Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Fifty gallons of black gold is excavated out of my back yard every fall. Nutrient rich compost is organic, very low cost, and easy to make. Mining the compost bins is the crux of the process. The bins are 3 feet square and four feet tall. Stuff in the yard and food waste, add water, and voila compost! Well, it really isn’t that simple.

I procured the bins from the county’s environmental program several years ago when they had a sale. Thirty dollars per bin made out of recycled plastic slats and assembled from a box was a bargain since the normal retail price is ninety dollars. I purchased four and realized that I needed more. Last year a neighbor bought a different bin and gave me their old one. I don’t bother staking them into the ground, I just anchor the bin in a couple inches below the ground level and they have not needed any more securing.

Yard waste comprises the majority of the input. All household paper products that don’t contain chemicals such as Kleenexes, paper towels, napkins, and paper plates are added with food scraps and used tea leaves (I’m not a coffee drinker), though no bones. The bins have a lid but I like to keep the contents exposed to air and moisture. Pests such as squirrels and raccoons like to feast on the contents so they must be kept at bay. I constructed a double layer of chicken wire about a foot wider than the bin. It is secured with long vegetable stakes that slightly poke through the chain-link fence next to the bins. I add a couple bricks on top of the wire and no pests have broken through the security measures. City critters are fed well enough; they don’t need my compost ingredients to add to their feast.

Each empty bin is filled with layers of new and old waste in the fall. I place the hard to break down materials on the bottom, like raspberry canes and black-eyed susan stalks. The next layer is smaller material with a gallon bucket of not-quite-done compost poured on top. I tamp it down with a shovel. Don’t get into the bin and stomp on the contents because they will be too compacted and not able to disintegrate. Continue layering new material with old waste until the bin is full. Secure the top with the chicken wire and wait for it to cook, aka rot. All it can do during the winter is freeze dry and collect layers of ice and snow.

The waste deteriorates when it is above freezing and moist, not drenched. Mice and voles tunnel in and consume the edibles. Worms inhabit moist areas and munch some more. Microbes nibble at the remainder. During the summer I turn the contents every two weeks or so. I use a short potato pitchfork to dig out the contents of one bin and dump it into a wheel barrel. I mix the remainder of the bin around the bottom. The bins are positioned next to each other so I then dump the contents of the neighboring bin into the partially empty bin. After the final bin is mixed I transfer the wheel barrel contents in and I’m done. At this time I check for moisture. If the bins are a bit dry I add water whenever I water the garden. If they are too wet I put on the bin covers over the chicken wire to let them dry out a little. The bin does not stink unless a lot of food waste is near the top and when you stick your head into it. My neighbors have never complained.

The first year I added coffee grounds and compost enzymes. They are no longer needed since I can use the not-quite-done matter to the new materials and pass along the microbes. Every fall I clean out the bins. This is the most physically challenging task. I place the covers on the bins as soon as the weather turns to fall, meaning that the first frost has occurred. The bins need a couple weeks to dry out or else I could be mining mud.

Pull one bin out of the ground and empty the contents onto an old plastic shower curtain. Place another plastic curtain on the ground and center the empty bin. Empty five-gallon buckets are placed inside the bin and to each side. I take off one layer of the removable slats and position a homemade screen over its top. My neighbor constructed a quarter-inch heavy gage wire mesh screen to fit inside the top of the bin. The wood sides of the box are four inches tall so I can load a lot of compost onto the screen. I ladle the compost onto the screen and gently push it around. What falls through is ready for use, the remaining bits are placed into the wheel barrel to be added back in with the new material and have another year to cook.

Screening the cooked compost is the most physically demanding part of the task. I split the task between two or three days to avoid exhaustion. Compost is a lot better than manure or chemical fertilizers. My garden grows well as a result. I store the five-gallon buckets in my shed. I cover each with a lid and place a brick on top, otherwise the voles tunnel in for supper. The mined compost continues to cook during warm weather and I target where I spread the compost for best results. If you use it for indoor plants make certain that you sterilize the compost to kill off any seeds that still may be lingering. Place in an old cake pan and bake in the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour, let it cool before you use it. Stay nearby because it can catch fire if it becomes too hot or dry.

Happy mining!
© 2011 Ima B. Musing