Friday, July 23, 2010

Building a Compost Bin

As you all know, i have a beautiful compost heap in the backyard. It has two sides, a 'working' side and a 'idle' side: right now the left is where we add all our trimmings and kitchen waste, and the right side just hangs out getting turned occasionally waiting to become finished compost. My compost heap is so pretty that my dear friend Mary asked me if i'd help her put together her own composting project. We wanted to use supplies she had on hand, plus any extras needed to help tie together said scrap supplies. Mary has two rambunctious dogs and no chickens, so we wanted to build something rather sturdy and 'keep the critters out' friendly. There are a million ways to compost -from state of the art designer bins you can buy, to a mushy pile hiding in your back yard. An ideal system would be to have two or three bins or bin compartments - add waste to all three bins, at some point discontinuing new additions to one bin. Continue to add scraps to bins 2 and 3 and allow bin one to 'finish' composting - you should get compost in about 6 months without a lot of turning. Composting is a personal experience, and should work around your lifestyle. You can turn it every day, you can ignore it for months at a time. However you compost, the organic matter will do the work for you - it just might take longer if you give it less love.
I'm very sad to say that my compost heap is habitat to many lovely and magical geckos - which is great, but what's not great is that BB my Chanteclar hen is a ruthless hunter. Just today she nabbed a very large gecko and dispatched it despite my efforts to distract her. I really hate the negative impact the hens have on some of natives. I will definitely be restricting their access to my future homestead so that plenty of habitat remains for the locals. I always catch and release the lizards that get in the house out to the front yard where there are fewer feathery arsenals.

I've mentioned once before this amazing book on composting that should have a place on any gardener's bookshelf. It really takes the mystery out of the scientific/organic process of decomposition and gives plenty of details to help you make the most of your compost heap. From ratios to generalizations, this book has it all. But when it comes down to it - "whatever was once alive" has a place in the compost heap. I'm talking hair, feathers, food scraps, moldy bread, cardboard, paper, toilet paper rolls, abandoned leftovers, yard trimmings, weeds, leaves, plant cuttings, and ruminate (horse, goat, pig) poop or human pee (yes, the urea is a great compost activator). No dog/cat poo please or rancid meat or dairy. Just about everything else is fair game. To get really happy compost you have to have some manure. My chickens provide almost enough, but i still like to supplement my pile with some horse manure or whatever poo i can get my hands (gloved) on. I like to let my chickens into the pile when i first add in scraps. I used to feed them the scraps directly, but with the puppy in the backyard i prefer to keep their treats out of her reach. They aerate the heap with their scratching, eat up any goodies including bugs that in turn improves their egg production and general well being, and provide fresh poo to the heap all the while.

Back to Mary's compost - here's what we had on hand:
  • Wire from my yard
  • Yellawood lumber with pointed ends perfect for driving into the ground
  • Wierd masonite plywood stuff
  • Smaller holed wire
  • Shovel, mallet, nails

The structural integrity is held up by four posts at the corners. Removable/exchangeable boards are placed on the interior of the posts to keep the moisture and warmth of the bin in. When these get too cmposted Mary can switch them out for some cardboard or whatever she has on hand. The heap is held together with some wire that will allow air flow and moisture in. It would be nice to divide this bin into two sections so that she can have one pile 'finishing' and another to put scraps in - but she can also just concentrate her addition of new scraps to one area and dig out any finished compost she needs from the bottom. The doggies should be pretty well deterred by the height and stabbiness of the wire - but Mary will need to get a large piece of cardboard like i use, or an old quilt or carpet scrap to cover the heap with. Uncovered the pile will dry out too quickly and be more attractive to pooch investigation.

The scene is set
Not a bad hour and a half's work! We got good and sweaty and filled with pride. We didn't purchase a single supply: all were on hand in her backyard or mine. That's the way to build a compost heap! Compost is the ultimate "get the most out of what you have" turning common waste into the best fertilizer/ soil treatment a gardener could ask for. Compost is nature's way of dealing with plant waste and enriching the soil. Compost loads the earth with nutrients and improves soil texture and water retention. Compost tea (diluted compost stepped in spring water) can be used as a foliar feed, soil feed, and pest/disease deterrent.

Here in Austin there's a lovely program to help folks delve into the magical world of composting. I'm not much on fancy compost bins, though i do miss my worm bin. But for some folks they're a real convenience, so check out that program if you're local. Basically you just take a free composting class and they help you buy a compost bin with a city rebate. I prefer the way Mary and I did it, but taking advantage of city rebates is always good.

So, if you've been making excuses about how hard a composter would be to build, expensive to buy, or inconvenient to use: GET OVER IT! Go out there and start composting, even if it's just a pile of leaves (which is how MY compost heap started out). Your garden will thank you and your waste will be reduced. Every trash can should be equipped with a hand slapper that chastises humans for putting compostable items into the bin. Composting is where it's at and there is NO excuse not to be doing it!!!

**Update for a PS: Check out this great post about compost at Not Dabbling In Normal. I want that book!

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