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As the Compost Turns, and Whether it Really Needs To

But on the same page was the item that really blew
me outta the water. The
Jumbo Self-Aerating Bin
. A plastic compost bin so tall that the poor woman
pictured in the catalog is lifting her kitchen scraps almost shoulder high to
toss them in. You can have the pleasure of lifting all your compostables this
high for a cool $399 plus delivery. I'm sure a big part of the high cost is the
"patented aeration tube" running up through this tower, which is designed for
those who "prefer the toss-it-and-forget-it approach to composting." And the
creators of this thing also subscribe to the fiction that you can open a door
and easily shovel fluffy, finished compost from the bottom of the bin, even
though there's weeks' or months' worth of kitchen scraps sitting on top. And they
have conveniently placed the patented aeration tube dead center in the bin and
in the way of your shovel.

I don't get it.

Not true, I do get it and it makes me sad and a tiny
bit angry. Rather then helping novice gardeners meet their challenges with a bit
of composting knowledge, they come up with a product that holds out the – I
believe – dubious promise of solving their problems as long as they can write a
big check.

I like Gardener's Supply and I use some of their
products, so I hope they will consult a bit more widely before they put some of
these products on their shelves in the future.

So what should a gardener who wants to compost
without being enslaved financially or physically do? First off, two bins are
better than one. And you can buy a fleet of composters for the price of one of
these Jumbos. After you've properly filled the first one, you let it compost
while you fill the second one. In all but the coldest climates, by the time
you've filled the second one with kitchen scraps and what-all, the first one
will be finished and ready to be emptied into your garden beds.

The pair of bins I use come from this same company,
in fact, but they suffer from the unflattering name of Gardener's
Supply Exclusive Deluxe Pyramid Composter
. They have hinged lids, a rodent
screen for the bottom (though you can do like me and get cheaper hardware cloth at
the hardware store). And they have holes in the lid to allow rainwater to keep
the compost from drying out and going dormant–which it can do. When I bought my
two, they were selling for $99. Now they go for $169. Which makes me wonder if
the price of plastic really went up that much or if maybe I should be looking
for a comparable competitor's product to recommend to my clients and garden
class students. Hmmmmm.

Now, do you want to know how to have compost that
never needs turning? Anyone who can make a salad can make never-needs-turning
compost. Just remember the three basic components of a salad in descending order
of quantity: 1, leafy
stuff, 2, chunks of vegetables and
3, a dribbling of dressing to give
it zing.

So, likewise a good compost starts with: 1, shreaded leaves,
2, chunks of kitchen scraps (including
egg shells, coffee grinds, paper towels, even some garden trimmings, etc.) and 3, a dribbling of garden soil to
inoculate the other ingredients with the zing of those inexpensive and hungry
microorganisms.

If you've been trying to compost without adding soil
(i.e. the "toss it and forget method" advocated by the catalog folks) and are
disappointed that your bin is so stinky, just start adding soil and you'll find
that the composting microorganisms from the soil are out-competing the stinky,
rotting microorganisms from the food scraps.

To make this process easier on myself, I keep a
covered garbage bin full of leaves (shredded by the lawn mower) with a
re-purposed, broken garden fork next to the compost bins. I also keep a 5 gallon
nursery pot full of garden soil with a re-purposed, rusty trowel as part of my
compost complex.

So now that you have the ingredients, here's how I
make a Compost Salad: 1, dump the kitchen scraps in the bin,
2, dribble some soil to add composting
microorganisms and then, 3, scoop a forkful or two of shredded leaves to soak
up moisture, cover the mess up and keep the fruit flies down.

And then I never, ever turn it, because the
microorganisms do the work for me and I have better things to do. Instead I just
head back into the kitchen, make myself a gin and tonic (with the money I saved
by not buying the new and improved compost starter) and sit in the garden with
some friends and reee-lax.

Frank Hyman's photos
clockwise from left: green composter has been filled and is settling as it
composts; black composter is being filled; bin holding shredded leaves and
broken garden fork; small container of kitchen scraps with a bio-degradable
liner; 5-gallon nursery pot with garden soil and trowel.

