Construct a Simple Compost System

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The spring is a good time to harvest finished compost and spread it on garden beds and perennials before planting time.
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“Suburban Micro-Farm” by Amy Stross is the perfect guide for readers who want to live a homestead lifestyle in the suburbs.

The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People(Twisted Creek Press, 2017), by Amy Stross is a helpful guide for readers wanting to grow their own food in their backyard. The book provides useful tips to develop and nurture healthy-soil, use perma-culture techniques for abundant harvests, and to stop letting your garden overwhelm you. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, “Developing Healthy Soil.”

Compost is a way to transform food scraps and yard waste — items that might otherwise go to the landfill l— into a useful and free soil amendment. There are many ways to compost, but here are a few composting styles to meet the needs of beginners and serious micro-farmers alike.

Build a Compost Heap in a Day

Growing up, I learned how to compost by using a heap. We collected kitchen scraps in a compost pail, and my brothers and I took turns emptying it into a compost heap in the corner of the yard. This heap is also where we put grass clippings and other yard waste. The problem with the heap is that there is no easy way to access finished compost without disturbing the rest of the pile, so — for us at least — all of that goodness never got used. The pile just got higher!

However, there is one way that the heap method can be an extremely efficient way to make compost. If you have access to composting materials in bulk, building a heap all at once can yield lots of finished compost all at once, which is essential for anyone starting new gardens on a budget.

John Jeavons in How to Grow More Vegetables recommends finding a spot underneath an oak tree or other deciduous tree because they provide shade throughout the summer as well as a windbreak.

To build a compost heap in a day, measure out a square that is a minimum of four feet long by four feet wide. Outline it with temporary fencing if desired. Loosen the soil using a digging fork. The pile will measure four feet tall. Create compost quickly and evenly by collecting at least three different types of materials, plus a bit of soil, which will serve to inoculate the compost with beneficial soil microbes. Each layer will be about two inches thick and alternated in the following order, with the final top layer being soil.

The first layer will include small sticks, twigs, or dried stalks. The second layer will consist of dry vegetation such as leaves, chemical-free straw, or dried grass. The third layer will consist of green vegetation such as weeds, grass clippings, food scraps, and even coffee grounds. And of course, the final layer is soil. This pile will not require turning, and should be ready in two or three months’ time.

Round Wire Compost Bins

When Mr. Weekend Warrior and I began composting together as newlyweds (romantic, right?), we started with a heap for sticks and brush, and created a simple, round bin with 16-gauge galvanized wire fencing to compost kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and leaves. The organic material was added on top and covered with leaves.

If you’re new to composting, this bin is a perfect way to get started. For the best use of the wire bin technique, I recommend starting with two holding units. These units are inexpensive and easy to manage, which are important considerations while you learn how to compost. The following design was our first system, and though we’ve expanded our composting operation since then, we still use these wire bins.

Arrange your two bins side by side. One will be the leaf bin, and the other will be the compost bin. Fill the leaf bin with leaves in the fall. Shredding them first with a lawn mower or mulcher is even better. Straw or other dry, brown material will work if you don’t have access to leaves. Try to find organic straw, since herbicide residues in conventional straw can be persistent and reduce germination rates and vigor in plants.

To start, add six inches of leaves, straw, or even sticks and twigs to the bottom of the empty compost bin. This will allow good air circulation for faster composting. Each time you add food scraps, grass clippings, or even livestock manure (not pet manure) to the compost bin, cover it completely with a layer of dry, brown material from the leaf bin. This will prevent attracting flies and other wildlife, prevent foul odors, and speed up the composting process.

When you’re ready to harvest finished compost from the wire bin, simply knock it over, harvest the finished compost at the bottom (leaving the uncomposted contents), and straighten it back up again to continue composting from the top. Once you get serious about composting, the wire bin system might not be big enough for your needs, but it is an excellent place to start. It’s easy to add more wire bins to the system if you have the space for them, or try the 3-bin turning unit.

