Simple home-made composting bin produces great dirt

BY SUSAN JONAS

Garden Club of Danville

A few years ago, I was given a fancy rotating compost bin for Mother’s Day. (Only a dedicated gardener would be thrilled with such an unsentimental gift.) It was simple to toss in garden or kitchen waste, give it a spin, and get fast results from regular rotation.

The difficulty came three months later when retrieving fresh compost through the trap door proved awkward. Draining the nutrient-rich liquid from the catch basin underneath was even harder for me.

Then I read an article about making a simple compost bin from a plastic storage tub with a lid. I’m up for anything that requires little physical effort, and this looked like a lazy gardener’s dream.

The plastic tub has been such a success that yesterday I purchased another tub so there is one tub “cooking” and a second tub full of ready-to-use compost. They sit next to the trash cans beside the garage, out of sight but handy to use.

The tub should be 18 gallons or larger; mine is the 31-gallon size. It must have a snap-on lid. It took less than 15 minutes to modify the tub and another 15 minutes to start the composting process. Using an electric drill, I made holes a few inches apart in the sides and bottom of the tub, leaving the lid undrilled.

First, I tossed a loose layer of twigs and sticks in the bottom of the tub. This will help air circulate and keep the drainage holes in the bottom open.

On top of the sticks, I added some partially decomposed compost from my old bin. This adds micro-organisms and gets the process started. A shovel-full of dirt from the garden serves the same purpose.

With the enthusiastic help of two young neighbors, several worms were found to toss on the pile. With the lid snapped on, it was ready to go.

I’ve been composting so long that it feels like a sin to throw kitchen waste in the trash. Vegetable and fruit scraps, used paper towels and napkins are collected in a crock under the kitchen sink and dumped in my bin every day or two.

Efficient people stir their compost regularly for quick results, but I just let mine sit until the bin is full. The top half or so, still in recognizable vegetable form, is forked into another container. The good stuff is in the bottom half of the first bin. The unfinished goop will continue decomposing in the other bin and be ready later in the summer.

Nothing much happens over the winter, as the mass is not large enough to get hot in cold weather. Once the weather warms up, the process moves quickly.

There are a few things that don’t break down in such a small pile. Eggshells, corn cobs, avocado skins and pits come through unscathed, so they go in the trash instead.

I’ve learned not to include squash, melon, or gourd seeds, either. A few invariably sneak in. They survive the composting and pop up all over the garden after compost is spread. If you have room, it’s fun to let some of them grow and see what you get. My mystery vines have yielded cantaloupes, acorn squash, and pretty pumpkins for Halloween.

I wish you could see the beautiful dark, crumbly earth just retrieved from bin number one and ready to use in the garden. It looks like the very best quality potting soil, with no odor but that of good, clean dirt.

I gently scratch it around my best plants and put a scoop in the hole for new plantings. There is never enough to go as far as I would like, but isn’t that the way with most of our favorite things?

A layer of compost, minus the worms, goes in the bottom of containers for indoors or out. When roots spread through the potting soil and eventually reach the compost, they get a boost with no work from the gardener.

Compost piles need both green and brown material. Too much fresh, green vegetation gets wet and slimy. Too much dried, brown material, like autumn leaves or dry stems, and nothing much happens for a long time.

If your compost begins to smell bad or attract insects, it needs a layer of brown material on top. Shredded newspaper, cardboard egg cartons, straw, or old leaves all work fine. The worms and microbes will mix it all together in time.

Friends with horses just gave me four tubs of composted manure. That’s another unsentimental gift to make a gardener’s heart sing. What could be more satisfying on a sunny spring day than playing with manure and compost? Not everyone has access to livestock manure, but anybody can make a simple compost bin and produce their own rich dirt.