Bin There, Done That: A guide to compost bins

Published on Thu, 09/18/2014 - 12:31pm

It’s happened again: You diligently mowed your yard and weeded the garden all summer, and now you have a huge pile of twigs, stems, leaves, grass clippings, and deadheads. Rather than consign this to the burn pile, why not try your hand at composting?

Composting is what happens when organic matter is broken down into humus, a rich, fertilizer-like soil amendment. To make great humus, you need to periodically get air into the pile of organic matter so that decomposition can take place. You can use a bin that allows air to infiltrate naturally, or you can tumble. Let’s take a look at each method of how to compost.

Stand-up bins
Compost bins can be simple and homemade or store bought. Enclosed units you buy are typically made of plastic and have the advantages of being ready-to-use and looking reasonably attractive in the yard. Most can be thought of as a garbage can with a trap door near the bottom. You put yard waste in from the top, and eventually remove fully composted material from the bottom. They are low-maintenance and the lid keeps animals out while letting water and air in—at least on the surface.

The downside of enclosed bins is that there is no active manipulation of the contents, so it can take a long time for materials to break down—figure on six months up to two years—unless you reach in to diligently “turn” the material by hand on a regular basis.
Enclosed bins range in cost from about $30 for something basic up to a few hundred dollars for more decorative, rugged, or sophisticated units.

Tumbling bins
These are becoming a popular alternative to an enclosed bin partly because they aren’t as unsightly—and they do a good job. They come in two forms: Balls and tumblers. Regardless of configuration, they key advantage is that tumbling your compost material aerates it, encouraging faster decomposition of the contents.

Balls, or spheres, are made of heavy rubber or poly-products—some are made entirely from recycled materials—and feature a large removable section, or trap door. Garden waste goes in to start the process, and your job is to roll it around every few days. Small vent holes help bring air inside the sphere, and nearly all feature internal tubes or vanes to help break up compost as the ball is moved.
The advantage—besides aeration—is that there is no single “place” for your compost, meaning you can roll it to the edge of the garden when weeding or deadheading, or when offloading the finished material. On the other hand, others come with a base that lets you roll it in place. The disadvantage is that they can become quite heavy when loaded, and don’t always roll where you would like them to.
Sphere-shaped compost bins run anywhere from $150 to $300, depending on size and material used.

Tumbler bins are essentially raised drums, and operate on the same principle as spheres—you load the material through a trap door and supply hand-power to mix and break up the compost. There are two configurations, with the major difference being whether the rod mounting it to the base goes across the middle of the drum, or from end-to-end.
Middle-mounted composters—think of an oil barrel standing on end—offer a large opening at the end to more easily load and unload material. Many models have hand cranks for better turning leverage. Composted items in middle-mounted tumblers have a large “fall” distance when tumbled, encouraging thorough aeration. Some models have doors at both ends, making for easy unloading of the finished product.
End-mounted compost tumblers—like an oil barrel on its side—are usually easier to turn for aeration, but capacity can be an issue. Side-by-side models enable you to fill one side and let it “cook” and still load newer material through the season in the other side.
Tumblers range in cost from under $50 to more than $300, depending on size and accessories.

Things to keep in mind

  •  Bins and tumblers may be weather-proof but they certainly aren’t insect-proof. Brace yourself for a cloud of gnats every time you open the lid. Keeping eye protection nearby wouldn’t be a bad idea.
  •  Compared with “heap” composting—where you simply make a pile on the ground—the closed environment of bins will mean a change in the ratio of “greens” (grass clippings, for instance) to “browns” (dry leaves and stems). Because moisture doesn’t evaporate as quickly, reduce the proportion of grass clippings and increase the amount of dry matter.
  •  While decomposing, your material should feel something like a slightly damp sponge. If it is too wet, add some straw or leaves and tumble to mix. If it feels dry, toss in a cup of water, tumble and check the feel later in the day.

For people whose style is typically hands-off, you are best to stay with a heap or pile method of composting. But if you are willing to spend 30 to 90 seconds every couple of days tumbling or aerating your compost bin, your garden will reward you next season with a bountiful harvest.

Compost begins at home

You can start the compost cycle right on your kitchen counter with a countertop compost pail.
Countertop composters actually begin the process by providing a convenient collection site at the place where waste originates. Stemmy or wilted lettuce, carrot tops, eggshells, and coffee grounds all can begin breaking down before they leave the house
These typically hold from one to nearly three gallons. It may take some trial and error, but finding the correct size for your needs is paramount—some of us make more waste than others. The most important feature is that they are convenient to use, so if “out of sight, out of mind” means you forget about it, place it on the counter rather than under it.
Units can be decorative or strictly utilitarian, and range from simple plastic to colorful stoneware, attractive wood, or even stainless steel. Look for a tight-fitting lid to keep odors contained. Some encourage air exchange to begin the decomposing process, but often have carbon filters in the lid.

Cost for these ranges from about $15 up to $50 for the most decorative.