How to Make a Composter

compost bin
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Compost is sometimes referred to as a gardener's "black gold." In fact, it's the key to maintaining nutrient-dense soil. Incorporating the mixture annually into your garden gives vegetable plants a leading advantage. Plus, it's the ultimate way to recycle food waste by taking organic leftovers meant for the trash—like banana peels, apple cores, leaves, and harvested plants—and turning them into something that will literally transform your garden. While there are a few rules to follow when it comes to composting, it's pretty basic. With a sturdy vessel, some kitchen scraps, and minimal cultivation, you can make your own mineral-rich compost, saving money by way of regenerative gardening.

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When to Compost

Building a robust compost can be a year-round endeavor, but the magic happens in the warmer months when aerobic organisms like bacteria and fungi decompose organic waste, transforming it into a soil amendment. Early spring makes a good time to build your composter and begin the process. Each spring, add spent plants from last year's garden, then, come summer and fall, add in waste from all produce. You can even toss scraps into your composter when the snow starts to fly. While the cold temperatures may halt the decomposition, once warm temperatures arrive in spring, the process begins anew.

What You'll Need

Equipment/Tools:

  • Gloves
  • Drill and bits
  • Saw or utility knife
  • Wire cutters
  • Gardening shears
  • Hammer
  • Garden fork or shovel

Materials:

  • Plastic storage bin (18 gallons or larger)
  • Garbage bag or weed cloth
  • Bungee cord
  • Chicken wire
  • Garden stakes
  • Metal rebar
  • Zip ties

Instructions

How to Make a Composting Bin

The first consideration in learning how to compost is figuring out what you're going to compost in. This will depend on both the size of your garden and your preferred aesthetics. Gardeners with small gardens can get away with a tumbler or bin that hides unsightly decaying matter while providing you with enough compost to fortify your beds.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 1 to 2 hours
  • Total Time: 1 to 6 months (for usable compost)
  • Material Cost: About 15 dollars
  1. Decide on a location for your composter. Select an area that is close to your garden, yet out of sight, should you want to maintain a manicured appearance. Lay down a garbage bag or weed cloth in the selected area.
  2. Purchase a plastic storage container—at least 18 gallons in size and with a tightly fitting lid—at your local home supply store.
  3. Put on your work gloves. Cut off the bottom off of the container with a hand saw or heavy-duty utility knife (optional).
  4. Using your drill and a large drill bit, drill holes all over the outside of the bin to allow airflow. If you choose to keep the bottom intact, make sure to drill ample holes in the bottom, as well. Place your composter on top of the garbage bag or weed cloth and begin filling the bin. If animals frequent your yard, secure the top of the bin with a bungee cord.

How to Make a Fenced Composting Pile

A large garden usually requires a large composting pile to serve its needs. Remember, the larger the garden, the more organic waste and the most compost needed each year for soil amendment. To contain the medium, enlist the help of chicken wire and rebar.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 2 to 3 hours
  • Total Time: 1 to 6 months (for usable compost)
  1. Decide on a location for your composting pile. Near your garden, yet hidden from view by a shed or a garage, is the best option.
  2. Measure out your space. A 3-by-3 or 4-by-4-foot composting bin is recommended. Place a stake in each corner.
  3. Cut your weed cloth to the appropriate size to span your pile.
  4. One by one, hammer a piece of rebar through your weed cloth and into the ground in each staked corner until all four corners are marked with rebar.
  5. Roll out the chicken wire and cut it to length to span each side of your pile. Secure each corner to the rebar with several zip ties. Then, using a wire tool, bend the sharp edges around the rebar.
  6. Begin making compost by adding the overwintered trimmings of last year's garden plants.

Maintaining Your Compost Pile

While compost maintenance is minimal, turning the pile regularly and maintaining optimal moisture for decomposition is crucial to your success. After a while, the act of tending your compost will be just as rewarding as gardening itself.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: Once a week for 5 to 10 minutes
  • Total Time: 1 to 6 months (for usable compost)
  1. Once a week, work the pile with a garden fork or shovel, making sure to turn the matter so that the organic material on the bottom now covers the new additions on the top.
  2. Add water to your pile with a garden hose so that it maintains dampness and speeds up decomposition. If it's raining regularly, you may rarely need to water and may even want to cover your pile with a tarp. If it's hot and dry, you may need to water as much as every other day.
  3. If your pile is too wet, add plenty of shredded newspaper or leaves. The dry material will soak up the excess moisture and prevent mold from forming. Refrain from adding scraps until the pile returns to a normal moisture level.

Composting Tips

In general, only plant matter can be composted. If, at some point, the item in question was a plant, consider it good. This rule automatically eliminates meat, bones, and dairy, which can harbor harmful bacteria and should never be added to a compost pile.

Decomposition of organic matter happens despite your efforts to maintain your pile. However, regular maintenance will speed up the process. That said, if manually turning compost is difficult for you, consider a tumbler, a pre-made composting bin, or a worm bin as a composter

No matter what you choose, your bin or pile should be placed in an area that is easy for you to access, preferably in partial-sun. (Remember: The warmer the pile is, the faster the contents will break down.)

Finished compost looks and smells like dark, rich soil. Use it in garden beds, on your lawn, in container plantings, and even as an ingredient in your seed-starting mix. It's nearly impossible to add too much compost to your garden, so feel free to compost away.