Nutrition Articles

A Beginner's Guide to Composting

4 Steps to Reduce Waste and Fertilize Your Garden

  • Binless "heap" or "pile" method: This is like a "freestyle" method of composting. You simply choose an area in your yard or garden and start layering your organic materials in a pile. This requires no financial investment on your part, but many cities and suburbs prohibit the use of open compost heaps because they can be unsightly and might attract animals (from birds to squirrels and raccoons) seeking the edible food scraps. In reality, a compost heap should be full of worms and other creepy crawlies—not pests! This can be greatly minimized or eliminated altogether by burying your scraps under other organic materials (like grass).
  • Binless "trenching" method: An alternative to a binless compost heap is trenching, in which you bury the organic matter and scraps at least 8 inches in the ground—directly in your garden beds. Let nature do its thing beneath the soil, then plant a garden over it. This should be done at least two months before you wish to use the particular area as a fruit, vegetable or flower garden.
  • DIY garbage can: One of the easiest and most affordable bins is an inexpensive garbage can that you make into a compost bin. This is great for small gardens. Purchase a large plastic or rubber trashcan with a secure-fitting lid. Use a drill to bore 5-6 holes each in the lid, the sides, and bottom of the can to provide airflow that will be essential to breaking down the organic materials placed inside it. You can use a small, medium or large size can, depending on your needs and space available.
  • DIY wire compost bin: A wire compost bin provides structure to an otherwise open compost pile while maximizing oxygen circulation. If you're handy, you can make your own wire compost bin, which is ideal for small gardens and households that produce a small amount of food scraps and yard waste. To construct the bin, find an open spot for your compost. Place 3-4 stakes into the ground in a circular or rectangular shape. Purchase about 10 feet of 36-inch wide wire or plastic mesh. Stretch the mesh fence around the stakes and tie it in place (to each stake) with zip ties or staples.
  • DIY compost pallets: Pick an accessible, level site in your yard before constructing this type of structure. In essence, you are building a three-sided box secured with heavy-duty wire to a pallet on the bottom. The open top and front allows for easy aerating and turning of the pile and can provide ample compost for a medium to large garden. You could easily build additional adjacent bins that can house multiple piles of compost in various stages of completion (more info below). Alternative materials for this method include bales of hay, cinder blocks or untreated wood.
  • Commercial bins: If you're not a do-it-yourselfer, or you are looking for other features in a compost bin, many commercially made bins are available at nurseries, home improvement stores and online retailers. Compared to the DIY method above, store-bought bins can be very expensive, costing up to several hundred dollars. Some commercially made bins are tumblers, which can dramatically speed up the decomposition of your organic waste. Be on the lookout for bins made of recycled plastic, which are more eco-friendly.
  • Worm bin: This method, known as vermicomposting, is ideal for urban gardeners or people who don't have the outdoor space for the compost bins mentioned above. However, it is not for the faint of heart! You can create a worm bin from a 10-gallon plastic tub (a long, rectangular shape works best, but any size or shape that fits your space, such as under a kitchen sink will do). You'll need a steady supply of shredded newspaper, food scraps, and 10-15 dozen worms to eat your food garbage. Be sure to use only red worms (Lumbricus rubellus) or manure worms (Eisenia foetida), as night crawlers or earthworms need large amounts of soil and will not survive in a worm-composting bin. Worm castings (feces) contain more nutrients than traditional compost and thus are the perfect fertilizer for any soil. When a worm digests food scraps, it breaks down minerals and other substances into a more soluble form for plants. Your reward will be the finest, most perfect fertilizer available, but this method requires more attention (the worm’s habitat must not be exposed to extreme heat or cold) and involves harvesting the castings of course, which might not be everybody’s cup of tea. The book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof provides more detailed instructions and troubleshooting tips for worm bins.
As you can see, bins can be simple or complex, homemade or store-bought. There is a composting method for every budget, space and garden.
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