Posted by on September 17, 2009 at 1:32 am, in the category Uncategorized.
Comments are off for this post

30 responses to “As the Compost Turns, and Whether it Really Needs To”

  1. greg draiss says:

    People who insist on paying three dollars a pound for compost are “FAST FOOD” gardeners. Compost does need to be turned in order to get a finished product in a reasoanble amount of time.

    But if you take the slow food approach: compost happens.

    Another waste of money are recycled compost bins. How long will it take the FAST FOOD gardener to get $100 worth of soil from said $100 bin?

    Also what FAST FOOD gardeners and many eco-warriors seem to forget: how large a footprint ( I will never use the term carbon footprint) does it take to MANUFACTURE a compost bin from any raw materials new or recycled?

    The TROLL

  2. Holly says:

    Fast Food Gardners. I like that…made me grin.

    Sometimes I wish I had a compost bin, just because I have 7 dogs who like to turn the compost for me. Ahem. However, mine would not be plastic.

  3. Excellent post and I completely agree. Two bins are definitely better than one. I do like the bins that have a lid to keep out any unwanted guests. Compost activator???? Last I checked, Mother Nature does not need this for her composting efforts….

  4. Great post.

    The best composter I ever bought was made by Rubbermaid. I love it because it is very sturdy with very few moving parts–don’t get me started on those stackable composters with their slats that fall apart–and it is huge, so the compost really heats up. I’d like another one, but alas, Rubbermaid is no longer producing these things.

    A few years ago, I was looking for a composter for my country house and feeling cheap, ordered a $50 barrel composter on sale from Gardener’s Supply. Should have known! It has a solid bottom–which means, of course, no easy access for worms and the other workers of the soil. The theory is that you are supposed to roll the whole barrel, instead of turning the compost inside with a fork. Well, have you ever tried rolling a hundred pounds of wet kitchen scraps? Not to mention the fact that the lid won’t stay on.

    You’re absolutely right. It’s foolish for Gardener’s Supply to sell stuff that doesn’t work.

  5. Micah says:

    I just toss grass clippings, leaves, branches, and whatever else I can think of in a pile in the backyard. You can’t see it from the house so it’s not a terrible eyesore. Sure, it’s not a quick way to make compost, but it works eventually.

    I’ve thought about getting a proper bin, but I like what Greg said about the $100 ones. I know we do this for fun and all, but sometimes when I think about the economics of it, I cringe a little.

    Maybe I’ll keep an eye on Craigslist or Freecycle and see if anything appears that would make a suitable container.

  6. Jaime L. says:

    I left the bottoms open on my homemade compost bin and I “think” roots from the nearby trees crept their way up into my bins. All I know is that I have two compartments so choked solid with roots that I have to fight like mad to get my shovel in and get anything out. I laid weed barrier under my third bin. Meanwhile I’m trying to put off the day when I have to tip the other over, fight it all down, and start over. Any suggestions?

  7. Leslie Shields says:

    I have a row of three bins, Made from wooden pallets. They are about 10 years old and only the pallets separating the bins are beginning to decay. They are held together with bungee cords which were the only expense.THis means that I can get at the compost through different sides depending on where I am working I don’t turn them at all or add fancy extras. As said, Mother Nature has been making compost a while without our help.

  8. sarahammocks says:

    I agree–all this compost paraphernalia makes a very simple process intimidating and needlessly complicated. Here’s my composting method: In early spring I covered a small area in my yard with newspaper and mulch (to keep weeds down around the cage) and over this made a round cage of wire fencing approx 4 feet in diameter. I laid some shrub clippings on the bottom for aeration, then added kitchen scraps, weeds (with chunks of soil attached), garden clippings, leaves, etc throughout the summer. I tried to cover melon and other pest-magnet scraps with layers of plants, (I don’t compost meat or dairy)and so far haven’t had a problem with odors or critters. Since I live in the country, I don’t have to worry about nosy neighbors (some of em still burn all their trash–ugh!) and uptight neighborhood associations. By Labor Day the cage was full. I undid the cage and moved the contents to a nearby garden bed (this took less than an hour) where it will finish composting by next spring.
    If you’re a commercial composter, you have to know what’s going on with your compost at a microbial level, and monitor the temperature and turning and all that. Fortunately, home gardeners are free to compost however it suits them best. Shame on Gardener’s Supply for trying to convince people otherwise–this undermines their integrity!

  9. When my 15 gal. nursery container is full of scraps, leaves, shredded paper, etc., I pitchfork the whole mess into a plastic composter that sits on rollers and spins in place. Everytime I add to the nursery pot, I give the barrel a spin, too. By the time the pot is full again, the compost in the barrel is ready! I did pay about $150 for it, but I value it at least that much…

  10. Kate says:

    Are any bins really necessary? I just started gardening last year. The compost pile was the first thing I added because it wasn’t warm enough to garden yet and there were leaves still to clean up. It couldn’t have been simpler. I just raked all the leaves into a pile in the back yard and then buried the kitchen scraps in it. During the summer, I added grass clippings, plant trimmings, dirt from repotting house plants, and more leaves from another leaf pile. In the fall I stopped adding to it and started a second pile with the fresh leaves. In the spring the first pile was ready to use. When the compost was gone, I left the winter pile to finish and started a new pile in the first spot. The winter pile isn’t as finished as the first was, but I’ve been adding it to the veggie beds as the season comes to an end. By spring, the beds will be enriched and ready for planting.

    I might turn the piles once or twice, but only to get the drier outer leaves into the middle and mostly for the exercise. It’s more fun and a better workout than the gym and without the membership fee. There are critters in the neighborhood, cats, squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, but I’ve never seen signs of any bothering the compost pile. The only pests are the yellow jackets if I get lazy and don’t bury the veggie scraps right away.

    As long as anyone is buying those fancy products, there will be companies trying to make the next big thing and sell it to us.

  11. donna says:

    not everyone who wants to compost has space for a pile for slow composting. i have a good-sized garden but very little other yard. i also live in a 6-family condo & i didn’t want complaints about me “dumping trash” in the yard. (as it is, i hide the fact i dump chicken doody in there. that’s my free inoculate.) as a birthday present, i got a tumbler i love. since it is small i want to move things along and i get compost in 6-8 weeks and receive no complaints from the neighbors.

    not all of us who buy a tumbler are ignorant, “fast food” composters, or suckers. if i had the room, i would have a simple 2 or 3 open bin “system.”

  12. Teri says:

    Hear, Hear Donna! Though I agree there are hundreds if not thousands of complete waste of money bins, those that say all of them are a waste of money clearly don’t have a back yard the size of mine.

    I would love to have multiple compost piles that I could throw things in (like a weed in seed pile and the “clean pile”) but realistically I have space for 2 of the quite vertical plastic containers and thats about it. Why plastic even though its terrible? Well a plastic compost bin has walls that are less then a cm thick all combined. To build the same thing out of wood you have to start eating up inches to get the same compost foot print. If you have a garden where inches don’t matter I’m happy for you. But please don’t judge those that buy aids for the postage stamp yards.

    Its still unfortunate that those aids are really buyer beware though. So many terrible products out there for terrible prices.

  13. felder says:

    i have a simple two bin system that NEVER gets turned, and makes fantastic compost (one is working while the other is being filled or used). and i threw an old shower curtain on the ground underneath to keep tree roots out…
    by the way, Slow Gardening (TM) is the perfect antidote to Fast Food gardening…

  14. LauraBee says:

    Where I live, the City’s solid waste division takes the old 50-gallon garbage containers ( the kind we’re given for curbside pickup ), thoroughly cleans them, removes the hinged top, slices of the bottom & drills 1″ holes randomly through the walls. Turned upside down, it makes a slightly conical, self-aerating compost bin. They will deliver the bin free of charge to any resident requesting one. I use one of these for composting & am considering getting a second to give me the luxury of not turning a pile. It’s easy to lift ( aeration holes serves as finger grips as well) & move when I want to get at the whole pile, but I can usually turn the contents with my garden fork through the top and be done with it.

    Not every city will re-use the bins like this ( mine’s the only one in the region that does) but it’s worth checking out. I know the County of Sacramento, just South of me, gives plastic bins to all who take part in a half-day composting workshop. Maybe other cities/counties do something similar ?

  15. Jackie says:

    Well said. I don’t turn my compost either. My husband does once every several months, if he thinks about it. I hate that companies are trying to complicate such a simple process.

  16. donna says:

    Yup, I have the old Rubbermaid one — virtually indestructable and has worked well for many years now.

