Composting Big

Turning Compost PileLike it or not, here comes autumn and its bounty of leaves, garden refuse, and other compostable materials. If you’re just getting into composting — or your bin or tumbler won’t hold all of fall’s organic bounty — it’s time to think big. A large compost pile or bin — and a little patience — will reward you down the road with more compost. And that means more benefits for your lawn and garden.

Large compost bins need to do more than just hold vast quantities of compostable materials. They need to breathe, provide easy access for turning, and be located close to where you’ll be using your compost. And it must be remembered that large amounts of materials will take a longer period of time. We like to think in terms of threes, since, in our experience, these really large heaps take three years, more or less, to turn to rich soil amendment. The three-bin compost bin, often left open in the front seems perfect. Fresh materials are put in the first bin and are turned into the second after several months. The half-way materials in the second bin are then turned into the third bin where they can be harvested as needed. Once established, this method provides a continuous supply of the good stuff. The bins can be made neatly with a wood frame and wire fencing (we find true chicken wire, as recommended by many bin-building instructions, too fine and prone to tear) or can be made entirely of wood with spaces between the cross-pieces. Of course, the tried-and-true method of the salvage set is to use old pallets to make boxes. Here’s a link (PDF format) from the Department of Environmental Protection in Montgomery County, Maryland that give specific directions for composting with pallets.

Maybe the easiest bins to make are compost cages, those made entirely with wire fencing (PDF format) without frames. Whether the fencing is turned in a circle and bound with zip ties or made with fencing panels, they provide plenty of ventilation and mobility, as well as keeping you materials neatly enclosed. They’re easy to cover during wet or cold weather and they make for easy turning. Just lift the frame away from your materials and turn it top-down back into the cage.

But our favorite method is still the old heap, without wood, fencing or a box to contain it. With a heap you’re limited in size only by the amount of room you have. Carefully constructed and covered with the year’s last leaves or straw a well-built heap is a thing of beauty. True, it may take longer to turn your materials into compost. But patience is rewarded. I had a heap that was set into a corner of a wooden fence that grew to be shoulder high. After three years, it never stopped yielding rich abundant compost out the bottom. This went on for years and I never tired of coming out and sculpting the pile, “stirring” the heap, or leveraging the pile with a hay fork to add some needed oxygen. And, the neighbor kids loved it, especially when they needed fishing worms.

Remember, all other rules of composting apply when making large quantities: the right ration of brown and green materials, plenty of air and just enough water. Compost starters can help speed the process. But there’s nothing that’s more satisfying than being rewarded with quantities of rich, organic soil amendment made from you own lawn scraps, unless it’s harvesting the superior vegetables that you compost helped produce. So get ready for compost’s greatest season now. Here are more ideas for compost bins and heaps.

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