Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Building the compost bin and info on composting

I have a confession. I've always been a messy gardener. I leave the dead plants in the garden until spring. Then I clear them out and toss them in a pile. So far, my soil has been good to me, despite my careless ways. This year, I knew I had to make a change, so I built an actual compost bin. Crazy, right?

Compost bins can be made out of anything. I'm a big fan of recycling, so I chose an old, worn out plastic tote. It has a giant crack in the side, and the bottom was almost falling out. This type of container is perfect because you're going to cut the bottom out anyway. More on that later. You also want air to be able to reach your compost components, or they won't rot properly. So my piece of trash was perfect!

The first step is to determine where you want the bin. This is a harder decision than you might think, because this method is pretty permanent. I chose a spot that was close to the garden, that was not on any path we currently use, and that I was pretty sure my demon dogs wouldn't destroy.

After you choose your location, you need to clear a spot for your container. This spot needs to be about two inches wider than your container, and you need to dig about 3-6 inches deep. Clear out the dirt and add it to your garden or anywhere you need some extra dirt. I have a digger of a dog, so I used it to fill in some of the many spots she's dug. The hole should look like this:


After your hole is dug, you need to prepare your container. I pushed the bottom out of the tote I was using (I told you it was old!) and placed it in the hole. This is what the bottom looked like:


I ended up needing to make the hole I dug just a bit wider than the picture shows, but after I got everything in place, I ended up with this:


Then I stepped down the sides and pushed the edges into the ground pretty firmly. I filled it with some browns (last year's plants that hadn't already decomposed into the dirt) and watered it. I'll need to fill it with some greens still. I put the lid to the tote on top, and now I have an actual place to put kitchen scraps and grass clippings.

So what can you put in a compost bin or pile? Just about anything. Here's a list I've gathered from www.agreenliving.net

Ashes - Wood ashes from the fireplace or stove are a good source of potassium carbonate.  Make sure they are wood ashes, not coal ashes which can be toxic to plant life.
Garbage - Most organic kitchen waste can be diverted from the garbage to the compost pile.  However, you should not put oil, fats, or greasy dishwater into the pile.  Also avoid meat scraps, bones, and dairy products because they attract animals and flies.
Grass clippings - Some homeowners leave clippings on the lawn for fertilizer.  If you’d rather not do that, you can compost the clippings.  To avoid a soggy mess, let grass dry out or mix it up with dry, absorbent material before adding it to the pile.  Don’t use grass that has been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides because a chemical residue can remain after composting.
Ground shells - Pulverized shells from oysters, clams, lobsters, and other sea creatures make a very good compost ingredient.  They are loaded with minerals that plants need.
Hay or straw - The best type of hay or straw for composting is the stuff that has been left in a field for a while and has started to rot.  Fresh straw requires a lot of nitrogen to decompose, so it should be balanced with nitrogen-rich materials or composted only in small amounts.
Hedge trimmings - Hedge trimmings and pruned tree branches are often easy to obtain.  However, they are slow to decompose.  This means they should be chopped or shredded thoroughly before being put into a compost pile.
Leaves - Leaves make an excellent compost ingredient and many homeowners have an abundant supply from the trees in their yards.  Because leaves decompose slowly on their own, it’s best to chop them up and mix them with some manure before composting them.
Newspapers - Newspapers contain little in the way of nutrients but can be used sparingly in a compost pile as a carbon source.  Shred papers finely before composting or they will take a long time to rot.
Pine needles - Pine needles decompose quite slowly and should normally be used only in small amounts, not as a main ingredient of the pile.  They tend to make compost more acidic unless counteracted by other materials.
Seaweed - Seaweed or kelp is a valuable source of potassium and trace elements such as boron, iodine, calcium, and magnesium.  It decomposes quickly and is good for balancing out straw and other bulky, carbon-rich materials.
Sod - Sod contributes organic matter and beneficial bacteria to the compost.  It should be distributed throughout the other raw materials rather than added in one clump.  You can also lay sod on top with the grass side down.  It will insulate the compost heap and keep flies away as it slowly decomposes.
Weeds - Weeds are quite suitable for the compost pile.  Try to pull them out before they go to seed.  Otherwise, make sure that the pile heats up enough to destroy the seeds.  The dirt left on the roots is excellent for the compost as well.

Basically, you want a mix of greens and browns. Both provide the nutrients your garden needs, as well as the bacteria that make your compost rot appropriately. Have fun with composting! You will be helping your yard as well as the planet.

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