  17. Here’s my Labor Day post on composting: http://www.sky-bolt.com/garden/#compost

    My piles are out of sight, but near three rain barrels and the potting bench area.

    Susan’s right about the soil.

  18. Oops, I meant Frank’s right about the soil. Don’t pay for contrived microbe-filled soil.

  19. Frank Hyman says:

    Lots of good responses–I’m glad so many other people are getting good compost without all the turning.

    And my usual advice is that every gardener has to find their own best practices that match their temperament, time, budget and tastes, so I can understand how some people get some value from tumblers and compost starters. I’m not saying those things don’t work, just that you can often get as good a result with less expense when the underlying principles of composting are engaged. I wonder how a big shovelfull of good garden soil for microbes, mixed with 5-10 lbs. of bloodmeal or alfalfa meal for nitrogen would compare in a side-by-side test with ‘compost starter’?

    Also, have visited many a gardener’s open compost site and seen evidence of vermin–nibble marks, tunnels, etc.–and have asked how bad the mice/rats/racoons/possums, etc. are and been assured that they haven’t seen any of the pesky critters.

    We have a dog and enclosed bins and we still have critters trying to dig under the bins and get into the garage for the grass seed and organic fertilizers (and shelter of course) and we live near a busy downtown. Don’t know how folks with open bins think they are critter free and if any of them are, I wonder what they are doing to keep them away?

    Frank

  20. Sally McGuire says:

    I use a couple of pieces of “hog wire” rolled into 5 ft circles about 4′ high. One is for scruffy, hard to digest stuff, the other is a fast pile: grass clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps, etc. Bunny puffs speed everything up. To turn the pile I simply pull the wire off the heap, place it next to the pile and throw it all back into the newly placed wire ring. Fast pile is ready in 6-8 weeks, slow pile about every 6 months. Keep a pile of shredded leaves to cover fresh scraps and have no pests. Also compost in place in my veggie garden by piling seed-free weeds up in the pathways, covering with grass clippings and or leaves. Once it’s broken down a bit, use for mulch around plants.

  21. Chuck Nevitt says:

    I paid $35 for a 50 gallon “Earth Machine” bin ten years ago and it’s been good. Have mostly used it as a cold bin. Two bins would be nice but I may go the pallet/homemade route next time. I didn’t have a garden fork for a long time until this year, so I turned the contents of the bin regularly (garden forks don’t slice up as many worms) and I got lots of fast, finished compost spread out just in time for the fall leaf-dump. I also mixed in chicken poop and coffee grounds and misc. “green” ingredients and I must admit, my bin of hot compost gave me kind of a geeky thrill. I suppose the ultimate compost geekery is peeing in a jug, diluting the pee with water, and dumping it all on the pile. Your optimal hot pile needs water as well as air and urine is rich in nitrogen.

  22. Jo Ann says:

    (Sitting in the back of the classroom at 101 composting for beginners, raises hand)

    Asks, “Do I really have to pee on my compost pile?”

    Lol…Sorry Chuck your comment brought a hilarious image to my (all ready warped) mind.

  23. Sysiphus's Gardner says:

    Are we back to garden tinkling again? Folks one day you will get arrest for obscenity with under-aged lawn waste…

  24. commonweeder says:

    I don’t have bins at all, although I did put up two crib ends to mark the backs of two new compost PILES. Compost does just happen, slowly, but fast enough. And my compost is never stinky. Is that because I use so much biomass from the garden and lawn and trees, as well as the kitchen? Add a little soil is a good suggestion. Unfortunately I have no dogs which would help with the deer problem, but that is another issue.

  25. Nancy says:

    My husband and I are both disabled to an annoying extent, so turning a compost pile is a very occasional thing, something done when we are well rested and don’t need the rest of the “budget” of energy we have.

    So, the last 10 years we’ve been slow composting. We build a big heap of leaves, shredded if possible, grass clippings (I’ve been known to grab bags from random yards of the clear bags left by yard companies), and whatever kitchen scraps we have.

    This pile is added to as things get there, and is more…stirred, that turned. When the pile is done…that’s the new garden bed.

    Only drawback is: we’re going to run out of spaces for new garden beds in a couple of years.

  26. Peter Hoh says:

    I’m on a small city lot. Bins help keep the pile contained, and the closed bin keeps rodents from getting to the kitchen scraps.

