You can compost! I don’t care if you’re in an apartment, have a small yard, or a farm. You can compost. It’ll look different for everyone, but there is a solution for all of you. Before I get into different DIY and store bought bins, I want to look at the basic components of a compost pile and why it’s a million times better than that bright blue fertilizer you just spray into your garden.
Compost can either go beautifully right or horrifically wrong. The secret to getting crumbly, earthy black gold instead of thick, slimy black ooze that reeks of death is maintaining a balance between “green matter” and “brown matter”. Brown matter is stuff like grass clippings and dead leaves. Green matter is stuff like your fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen. If you maintain a roughly 50/50 balance between green and brown matter you should be able to stand right next to your compost pile without gagging. It should smell earthy, not repulsive.
Things You Can Put In a Compost Pile
- All vegetable waste including your dead vegetable plants.
- Fruit waste, but limit the amount of citrus.
- Coffee Grounds
- Egg Shells
- Grass Clippings
- Dead Leaves
- Misc. yard waste such as pulled weeds, dead flowers, etc.
- Branches can be composted, but they take a long time to breakdown, so I don’t do it.
- Manure from animals like rabbits, cows, horses, and chickens. Do not put your dog’s or cat’s poo in your compost pile, please. Rabbit manure is the best and can even be put directly into your garden without composting. Other manure should be fully composted.
Things You Should NOT Put In a Compost Pile
- Dairy Products
- Stickers on your produce. Remove them before adding to your pile.
- Greasy foods
- Processed foods
Make a “Sandwich”
There are multiple methods for how you assemble all your compost materials. I prefer to do what I call the “sandwich method”. You have a base of brown matter and then you put a layer of green matter on top, and then you sandwich it with a layer of brown matter on top. This layering ensures you maintain a healthy balance between brown and green matter, and it encourages worms to happily chomp away at all levels of your compost.
Worms! I know, I know. Some of you think they’re gross, but they are some of your best allies. They speed up the breakdown of your compost and their poo a.k.a. “castings” improve the richness of your compost. If you want, you can order red worms online to add to your pile.
If it’s a dry summer and your compost pile starts to dry out, you’ll need to water it to keep everything breaking down. If you’re trying to save on the water bill since you’re watering the garden more, use water that you save from waiting on the water to get hot or water that you’ve used to cook. This is a good thing to do anyway, but it’s easy to forget sometimes.
You can choose to turn your compost or just leave it be. There are arguments for both methods, so I’ll let you choose. I’ve done both and I always end up with compost either way.
Free Compost from the City (Stay Away)
Some cities (including Fort Wayne) offer free compost if you load it yourself. I would not recommend this for your vegetable gardens. The reason I don’t recommend it is because they use biosolids in the city compost. Biosolids are the byproduct of the municipal wastewater treatment and they can contain human and animal feces, industrial chemicals, medical waste, oil products, pesticides, and home cleaners.
Why is Compost Better Than Chemical Fertilizer?
Modern agriculture relies on the use of sprayed on Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK) to keep their crops alive. It works, but it’s flawed in many ways. Soil that is deprived of organic matter year after year tends to be more easily eroded by wind and water. This erosion results in the loss of the fertile top soil that makes agriculture and our existence possible. This erosion also results in more fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides in our streams and rivers.
Soil that is rich with organic matter holds together better. It also requires less watering because it holds onto moisture longer. Plants do need NPK to survive, but to thrive they need a more complex ecosystem in the soil. Compost contains not only the basic NPK, but it also contains that aforementioned complex ecosystem of microscopic organisms that have symbiotic relationships with plants.
I could go on and on about this because I think soil science is sexy. If you are genuinely curious as well, I recommend reading The Soil Will Save Us. It goes more in-depth and explains how soil is the most powerful tool we have to help mitigate the effects of climate change.
Where Do I Put all this Stuff?
Here’s the part where you’ll need to asses your personal living situation and determine what method works best for you. If you have a big yard out in the country, you can just find a corner and start piling it up. I don’t recommend this if your in any type of urban setting.
We were lucky to move to a house that had a surplus of old, red bricks already here. I stacked them to create an open top rectangle. I also made a leaf barrel out of chicken wire and some poles. This wire leaf barrel allows me to easily access brown matter year round. The wire method also allows airflow and keeps the leaves useable for many months. You can use a wire barrel for your main compost bin too!
You can buy attractive looking compost bins of various sizes, but they can be a bit pricey. If you live in an apartment this is really your only option, and they do sell small ones made specifically for indoor use. Search Amazon for “compost bins” and you’ll find what you’re looking for. I have never used one, so I don’t want to endorse any product I haven’t used and approved of.
You can construct your own out of lumber and/or wire. If you use lumber, make sure it is untreated. Cedar is what I recommend. It naturally resists rot and will last a long time. Treated lumber might be made to last too, but it will leach harmful chemicals into your compost and therefore into your vegetables. Some examples I’ve seen use pallets in their bin construction. I would advise you to be cautious if you go this route. Some pallets are treated with unsafe chemicals and unless you know for sure the history of that pallet, don’t use it. If you need specific plans or inspiration for building your own, here are a few I’ve found that might work for you. Click the pictures the visit the websites. The last example has rabbit hutches above the compost pile so the poop falls directly into it. Lazy geniuses.