Build Your Own Compost Bin

To build two wire bins, you’ll need:

• (2) 10-foot lengths of 1/2-inch wide hardware cloth
• work gloves
• wire snips
• metal file
• heavy wire for ties
• pliers

1. Trim each end of the hardware cloth back to a cross wire so there aren’t any sharp edges to poke or snag hands. File the cut edge so it’s safe to handle when opening and closing the bin.

2. Bend the hardware cloth into a circle, and place it where your compost will be located.

3. Cut the heavy wire into lengths for ties and, using pliers, attach the two ends of the hardware cloth together with the ties to hold the hardware cloth in a round shape.

The 3-Bin Turning Unit

At some point, Mr. Weekend Warrior completed a Master Composter course, in which the 3-bin compost system was esteemed as the mother of all backyard compost bins. They look neat and orderly, and the frequent turning helps the contents compost faster. This technique will work well if you have limited space for compost bins and heaps. It is also easy to harvest the finished compost from this unit.

The way the 3-bin unit works is that food scraps are added to the bin on the left. To the side of the 3-bin unit we keep a round wire bin (our old compost bin!) filled with leaves, and whenever we add food scraps, we cover them with leaves.

Some people use straw or other types of “brown” material when leaves aren’t available. Whatever you use, it’s important to cover food scraps in order to reduce pests and odors, as well as to speed the composting process by balancing the carbon to nitrogen ratios.

Once the left bin is full, we use a pitchfork to scoop it into the middle bin. This turning process aerates the pile, helping to speed up composting.

Then we start over by again adding food scraps and yard waste to the left bin. When it’s full again and ready to be scooped to the middle, the existing contents of the middle bin are moved to the bin on the right. Contents will generally take about two or three months to compost completely, longer in cooler weather. By this time, the contents in the right bin should be finished composting and ready to be spread in the garden. If I find any sticks or uncomposted scraps, I just toss them back into the middle bin to compost some more.

We built a wood-and-wire unit, plans for which can be found at most cooperative extension websites. Wooden slats on the front of each bin are removable when it’s time to scoop. The wood and wire 3-bin unit is a nice setup that helps to keep a composting operation looking nice and orderly in the urban or suburban backyard. But this design is not the cheapest to build.

At our community garden, we needed a cheaper option, so we built the same 3-bin unit using free pallets and securing the corners with T-posts. It’s not as pretty, but it actually gives us a little more flexibility. To make it, you’ll need seven pallets, plus an optional three more to make doors, if desired. Pallets can often be found for free at independent garden nurseries or hardware stores. Look for pallets with the HT stamp on them, which means that they were heat treated, rather than the CT stamp for chemically treated. Pallets are usually 4′ x 3.4′.

Other materials:

• 6 (6-foot) steel T-posts, plus 3 for optional doors
• heavy duty twine
• sledgehammer

Stand up two pallets to create a 90-degree L-shape and mark the ground on the outside corner where the two pallets meet. Now, set the pallets back down and use the sledgehammer to drive in a T-post on the mark. Stand up both pallets one at a time and lash them to the post with twine at the top and bottom. Attach a second pallet to the other side at a 90-degree angle to create a three-sided box, using a T-post and twine.

Repeat this process until you have three, three-sided boxes. When it’s time to begin adding material to the unit, having a door on the front may help you contain more material. To make a door, simply use a T-post on one side to create a “hinged” door with an additional pallet, which can be lashed with twine to close on the other side if desired.

The benefit of this design is that it is a temporary structure that can easily be moved and modified. When you’re ready to move a pile from one bin to the next, for example, the doors can be removed for easy scooping and reattached later with more twine. Some gardeners even temporarily remove the inner wall pallet when moving piles to avoid having to scoop up and over the divider wall. In fact, this design even gives you the flexibility of moving the entire unit if needed, for very little cost. For a more permanent 3-bin unit, use 16d galvanized nails to attach the pallet corners to one another at the top and bottom.

