My Compost for a Bin

Compost, All Good, In Time

One problem with gardening, as I see it, is that much of it is about delayed gratification. Even a radish makes you wait 3 weeks after sowing the seed before you get to chomp on it. With a pear tree, that wait is a few years.

Which brings me to compost. Now that the flurry of spring pruning and planting have subsided, I’m starting this year’s compost cycle again — that’s compost for use next year. Delayed gratification again.Smelling compost
Food waste, yard waste, and compostable paper make up 31% of an average household’s waste which, if landfilled, ties up land and contributes to global warming. Composted, it feeds the soil life and, in turn, plants, and maintains soil tilth, that crumbly feel of a soil that holds on to moisture yet has plenty of space for air. You don’t get all this from a bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer or even a bag of any concentrated organic fertilizer.

The key to good composting is to have a good bin. Any pile of old vegetables, leaves, grass clippings, old cotton clothes, straw, or wood chips will turn to compost eventually. A bin keeps everything neat, fends off scavengers, and maintains heat and moisture within.Compost bins

Buying a compost bin is one option. Consider whether you’re making compost for your garden or just as an environmentally sound way to recycle what used to be called “trash.” You need a larger bin for the former use because you’ll be importing materials, such as leaves, wood chips, and manure, to bulk up the compost.

The Perfect Compost Bin?

Over the years, my home made compost bins have gone through several incarnations. Four wooden panels filled in with chickenwire made my first bin. Once a pile was made and settled a little, I removed the panels, pinned black plastic onto the compost cubes to keep in moisture, and set up the panel in the next location for a new “compost cube.” Aerating my compost pile of yoreThe next bins weren’t bins but just carefully stacked layers of ingredients, mostly horse manure, hay, and garden and kitchen gleanings. And then there was my three-sided bin made of slabwood.Compost, me turning, slab bin

A dramatic jump in functionality came with my bin made from 1 x 12 hemlock boards from a sawmill, notched to stack together on edge like Lincoln logs. The only problem with this system was that I had to periodically purchase and notch new boards as older ones rotted away.Wooden compost binsWhich brings me to my current bin which, now, after many years of use, I consider nearly perfect. Instead of hemlock boards, these bins are made from “composite lumber.” Manufactured mostly from recycled materials, such as scrap wood, sawdust, and old plastic bags, composite lumber is used for decking so should last a long, long time.

The boards I used were 5-1/2 inches wide and 1 inch thick. A couple of inches from either end of each 5-foot-long board, I cut a notch on each side to a depth one-quarter the width of the board and about 1/8” wider than the their thickness. Compost bin boardWhen finished, I ripped one board of the bin full length down its center to provide two bottom boards so that the bottom edges of all 4 sides of the bin would sit right against on the ground. Compost bin, bottom boardsBefore setting up a bin, I lay 1/2” hardware cloth on the ground to help keep at bay rodents that might try to crawl in from below.Compost bin, hardware clothWith the Lincoln-log style design, the bin need be only as high as the material within while the pile is being built, and then “unbuilt” gradually as I removed the finished compost.

Feed the Beast(s)

Okay, time to feed my compost “pets.” Nothing fancy, just any spent plant from the garden, kitchen trimmings, old clothes made from natural materials, hay scythed from my meadow, horse manure from a local stable, and occasional sprinklings of soil and powdered limestone.

Composted clothing

Leather shoes, underwear (not mine), jeans

For interest, I’ll sometimes throw old shoes or gloves into a pile to see what’s left once the organic portion of the shoe or glove has been stripped off.By paying attention to the textures of the materials as I add them to the pile, it generally stays well aerated. If I have a load of manure and will be building up many layers of the pile at once, I water the layers as I go; it takes too long to get sufficient water down into the pile after it has been built. Once a pile is completed, I cover it with a layer of EPDM rubber roofing material, cut to fit, to seal in moisture and keep out rain.Compost bins, being filled & filledFeeding compost

Piles built this summer get turned once next spring so I can monitor progress and make sure they’re moist — but not too wet — throughout. The compost is used throughout next year’s growing season.