    For several years, our county offered plastic compost bins at cost. This past year, I saw the same bins at Sam’s Club for the same price the county was charging: $40.

    My cedar bin shown with my low-cost attempt to make it “self-aerating.” I’ve since decided that it’s not worth the bother to include the plastic tubes.

  27. sheila says:

    I have open compost piles in our woods, which are a fair distance from our house. The piles are rarely higher than 2′, or wider than 3′. I use surrounding dirt or ready compost as the starter, and I rarely spend too much time trying to turn the piles. It’s too heavy, which is why I have 3 piles (usually) going at once. We have lots of vegetable, fruit, coffee ground refuse and I trek to the woods probably twice a week with the newest deposit. Sometimes the piles are fast, sometimes slow, but I’m not in a hurry. I have to say composting has almost been the most fun part of gardening. Why is that? The biochemical process is wonderful to watch, and I think it really satisfies my love of working in dirt, by making more dirt. I’ve paid attention to three basic components of composting, but do not worry about equal parts of each. Even in dappled shade, composting works.. the worms are gigantic, and there are lots of them. I do chop up kitchen scraps and get some decent exercise from that, and have not noticed signs of varmints.

  28. My team of foresters have decided to compost surplus as leaves,branches,weeds,sawdust,sawmill ooffcuts,bark etc.We built composters from reject. Started composting near a forest area on 1100m ltitude. We do not mix coniferous waste as such. Started almost two months ago and already hav results that temperature came to about 55 celsius and composting is in full process. Our aim is to have compost as product aplicable in growing organic vegetables,bush plants,fruit trees,nurseries. Aim, De Facto, is to avoid chmicals in soil-supstrat as much as we can. We will appreciate discussions, sugestions etc with interested individuals,parties,institutions.

  29. Hi from Gardener’s Supply,

    You’ll find 18 how-to articles about composting on our website and the most popular one is called “Composting Made Easy” http://www.gardeners.com/Composting-Made-Easy/5061,default,pg.html

    It’s an article I wrote back in the late 1980s, and for more than 20 years we’ve been including a slightly shortened version of it with every composter that we sell. Here’s an excerpt from the section about getting your compost pile to “cook”:

    “Commercial activators can help raise the temperature in your compost pile by providing a concentrated dose of microorganisms and protein. Other effective activators that can help to get your pile cooking include humus-rich soil, rotted manure, finished compost, dried blood, and alfalfa meal.”

    Gardener’s Supply has always offered some type of compost activator. Personally, I have never used any of them, but we have lots of customers who do and for that reason we continue to offer one. We want to get as many people as possible to try composting. It’s our business, yes, but we also want to get people engaged with their soil and with their waste stream. Does everyone need to buy a compost bin to make compost? No, and they don’t need to buy an activator, either. But in our experience it’s often these “accessories” that help people take the plunge and start composting. Right now, so many people are motivated to compost their kitchen and garden scraps – even when the only place that’s available is a corner behind their condo, a rooftop above their apartment or a spot next to their garage. They don’t have any idea how the process works. They just want to do the right thing and we want to do everything we can to help them get started and achieve some measure of success.

    Over the years, we’ve offered at least 50 different types of compost bins – some better than others. My own is one I made myself out of wooden pallets. You can read a blog post about that: http://blog.gardeners.com/2009/04/recycled-compost-bin.html

    Or, scroll to the bottom of the article mentioned above, where we provide instructions for making your own compost bin out of a trash can, recycled pallets, cinder blocks or metal fencing.

    -Kathy LaLiberte, a founding employee-owner

    P.S. We have a 100% money-back guarantee on anything that you purchase from us that doesn’t work or you just don’t like.

  30. Chuck Nevitt says:

    Somebody mentioned grabbing bagged lawn clippings and leaves. I’ve considered doing that (precious natural resource blah blah blah) but I’ve read about how many illnesses can be transmitted to humans from dog poop, which one might assume is part of any bag of stuff gathered from an unknown lawn.

    Anybody have any insight here? A “hot” pile is touted as having the ability to kill off a lot of soil baddies such as weed seeds. Assuming you dump the prize green ingredients directly into your pile and keep it well isolated from your food plants, and go with your method of choice, you should be okay, right?

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