How to Compost

Composting is a simple procedure once you get the hang of it. Simply layer nitrogen materials such as food scraps, grass, and manure with dry carbon materials such as leaves and straw to create an environment for biological decomposition.

What to Compost:

• Coffee grounds

• Coffee filters

• Eggshells

• Fruit and vegetable scraps

• Tea leaves + tea bags

• Yard waste (grass, leaves, weeds)

• Straw

• Livestock manure

How to Use Finished Compost

The spring is a good time to harvest finished compost and spread it on garden beds and perennials before planting time. However, finished compost can be spread at any time by following these tips.

Shovel the finished compost into a wheelbarrow, returning uncomposted food scraps or yard waste back to the bin to compost further. Now, use the finished compost in your vegetable garden beds by spreading the compost one to two inches thick and mixing it into the top six inches of soil using a digging fork. If the beds are already planted and it isn’t possible to mix the compost into the soil right away, then pile the compost in a shady spot with good drainage and add it to the garden at a later time. Alternatively, you can spread compost between rows of crops, being very careful to not touch the stems of plants.

Preventing Foul Odors in Compost

Occasionally, a compost bin will have a foul odor, which is an indication that the aerobic composting process has slowed. The most common source of this problem is too much nitrogen. To correct this, simply add more dry, brown material.

Foul odors could also be a sign of too much moisture. To correct this, a non-permeable or semi-permeable cover can be placed over the bin to reduce the amount of rain that infiltrates. It will be important for the pile to stay moist, however, so lift the cover at least once a week to allow some rain to percolate through. Chlorinated municipal water is not recommended, as it can disrupt the biological process.

Too much moisture could also be an indication that the bin is not located in the proper space. Perhaps the bin is in a low spot that collects too much standing water. Placing it under a deciduous tree will shield it from heavy rains while still allowing some rain to enter.

Animal Problems in the Compost

Rodents and raccoons can sometimes be a concern with backyard composting, and rats are a common complaint among urban gardeners. When I first began composting in our backyard, I wondered if the opossums and raccoons would be attracted to our bins, and if there were a way to discourage them.

I discovered that composting only those items that are approved for backyard composting is essential to deterring animals. That means animal products such as meat, dairy, or oils should never be added to the bin. Secondly, all food scraps should be buried under a brown, carbon-based material. Above, I describe how we keep a bin filled with leaves or straw next to the compost bin, and whenever food scraps are added, we cover them completely with leaves. With these two practices alone, we haven’t had any unwanted visits from the raccoons or opossums.

Other Deterrents

Prevent burrowing and access to the bin: Attach pieces of 1/2-inch hardware cloth to the bottom and over the top to prevent access. This makes it more difficult for you to access, but if you’re having rodent trouble, this will be an essential step. Rats can chew through plastic, so be sure to use the hardware cloth.

Turn the compost at least once a month to discourage them from making a permanent home in it.

Plant mint plants around the bins to repel them. I like mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) because it doesn’t spread like other mints from the Mentha family.

These problem animals do not like people, so place your bin where there is a lot of human activity and where you can visit it daily.

Dogs and cats: I grew up composting in our backyard near the woods, where you might guess would be a prime location to get unwelcome rodent and raccoon visitors. But we never had any problems, and I suspect it had something to do with regular patrols from our dog and cat.

If you do all of these things and still have a nuisance problem, then I would suggest only composting yard waste (no food waste) in your backyard bin. Start a worm bin inside to compost food scraps.

Tip: Where to Place a Compost Bin

Whether you’re using round wire bins or a 3-bin unit, placing your compost bin in the right location will help you have a well-functioning operation. Place them on a level, well-drained spot over soil or lawn (not a paved area). A partially shady area is ideal — such as under a deciduous tree — where the bin will have protection from the blazing, midday summer sun as well as from freezing winter winds.

More from The Suburban Micro-Farm:
DIY Herb Spiral

Excerpted fromThe Suburban Micro-Farmby Amy Stross. Published by Twisted Creek Press, © 2017.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
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