So yes, there is delayed gratification before I get to use the “black gold.” Then again, making compost is enjoyable; I get some exercise and enjoy feeding the various fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms at work in the compost pile.My compost piles


The Turn Of  The Year

Sure there’s seed-sowing, weeding, and pruning to do, but I’ve also been spending a good amount of time communing with my pitchfork. Turning compost.

Some people are put off by the thought of having to turn compost. Don’t be. Compost does not have to be turned. Any pile of organic materials will eventually become compost.

Still, I like to turn my composts. I typically build new piles (a lot of them!!) through summer into fall, turn them the following spring, and then spread the finished compost that fall or the following spring. As I fork the ingredients from the old pile into the adjacent bin, I break up any clumps with the pitchfork and fluff up any parts that seem sodden and gasping for air. A nearby hose makes it convenient to spray any dry areas.Compost bins

Everything organic (was once or is living) — hay, weeds, old plants, some horse manure, old cotton clothes, vegetable trimmings — goes into my compost, and that includes, unavoidably, weed seeds. Turning my compost pile exposes weed seeds buried within the pile to light, which prompts them to germinate — only to be snuffed out as they are again buried in the turned pile.

I take note of the progress of the decomposition, generally tossing any less decomposed pitchforkfuls towards the more active center of the turned pile. I also “take note” very literally, writing down a rough estimate of how far along the compost has progressed. If it’s, say, 80% finished, it should be ready for use, if needed, within a month or so. If 60% finished, it’ll have to keep cooking until fall.

I like to watch the results of the bacteria, fungi, and other compost pets nurtured within the piles. And turning them is good exercise.

Design Ultimatum

Over the years, my compost bins have gone through many incarnations as I, each time, came up with what I thought was the ultimate design for the bin itself. The present design has retained that status for a number of years now.

The present bin is made of notched boards, 24 per pile, each about 1” thick by 6” wide by 4 feet long. The boards stack up to make a cube Lincoln-log style. For a thorough enclosure, two boards ripped to half their width make up two sides of the bottom of the  bin. The advantage of the notched boards is that all four sides are enclosed and the compost bin can be built higher and higher, as needed, as material is added. And lowered, in steps, as finished compost is being removed for spreading, or half-finished compost is being removed for turning into a expanding, adjacent bin.Compost bin board

My original “ultimate design” bins were made from wood, which needed replacement every 8 to 10 years. Present bins are made from artificial wood decking, which should hold up forever.

While not a necessity for making compost, a bin does keep everything neat and tidy, keeps scavenging animals and wind-blown weed seeds at bay, and retains heat and moisture for quicker and more thorough composting. As I wrote a few paragraphs earlier, “Any pile of organic materials will eventually become compost.”

Transplant Design

Speaking about good design . . . With so many transplants to water, any method of automatic watering is a godsend. Right now, a couple of hundred of my seedlings are growing in individual, plastic cells sitting on capillary mats. As soil dries out in the cells, it sucks up water from the capillary mat which, in turn, draws water from the reservoir below it. This, the APS system, works very well.

And now an even better design has come down the pike, one made out of terra cotta that, unless dropped, is sure to outlast plastic systems. Cells for a tray of Orta Seed Pots are all housed together in an attached reservoir. One advantage of this design is that cells absorb water throughout their terra cotta walls. Another advantage is that each cell has a drainage hole, so periodic top watering can leach out excess minerals that can build up in pots watered from below.Orta pot

The only downside to Orta Seed Pots is that they are expensive. Then again, they can potentially last forever, and they grow very good plants. The design is so elegant and effective (as borne out by some seedlings that I raised in Orta’s) that I’m going to shamelessly help in their promotion with a link,  (,to discounted factory seconds, which work perfectly but have cosmetic flaws, or, till the end of May, discounted firsts (, with discount code ORTAMAY).