Simple compost systems Composting is simply the process that converts raw organic matter into a soft, crumbly substance that can be used as a soil conditioner or mulch. It can be done in any number of places (in nature it happens continuously on the damp forest floor). Here we look at five approaches.
Pair of bins keeps piles neat
Two classic-style bins (above) hold Melva Edrington's compost pile in Eugene, Oregon. Both bins are about 4 feet on a side--the optimum size to balance heat retention and air penetration in the pile (both of these factors are important for speedy decomposition).
In the left bin, she alternates layers of wet ingredients (fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves, grass clippings) and somewhat drier material (spent plants, dry leaves, semiwoody hedge clippings). To the left of the bin, she piles coarser brush until enough wet material is available to layer with it.
For fastest decomposition, use a formula of about 1/3 wet ingredients (or manure) and 2/3 drier, more fibrous ones. Mix evenly or layer only a few inches thick.
While the pile is small, shifting the contents with a garden fork as you add new material gives adequate aeration. Once the bin is nearly full, bulky materials decompose faster if the pile is turned into alternate bins every three to four days for a few weeks (after that, benefits are less dramatic).
As compost matures, it can be sifted through the screen into a barrow for immediate use, or into the storage bin.
This bin takes what it can get--free
For a bin like the one shown above, you can use wooden pallets, crates, or scrap wood, often available free. Several times a week, this gardener pulls material from the sides of his bin with a spading fork to cover kitchen scraps dumped on top. Before adding stiff leaves and woody material, he cuts them into 3-inch pieces. Even without a grinder, his compost is ready in about six weeks during warm weather.
When one bin is full, he starts a second. By the time the second bin is full, the first is usually empty.
Pit system gets compost out of sight
To avoid the sight of debris and any hint of odor, Robert Willot of Kent, Washington, composts underground, as shown on page 200. By the time successive rows of trenches reach the back of the pit, material buried at the front is usually ready to use. As the pit becomes deeper, he covers new raw material with poor soil from other areas of the garden.
Instead of keeping your pit in one place, you can dig a hole or pit anywhere poor soil needs improving if you don't intend to plant for several months. Bury the raw material at least several inches deep.
Recycling the lawn
When sod strips came out in fall to make way for an herb garden, Gretchen Hall of Salem, Oregon, stacked them upside-down several feet deep and covered them with plastic. Kept moist, they were the consistency of potting soil by spring.
In hot weather, plastic slows moisture loss; in rainy winters, it keeps out excess water. In drier areas, remove plastic once cool rains arrive, or omit entirely and let decomposition start with the rains.
Concrete blocks are long-lasting
These blocks never rot and can be turned sideways to provide vents. In cold-winter climates, such a thick enclosure helps keep compost active. In dry climates, a plywood or plastic lid keeps in moisture; in wet ones, it keeps rains from reducing aeration or leaching nutrients.
For sturdy construction, level soil beneath the first course of blocks, and stagger joints in successive levels. If walls are more than a few courses tall, anchor blocks with mortar or sturdy stakes.