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Compost Bin Buyer’s Guide

Compost TumblerThere’s something deeply satisfying about turning garbage into vegetables — or at least into compost, vegetables’ best friend. To get started all you need to do is collect a bunch of brown materials (leaves, sawdust, vegetable stalks), mix them together in a pile with plenty of green materials (grass clippings, vegetable scraps, garden waste), keep everything nice and moist (not wet), and voila! Compost.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is. It just doesn’t happen very quickly. Fortunately, compost bins can help, reducing decomposition time from several years to a single season or less.

Available in a large variety of shapes and sizes, composters are designed to help you produce compost more efficiently. They look great (okay, maybe not great, but a whole lot better than a heap of garbage in your back yard) and they speed up the decomposition process. Faster decomposition means more compost for your garden, which is good not only for your plants but also for the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that composting can reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills by as much as 24%.

So you want to get started, but really don’t have the time (or the patience) to build your own bin. Fear not; at Planet Natural we offer all kinds of compost bins and tumblers. However, before you click “Buy Now,” here’s a quick review of composting and some of the bins that are available.

Composting, the break-down of kitchen, yard and garden waste, results in a nutrient-rich, dark “dirt” that bears no resemblance to the orange peels and grass clippings that formed it. The process requires several basic ingredients:

Organic Matter: Efficient decomposition occurs when bringing together organic materials in roughly the right proportions. There are basically two types:

Nitrogen (a.k.a. “Greens”): Supplies the tiny microbes living in your compost pile with protein for building cells. Materials high in nitrogen are sometimes called “activators” because they really heat up the compost pile. Moist plant debris, vegetable scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds, or animal by-products, like manure or blood meal, are all good sources of nitrogen.

Carbon (a.k.a. “Browns”): Provides an energy source for microorganisms. Organic waste containing high amounts of carbon include dry, fibrous materials, such as wood chips, straw, leaves, peanut shells, and shredded newspaper. A compost pile that contains 25-30 times more brown materials than green is considered ideal.

Micro-organisms: These are all around us, and will do their jobs just fine without too much help. However, you can also urge along a slow or “cool” pile by purchasing (and adding) compost microorganisms that specialize in decomposition.

Air Circulation: An abandoned pile of scraps will eventually compost, but the process is much faster if the pile is “turned” several times a season to break up matted leaves, for example, and to let air into places where no air has gone before. (Composting is a form of slow “burning,” and requires oxygen.)

Moisture: A compost pile requires plenty of water for the microbes to survive. However, too much water will reduce air circulation and flood the pile. In general, compost should feel like a wrung out sponge (moist, but not sopping wet).

Heat: As they eat, composting microbes produce plenty of heat, which raises the temperature of the pile and speeds decomposition. If there’s a big enough pile of stuff, and it’s got sufficient air and moisture, it will produce heat.

Questions to ask about composters:

What’s it made of? Many commercially available composters are made of dark-colored recycled plastic, which is ideal for absorbing heat from the sun and preventing moisture loss. Since heat and moisture are both essential to composting, this basic design, helps speed up the decomposition process. Wooden bins, while not as “hot,” are also a good choice, but should be constructed with rot-resistant materials such as cedar, or you may find that your bin gradually becomes one with the compost it’s meant to contain. Compost bins should never be built with pressure-treated lumber, which may contain toxins that can leach into your pile — and hence into your vegetables.

What shape is it? In most cases, bin shape will be determined by the style of composter you intend to purchase, but keep in mind, a round container does not have “cold corners.” These areas are difficult to reach with a pitch fork or mixing tool and decompose slowly. On the other hand, square bins look great when placed along side garden fences and fit nicely in lot corners.

How about ventilation? A composter should contain plenty of slits and holes throughout the container to provide proper air circulation. Oxygen is required by many of the micro-organisms responsible for breaking down organic matter. Without adequate ventilation, your pile will decompose slowly, resulting in a slimy, stinky mess and perhaps even a call from your next-door neighbor.

What size is it? If you have a large yard with plenty of organic waste, a small bin probably won’t be enough. However, larger bins can be more difficult to maintain. They’re tougher to turn and require more work to keep the pile “cooking” properly. Smaller bins, on the other hand, can be a little fussy. They dry out faster than larger bins and are influenced more by outside temperatures.

How much work do you want to spend on it? If you don’t mind doing occasional heavy lifting with a pitchfork, you can go for one of the more basic types. Otherwise, one of the models with a handle for turning the contents (a “compost tumbler”) may be a better choice.

Here are some of the different styles of bins that are available:

Hoop Bin

Advantages: The most basic of all bins. Easy to fill and inexpensive. Can be purchased as an adjustable container made out of black recycled plastic, or built at home using chicken wire and stakes.

Disadvantages: May attract insects and animals. Can be difficult to turn or aerate. Nutrients are lost from rainfall and leaching.

Slatted Bin

Advantages: A sturdy slatted bin is attractive and permits plenty of air circulation. Removable slats make it easy to add and empty materials. Large capacity.

Disadvantages: Will not deter rodents or animals. Requires heavy turning or aerating for faster break-down of organic materials. Nutrients are lost from leaching.

Rolling Composters

Advantages: Unique spherical design maximizes heat retention for faster decomposition and makes it easy to turn and aerate the pile. Can be rolled to your garden area, loaded up and rolled away. Lid helps deter rodents/animals and keeps the rain out. Large capacity is ideal for an average sized yard or garden (13.5cf).

Disadvantages: When loaded with materials can become heavy and difficult to roll. Sufficient space is required.

Compost Tumblers

Advantages: Neat appearance and efficient design makes it easy to turn the contents. No need for a pitchfork or aerating tool; just turn the handle. Decomposition occurs very quickly. Sealed container protects compost from animals and weather. Does not require a large amount of space. Very popular.

Disadvantages: Can be costly, depending on the size of the container. Works best when materials are added all at once.

Worm Bins

Advantages: A convenient way to convert kitchen scraps into worm castings, the gold standard in compost. A worm bin requires very little room and can be kept inside or out. Kids love them!

Disadvantages: Worms and table scraps must be separated out when harvesting castings. Requires occasional care. Odors will develop if overloaded with food. Temperature must be somewhat regulated, as worms prefer temperatures between 50 and 80˚ F. May attract fruit flies.

Food Waste Digesters

Advantages: More like a disposal system than a compost bin (no compost is harvested). A food waste digester is used for breaking down kitchen scraps and reducing your family’s trash. Reduces household waste by up to 20%. No turning required.

Disadvantages: Should not be used for garden trash. Resulting waste residue can build up and will need to be removed every year or two.

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3 Responses to “Compost Bin Buyer’s Guide”

  1. James Clark on May 20th, 2014 at 6:59 pm #

    I purchased a compost tumbler many years ago believing the promise of compost in just a few weeks. When It arrived the instructions for quick compost included large amounts of saw dust. I have, over the years perfected a non sawdust method. In the fall I use my leaf vacuum which chops the leaves quite finely. I bag the leaves for use throughout the winter and the following spring and summer. When I have saved some kitchen waste I add water and use my stick blender to puree then add this to the leaves in the tumbler along with a little top soil This has worked very well for some time now, I make numerous batches very quickly throughout the year.

  2. Shawn Davis on March 26th, 2015 at 10:10 am #

    I really like the slated bin idea, seems very cost effective and an easy DIY. Toss a lid on top of it, and now you can also control the amount of moisture added from rainfall. Great article!

  3. Meg on February 22nd, 2020 at 3:02 pm #

    I’m looking for a worm composting system that is not made of plastic. Has anyone seen an effective in-home/outdoor system made of vegetable plastic or something other than plastic?