, really, to know how much. For a composter who needs to kill seeds and pathogens, the thermometer is a must.
You can spend a hundred dollars or more on a thermometer, but such items are really designed for large-scale composting systems. A readable dial at the end of a long probe does everything necessary for a home system. Probes vary from 12″ to 72″ long, but 24″ is about right for most backyard piles.
Barbara Pleasant and Deborah Martin point out that one can tie a length of ribbon to an oven thermometer, or even to an indoor/outdoor thermometer that’s protected by a plastic bag, bury it, then pull it out via the ribbon to read it (The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, p.47). Well, yes; but many oven thermometers don’t register anything below 120°F (49°C), while those designed for outdoors don’t go above that, so they’re of somewhat limited utility. In a pinch, however, they will tell you which ballpark you’re in.
Tarps: Good, tough tarpaulins, not plastic sheets, come in handy all the time. They can be used to store material until you’ve accumulated enough to build a pile; they’re great for mixing ingredients together before putting them in a bin. If the wheelbarrow is otherwise occupied, they can be used to drag material to the composting site. And you always want to spread one under any screening or sorting or sifting operation to catch whatever escapes the designated receptacle.
Screen: If you decide it’s worth screening your compost, you’ll need a screener. But before you buy or build one, you’ll need to determine your screening style. (Ahem.) Some people literally sift soil or compost by shaking it in a sifter; others press it through a wire sieve. The sifter should be smaller, or it gets unmanageably heavy and bulky, but it needs raised sides to hold the compost. Rubbing screeners don’t need raised sides, and they can be quite large, but they need to be sturdy.
Building a Sifter Screen
Instructions for a simple, inelegant but sturdy screen follow. Designed to be used over a wheelbarrow or a pair of saw horses, or anything that brings it to a convenient height, it consists of a flat wooden frame to which hardware cloth is stapled. Dimensions are included, but should be adjusted for your wheelbarrow, garden cart, or bin.
1) Cut a twelve-foot 2×4 into four pieces, two of them three-and-a-half feet long, the other two- and-a-half feet long. Lay these out in a rectangle (4″ side up) with the short pieces between the long ones.
2) Cut four pieces of 1×4, each of them eight inches long.
3) Use clamps to secure one of the 1x4s to a corner where two of the 2x4s meet.
4) Drill four holes through the 1×4 and half an inch into the 2x4s. (Wrap a piece of tape around the bit 1.5″ from its tip to tell you when you’ve drilled deep enough.) These holes should be staggered, rather than in a line. Two should go into the first 2×4, two into the one beside it.
4) Insert flat-head 2″ screws into the holes and tighten partially.
5) Repeat steps 3) and 4) for each of the other three corners, then tighten all the screws.
6) Turn the frame over. Lay over it a piece of 1/2″ hardware cloth cut to reach to the middle of the wood frame, and tack down one side with 3-4 staples.
7) Staple the opposite side, trying to keep it stretched and firm.
8) Staple the ends.
9) Go back and add staples — a lot of staples. Some should be where the screen meets the frame; these will keep the screen from being pulled away from the frame during use. Add others along the edge of the screen. If you plan to add a wooden strip to cover that edge, you will only need a few staples along it, but if you don’t want to bother with the strip, then, staple that edge down firmly so that it can’t catch on things.
10) Optional: Using small nails or screws, secure a thin wooden strip over the edges of the metal screen.
Turn the frame over; it’s done. If you don’t cover the metal edges with a wood strip, then always use it with the screen side down, as those edges can be very nasty.
Eric Ebeling, editor of Basic Composting, gives detailed directions for how to make a soil or compost sifter (p.49). Constructed like a low box with a screen for a bottom, that version ensures that compost won’t drift off the frame and be lost. However, if you’re pressing compost through, rather than shaking the sifter, the raised sides might get in the way. If you think this might be a problem, make one side of the box lower. The open side would be the one where you stand, pushing the compost through the screen. Before building a three-sided box, though, think about exactly where and how you will be using it, so you’re sure that you’ll be able to work at the side you’ve left open.
Given that an entire chapter of Eberling’s book is devoted to this project, it’s surprisingly simple: the box is built of unfinished pine, an inch thick and six inches wide (though three or four inches might work better for some). Ends are overlapped, pre-drilled, and then screwed together, three screws per corner. The screen, cut to fit the frame, is stapled securely to one side of the frame, and then thin strips of wood are screwed over the ends of the screen.
Ebeling creates these strips by cutting them from the long pine board from which the entire structure is built. The instructions say to cut them “with a circular saw or handsaw” (p.54), but the photographs show him working with an electric circular saw. If you don’t have a circular saw, it might make most sense to just buy a 1″x1″, strip of wood long enough to cover all four sides of the box. (For added stability, have these strips overlap the junctions beneath them, rather than aligning with them.)
A few ingenious fellows built on each other’s designs to produce automatic compost sifters (see below). The latest model not only sifts dirt all by itself, it also dumps the rocks that won’t fit through the screen. Don’t expect a detailed manual, though; the only instructions are the videos and pictures themselves.
The automatic sifters are based on a manual version for which instructions are provided by the city of Glendive, California. This two-part system consists of a mesh-bottomed tray that sits on an open frame, on which it slides as if on runners. The tray is indistinguishable from Ebeling’s sifter except that it has handles on each end, and its long (lower) sides are lubricated with candle wax. The frame should be large enough to fit over your wheelbarrow (the one pictured on the website measures 36″x27″). Instead of either picking up a screener and shaking it, or rubbing material against a metal screen, the operator of this clever set-up just pulls and pushes the tray back and forth in the frame.