The trick to composting is to figure out how to make it work for you so it becomes easy. If it is easy, you will compost. This past fall, we set up a Geobin in the backyard. A Geobin is a rectangular heavy piece of plastic with holes that is folded into a cylinder and placed on the ground. Overlap part of the material, insert plastic bolts to keep its cylindrical shape, and voila! you have a compost bin. The nice thing about the Geobin is that it makes composting in the suburbs polite – the black plastic hides the ugly rotting fruit so the neighbors can’t complain.
After we set up the Geobin, we tore up empty cardboard egg cartons and paper towel rolls and threw them in the bin to create large pockets of air at the bottom for drainage. Because it was autumn, we added lots of dried leaves and as I worked in the garden, I added soil from my own garden, usually what was still attached to plants I pulled, plus any earthworms. This introduced the necessary bacteria and small organisms to the bin to start the decomposition process. Throughout the fall and winter, the bin received plenty of water from rain and snow and there were enough air pockets between the leaves and other materials for the organisms to work.
From then on we added fruit and vegetable scraps as well as plant debris from the garden and even free coffee grounds from Starbucks! We have three separate areas in the kitchen to collect eggs, coffee grounds, and produce. The eggshells go into a plastic-lined small box behind the coffee maker (they don’t smell). Once a week, we pull the bag out, crush the shells, and dump into the compost bin (plastic bag goes in the trash can). We put our coffee grounds in a plastic shoe container under the kitchen sink and once a week we dump the grounds into the compost pile. Kitchen scraps–melon rinds, banana peels, strawberry leaves, vegetable peelings, and tea bags–go in an empty cereal or cracker cardboard boxes on the kitchen floor. After we dump the produce into the compost pile, we throw away the boxes in the trash (by now, soft and wet) and start again with a new box (the cereal box could go into the compost pile but it would require tearing it up into small pieces, which runs counter to my “keep it easy” theme here).
This past weekend, about six months later, I tried to unscrew the plastic knobs to undo the Geobin so we could shovel the compost out for the garden. I realized that it was so full I couldn’t get my hand in to unscrew the knobs from the inside. It was easier to lift the plastic up which resulted in a cylindrical shape of leaves and refuse. Because I did not stir often, most of the leaves and debris stayed in place (note to self, stir more often and bolt with screw on outside). With the garden fork, we broke up the condensed mass and discovered moist, dark soil (similar in texture to bagged potting soil) in the core, complete with earthworms! As we broke the mass down to about a foot, it became easier to stir with the fork. We put the core or composted part in the garden beds and left the rest in the corner of the backyard to continue to decompose; making sure it was only a few inches high so it was not an eyesore.
The compost added micronutrients and microorganisms including earthworms to the garden beds. Just adding an inch of compost to garden beds in the spring is beneficial for the plants. Compost also is great for breaking up clay and improving soil texture and drainage.
I can now see the need to have two or three Geobins going at the same time. When one is ready, pull it apart and put the compost on the garden beds while at the same time dumping produce into the second or third bin. My method is simple but slow; it takes months for the large pieces to break up into small pieces. To speed up the decomposition, I could make the ingredients smaller (like cutting up the leaves), turn it often to increase the aeration, or strive for the recommended carbon-nitrogen ratio of 3 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen by volume. Although the decomposition process is a natural process, when you do it at home, you are in charge of putting the ingredients together so you have to be aware of the amount of carbon (also called “browns”) in relation to the amount of nitrogen (also called “greens”). Brown is the dead dried plant parts that are high in carbon (in my case the autumn leaves) and green is the fresh living parts like the kitchen vegetable scraps that are high in nitrogen. There should be more carbon or brown than nitrogen or green which I am always aware of but never measure. Water and air (as in air pockets among the plant materials in the bin) are essential too. We never add meat, dairy products, diseased plants, oils/grease, bones, or pet wastes.
Some counties give away composting bins free or sell them at a minimal cost. Contact the local county extension agent or the county division responsible for solid waste services, waste management, recycling, or trash management. I received my Geobins through a county effort to increase composting, but they can be bought online at http://www.geosystemsonline.com.