I was introduced to the concept of composting through a story my parents told of Cousin Earl, who liked to boast about the compost bin in his basement. According to the story, Cousin Earl would invite family and friends to dinner at his house, and after a delicious meal, he would scrape the leavings from the plates into a small container, in plain view of his guests. Then, with a flourish, he would open the door to the basement and toss the leavings down the stairs. After this dramatic action, he would pause, observe the shocked faces of his guests, and then launch into a colorful description of the benefits of composting. He particularly relished telling the captive audience about his worms, describing their digestive process in great detail. He was convinced that keeping worms in his basement was the healthiest thing in the world to do.
Cousin Earl passed away shortly after I was born, so I never got to see his worms or his basement compost bin, but as my parents related this story to friends through the years, I grew up knowing that there was something called compost, and that it involved food scraps. In my childhood I assumed that the worms were Cousin Earl’s pets, which lived in the basement and ate food scraps. I imagined that they must have become very large worms.
In my thirties, I moved to a home in the countryside. I had recently been impressed by the bumper sticker on my neighbor’s car. Quoting Gandhi, it read “Live simply so that others may simply live”. I decided to embrace this philosophy in a suburban sort of way. I wasn’t going to build a commune, but I was going to build a compost pile.
Composting benefits the environment in many ways. Composting encourages beneficial bacteria and fungi to grow, and these break down organic matter. Food scraps and yard trimmings for example, mixed with even the poorest soil, can increase the nutrient content of the soil and help it retain moisture. The process of composting can actually help clean up contaminated soil. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, combined yard trimmings and food scraps constitute 24% of U.S. municipal solid waste. So much stuff in our landfills could instead be used to benefit our environment. Compost can reduce the amount of pollutants reaching our water sources and can prevent erosion. Farmers and gardeners can use compost instead of fertilizers and pesticides. Adding compost will help to moderate the temperature of the soil, and plants growing in the mix will be better protected from temperature extremes. Using compost as mulch will allow gardens and plantings to retain more water. According to Whatcom County Extension of Washington State University, a 5% increase in organic material will quadruple the water holding capacity of soil. The compost will release nutrients more slowly than fertilizers, and can actually balance the pH levels of soil.
Of course, adding compost will make any kind of soil more easy to work with. Which brings me back to my own compost pile. I had moved to an area where the soil was full of clay and rocks. My house was built on a farmer’s field, and so the soil must have been productive once upon a time. However, a shovel thrust into the soil anywhere on my property would go down about two inches and then stop. Jumping on the shovel might lower its depth another couple inches (if it didn’t hit a rock) but only the efforts of a truly muscular and determined person could get that blade down to the 8 – 12 inch depth I needed. After the monumental effort it took to dig my small garden areas, I did not attempt any further gardening until I had my compost ready to use.
Because I was a penny-pincher, and because of the bumper sticker, I did not want to spend money on a ready-made compost bin. My husband nailed together two frames of wood and chicken-wire. When hinged together with simple eyes-and-hooks, they formed what looked like a cube with an open top and bottom. The completed frame was placed in the back yard, and we began the process of slowly filling it with layers of grass clippings/leaves and food scraps (no meats). Amazing to me, the hard, packed soil on my property already had plenty of worms in it. They certainly must have been muscular worms to be able to chew and tunnel through all that. The worms were quickly attracted to my compost pile. Cousin Earl would have been proud of me.
Tips For Building Your Compost Bin:
It is best to make your compost pile at least three cubic feet in size. The bin should be a bit larger than this, to contain it all. Piles over six feet high are not good because pockets will develop inside where there is no oxygen, and the wrong kind of bacterial will grow. The simplest homemade bin is made by using wire fencing, which is stiffer than chicken-wire, about 10ft long. Hook the ends together with connectors of some kind, and it creates a can or circle shape. When you remove the fence, your pile will probably collapse a bit, and so in order to aerate or rotate your pile, you’ll have to shovel the rest from the collapsed pile back into the circle bin again. Slightly more complicated containers will not have this problem, and you can design some that allow you to flip or rotate your compost pile without taking it out of the container.
What To Put In The Pile:
Compost is made from a mix of organic materials. There are two categories of materials, ‘green’ and ‘brown’. ‘Green’ materials are vegetable and fruit scraps, vegetarian manure, and anything else natural that contains a lot of nitrogen. ‘Brown’ materials are grass clippings, leaves, bits of straw, and small amounts of shredded newspaper mixed in. If you alternate green and brown layers in your pile, and turn or mix them up regularly, you will get good compost quickly.
Eggshells are a helpful material to add to your pile because of their calcium. If the compost is going to be added to clay soil (like mine) then throwing in a sprinkle of sand will help to loosen the clay soil when the compost is mixed in. It is okay to lightly add wood ashes or sawdust, but not too much, because they either take too long to decay, which slows down the process, or they alter the pH balance too much. Things that should not go into the pile are animal products (scraps of meat, manure from meat-eaters, and dairy products. Do not put plant matter treated with pesticides/chemicals or diseased plants into the pile.
The seeds from weeds will be killed by the heat of the pile, and so will insect eggs, so when you spread your finished compost you do not have to worry about the growth of weeds or bugs. There are a few other pests to worry about, though. If your compost bin is in an area where there are a lot of scavenger animals, you might have to put a top on your compost bin to keep them out, and use a tighter weave of chicken-wire or wire fencing. You can even build a more enclosed bin out of wood, with smaller air slits.
Back to my own compost pile – after regular turning and mixing, the compost in my bin stopped smelling like rotting vegetables. The materials got dark and had a crumbly texture, and there were a lot of worms in the pile. My husband built another set of frames to hold a second pile, which we started once we thought the first pile was about halfway done. I didn’t notice any snails, and only an occasional slug in the pile. Worms are good, but take out the snails and slugs before using the finished compost.
Cousin Earl had the right idea. Nowadays, there are many ready-made compost bins to buy and use right inside your house. As for me, I’m satisfied with my homemade frames out in the back yard. I like to live simply.
Links for sources cited:
Whatcom County Extension of Washington State University
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency