I had the incredible privilege of growing up in a house where saving every compostable scrap possible was the norm. To this day, under my mom’s sink you’ll find a trash can, a recycle bin and a bucket for coffee grounds, egg shells, fruit and veggie peels and table scraps, which we would take out every few days and toss on an ever growing pile in the backyard.
In the summer, we’d toss grass clippings (this is a controversial practice, but I’ve never had any problems) on top, and every fall, we’d cover the pile with leaves. If we ever had a bag of wood chips (there are a few woods and leaves you don’t want to add — local to me are rhododendron and walnut) from the garage, they’d get tossed on too.
Every season we would use a pitch fork and a little elbow grease to turn the pile, covering up new additions and exposing a newly formed layer of gardening gold, rich soil alive with earthworms and millions of microbes, ready to spread in the garden beds to fuel the growth of the next season’s veggies.
The conversion of solid matter to soil has always been a fascinating process to me. The heat produced as materials decompose is astonishing. In the dead of winter, while Montana snow covered the ground, I could stick my fist into the middle of the compost pile and it would burn my hand.
Today, I make my own rich soil using the same composting methods I learned as a kid. Every spring I spread freshly composted material in all my garden beds and even sprinkle some in areas my lawn is struggling.
Composting is a really rewarding way to save on trash fees, to waste less, and to feed your soil.
Even if your gardening pursuits end at a nice green lawn, spreading compost in your grass once or twice a year could yield amazing results.
It should be noted, however, that compost piles, especially in the city, can tend to attract rats, mice, raccoons, possums and other pests, so carefully thinking through the placement and style of compost bin you want is important.
To keep rodents at bay, there are lots of measures that can be taken:
- Lining your compost bin with hardware cloth to prevent burrowers from digging a supply line straight from their nest into your compost pile is a good first step.
- Turning your pile often will help it to decompose faster and will discourage critters.
- Covering the pile with mulch often, such as leaves or straw, will also help keep the smell down and help keep the heat in the pile.
Want to build your own DIY compost bin? Try one of these ideas:
If you have a large yard, an easy, attractive and very affordable option is to pick up three matching free pallets. Put a layer of hardware cloth down on the ground and screw the pallets together in a U-shape on top of it. This will create two walls and a back which will contain your pile as it grows, but also allow easy access for a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow when the time comes to turn it and to harvest completed compost.
On a grander scale, you can gang together two more pallets in an L-shape and then fasten them on either side of your U to make two extra compartments. This is beneficial if you have a whole lot of compost, if you want to age some compost longer, or if you want to use different additives in certain compost piles to experiment and get the best compost possible.
I came upon two instant (and free!) compost bins when my friend told me he was getting rid of two sections of a culvert they’d just put in. I tossed them next to my barn and now I use them to break down the manure and animal bedding.
When we bought our farm, there was also an incredible excess of plastic planting buckets. I have been filling them with manure then stacking them out in the elements, waiting for them to turn into soil. Within a week or two of adding a bucket to the stack, I can reach my hand in and pull out a handful of worms. Next year, I’ll have skipped a step in the planting process and will be able to drop my seeds right into pots that are already prepped with soil.
4. Rubbermaid containers
If you have a small yard or are worried about pests and smell, you can make your own plastic compost bins with lids by drilling a few holes into the top and bottom of a Rubbermaid container. 1/8”-1/4” holes drilled into the top and bottom of a storage container will allow for rain to enter the compost and keep it moist. The holes in the bottom will allow for drainage and will be perfect entry points for worms, beetles and other creatures that will help convert your compost into soil.
Put the bin over dirt, grass or soil, and you will be shocked at how quickly your container has turned into it’s own worm farm for free!
5. Raised beds
If you do a little bit of pre-planning, you can do what I did when I was building my first raised beds: I built them in the fall and filled them with compostable items that composted through the fall and winter, and voila, I had good, fertile soil in my raised beds when spring came (see photo at the beginning of the article).
These specific raised beds were nothing special. I bought eight 8-foot-long cedar boards and one 8-foot-long 2×4 from my home center. I cut two of the 8-foot cedar boards in half and cut the 2×4 into four two 1-foot-long sections. I used these as my four corner pieces and screwed the 8 foot boards two high on either side, then finished off the rectangle by screwing the 4-foot sections two high on either end, as shown above.
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