by Jane Solomon
At last we arrive at Composting Challenge #3: What kind of bin, device or enclosure to use and where to put it. I should note at the outset that DC has no regulations (that I can find) governing the type of container we can use for compost. Montgomery County requires rodent-proof bins and they offer them to residents free of charge.
Let’s start with placement. The ideal location for a compost bin would be on level ground in a partly sunny area with a nearby source of water. It would have easy access and be spacious enough for turning and dumping and accommodate a wheel barrow. It would also be convenient to both kitchen and garden without spoiling the view of either.
Piece of cake right? Most people have to sacrifice one if not several of these criteria. My three bins are far from the kitchen; one is uphill in full shade and near nothing except water; one is a bit crowded. The right spot, therefore, is the one that works.
Having found a location, you need to decide on a container. This is where the marketplace can overwhelm you and will gladly separate you from your money. There are so many different contraptions out there and they all claim to be self-contained composting wonders. Don’t believe it. It’s not just a question of saving your money. I’ve tried enough of them to know that they can actually make composting harder.
For years I’ve used this black bin.
There are many models of this type. The top lifts off for filling and there’s a sliding panel at the bottom from which to remove finished compost – in theory. It’s vented to allow for air and water. It’s contained and neat and inexpensive, but it can’t finish compost on its own, at least not in any reasonable length of time.
In my experience, after many months you get some finished compost at the bottom, which is impossible to get out the little door because of the weight on top of it. Around the periphery you still find raw material and in the center of it all is an anaerobic mass of stinky gunk. Turning would prevent this, but the size and shape make it impossible. Every year I end up lifting the entire contents back out the top and finishing it in a fenced enclosure on the ground. I did that for the last time in April. Never again.
I also tried an expensive compost tumbler. This style promises compost in a few weeks. Just put in your raw materials and crank daily. I didn’t realize that tumblers are designed for hot composting which, as I’ve said is a tricky process. But I tried many times. I either got a slimy mess or a dry brown pile with nothing happening. Having failed hot composting, I took the partially composted contents from my black bin and tried finishing it in the tumbler. The results were better, not great, and it was way too much work. Eventually I loaded the tumbler onto a truck bound for Community Forklift and waved farewell.
This link has an overview of bin types. Carefully read the “Downsides” listed under each bin and you’ll start to get the picture. The one that really makes me laugh is the ballshaped Rolling Bin, which when full “can become heavy and difficult to roll”. That rather defeats the point, doesn’t it?
Every time I’ve used a specialized composter, I’ve ended up finishing the job in a simple fenced enclosure on the ground. My conclusion is to cut out the pricey middleman and use the time-tested approach. It’s the most effective and least expensive method. There’s less lifting, you have room to operate and you can’t make a mess. Moreover, it’s easy to turn it, which dramatically reduces composting time and allows you to monitor your progress.
I have three open fenced compost piles which you can see in the photos. They’re nothing fancy.
One is rolled wire fencing, one is rolled plastic fence, staked with fence posts and rebar.
The third is a clever bin made from the wire mesh shelves of a commercial baker’s rack held together with cable ties. The sections fold flat and can be put away if I want. Improvise!
Search Google Images for “homemade compost bins” and you’ll find countless examples of three-sided wood enclosures, many made of shipping pallets, and they often have a fourth, removable side. There are combinations of wood and wire mesh, nicer looking models using picket fencing or lattice, and some just simple mesh like mine, which I like because they’re invisible from a distance.
All that’s really important is that you have sides with good airflow and it should measure at least three feet on each side, the minimum needed for it to really heat up in the center. If it’s smaller, it will still work, it may just take longer. If you don’t want to make it yourself or want something a bit more aesthetically pleasing, there are many available options for purchase online.
You’ll notice that most of these bins have two or three sections. By having two, you can continue to add new material to the second bin, allowing the first to finish composting. After all, you want to spread the finished product in your garden. If you only have one, you can stop saving materials during that time, however, once you’re in the habit, you feel really guilty putting vegetable scraps in the trash! Three is probably overkill. Helpful for stockpiling if you’re making hot compost, or for storing finished compost, but it’s an unnecessary luxury.
When the contents of your bin are dark and crumbly with a rich earthy smell, you’ve got compost. The pile will be half its original size if not smaller. You’ll find sticks and odd bits that haven’t broken down entirely and you may want to sift it, though it’s not essential. I use a plastic produce crate over my wheel barrow for sifting.
It’s deep and has great handles. Once sifted, I store my finished compost in 20-gallon nursery pots until I’m ready to spread it in the garden, where healthy plants are my reward.
To review: 1) You need a convenient setup so that composting becomes a part of everyday waste disposal; 2) Storing fall leaves will supply you with essential brown materials when they’re scarce; and 3) Stay away from expensive devices. A simple enclosure on the ground is all you need, because just like the bumper sticker says: Compost Happens.
I hope your takeaway message from this series is that with a little thought and planning, it can happen at your house too.