The lone voice of horticultural reason

Basics To Composting Part I

10-1-1998 — With only three columns remaining for this year, I thought long and hard about ignoring the topic of composting for the rest of my ’98 stint, thereby completing two full seasons without once writing on the subject. My goal for this column has always been to focus on gardening trends and topics I’m not seeing addressed elsewhere; in terms of overexposure, composting probably leads the pack.

Still, having made and used compost in my yard for a decade, I have some opinions on the topic, mild disagreement with some of the information that’s out there, and a few practical tips from my experience that could prove helpful.

First, do you really need to make compost? After all, only about half the hobby gardeners in America do. Well, sorry to say, they are the better half. You can buy (and haul home) peat moss and composted manure by the truckload, mix it in to your soil spring, summer and fall, and your soil won’t be as healthy and good for gardening as is soil amended by compost. Full of organic nutrients and microorganisms, it is the key to rich, friable soil. If your goal is to grow the most beautiful flowers and robust vegetables possible, compost is a must. Why not make it for free, and have an on-going supply, ready when you need it?

The first step is to settle on the location of your compost bins. Note I said “bins.” My experience has been two are better than one, and three is best. The disadvantage of a single bin-which is most often recommended-is that your entire supply of compost is always all at the same stage. If you start a bin in the fall, your compost is finished about the next July, so what have you to use in the spring? Further, when your compost is finished and you want to use it about the garden for the next few months, you can’t be adding whole new layers of uncomposted materials to the finished batch; why not start a second batch during this downtime? You should, but you need a second bin.

Placing your bins in a sunny spot is best. Heat from the sun helps the decomposition process. At the least, you want your bins to receive a couple of hours of direct sunlight.

I have two side-by-side compost bins, each measuring 3′ x 6′ x 4′ high. One cubic yard (3′ x 3′ x 3′) is the minimum size you should build; there is no maximum size. One of my bins was made by pounding six, six-foot green metal fence stakes into the ground (the four corners plus one midway on each of the two six-foot sides) and wrapping it with four-foot-high chicken wire.

The last three feet of the chicken wire fastens a bit past the left-corner stake (where it begins) with a couple of wire twists, so that when I remove the twists this section acts as a gate. Total cost of materials was around $25. I read someone somewhere telling people not to use chicken wire because it doesn’t last long enough; mine is ten years old, couldn’t work better, and shows no sign of needing new chicken wire for at least three more years.

My second bin is right next to it, made from 12″ cedar boards, with a 4″ x 4″ post in each corner. The 3′ front side is hinged and latched. This one is for finished compost. When the chicken-wire bin is full and partially composted, rather than turn it (pitch it all out with a pitchfork, then pitch it back in again) I just pitch it from the wire bin to the cedar bin, which puts the less-decomposed stuff on the top to the bottom, and the better stuff on the bottom to the top. It quickly finishes composting in the cedar bin.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener