Making Compost Advanced





            A wide variety of home composting equipment is available these days to help homeowners cope with their yard waste.  How many tools are actually necessary and helpful for your backyard yard waste management activities depends on how elaborate your system is.  You can make perfectly good compost from a simple pile of organic material and nothing more than a shovel to move the final product into a pail for spreading.  In most cases however, it is helpful to have at least some kind of bin or enclosure for the pile so that it looks neater in the home landscape. 

            If you intend to manage your pile, or you have lots and lots of leaves you may want to consider purchasing shredding equipment of some kind.  If woody materials make up a large percentage of your yard waste, some kind of chipper/shredder may be helpful.  If you have a small yard and very little organic waste except for kitchen garbage, you may want to look into composting devices designed specifically to handle small jobs.  This chapter will review all the equipment you might select for your particular composting operation. 


Selecting A Composting Site


            The first step in begining a composting operation on the property is to determine where it should be located.  Most homeowners select a neglected corner of the backyard.  If possible, they prefer to tuck the piles of refuse and bins behind shrubs, fences or plant borders.  This area is basically a utility area and should be screened from view.  However, it is highly likely that it will be visited frequently, especially if you plan to dump kitchen scraps on the pile, so it should be conveniently located.   Choosing an appropriate site is the first order of composting business.


            There are few hard and fast requirements for placement of compost piles or bins.  Experience by many gardeners and common sense suggests that the site should be level and protected from access by passersby, including children in the neighborhood. 


            Sun vs shade:  Although a sunny site will facilitate the heating up of a pile, it is not required.  Decomposition will occur regardless, the heat of the pile will be more a result of its contents than its site.  Many people choose to put their compost bins in semi-shade, sheltered somewhat by shade trees, so that summer work on the site is not so onerous.  In this case, take care not to locate your pile near major tree roots.  They may be attracted by the rich, humusy soil at the bottom of the pile and begin to grow toward the surface of the soil.  This is not good for them.


[Line drawing  - Design For Attractive Compost Areas ]


            Drainage:  Locate the compost piles and bins on soil, not on a paved surface.  This way the pile can drain into the soil below.  Also, earthworms and the other microbes that live in soil will be able to migrate into the pile and make their contribution to its decomposition. 


            Proximity to the house:  Some homeowners prefer to have the composting site near to the house.  Just as it is more convenient to have the trash cans nearby, it is also handy to have the yard waste pile near the garden, lawn and kitchen.  A properly managed pile will not smell, so that should pose no problem if the compost bin is adjacent to the house.  A few climbing flowers such as morning glory, sweet pea or nasturtiums will effectively beautify the area.


     Holding vs. Compost Bins


            Folks who plan to build a simple pile need only a designated area and, possibly, an informal enclosure or bin where they can throw their organic refuse and let it sit and rot at its own pace.  Any box or bin in this system serves as a holding bin and composting bin simultaneously.  However, if you are interested in managing your composting system to some degree, you have the problem of how and where to store your accumulating organic materials until there are enough to build a proper pile.  Because you need some control over the amount of dry materials and the amount of green materials that will go into the pile, and it may take awhile to accumulate sufficient volume of each of these materials, it is likely that you will need two separate containers: a holding bin for collecting material and a compost bin for the actual composting process.


[Line drawing  - Showing holding bin vs. composting bin]


            Since a certain volume of material is necessary in order to build a managed compost pile--a minimum of 3 x 3 x 3 feet--it is usually necessary to establish a collection and storage system for the seasonal yard debris.  For instance, many homeowners set up some sort of holding bin for leaves that remain after mulching the property in the fall.  They will be needed in the spring when green materials become available for building a pile.  Some people build multiple compost bins so that one will always be available for storage of materials.  Others build simple holding bins from wire or cinder blocks, and then purchase a commercially designed compost bin.  Still others build both holding and compost bins.  Once you have decided what type of composting operation you will have, it is time to consider the type of bin you will need.


            Storage Issues


            If you make only a small amount of compost each year, you will likely apply it to your landscape as soon as it is ready.  If, however, you are making a large volume of this material, you may wish to have a way to store it so it is protected from the leaching of the rain.  While compost will store quite well sitting on the ground in a pile with a tarp pulled over the top, you may wish to store unused compost in containers such as large garbage cans or in some kind of storage bin.  If compost is stored exposed to the elements it will still retain most of its value as a soil amendment, although it will quickly lose most of its nitrogen and much of the other nutrients which are water soluble and will leach down into the ground with the rain. 


            Screening The Compost Area


            If you have a number of compost bins, perhaps a holding bin or two, and maybe a small storage building for the shredder and other tools, you may be interested in finding a way to screen that yard waste management area from view from the back door.  You can use a line of evergreen shrubs, such as arborvitae to screen the compost area.  Another technique is to build a visual barrier with an orchard fence.  This is made of a dozen or more espaliered apple or pear trees, planted so closely that during the growing season, they offer a solid green wall that screens out the work area.  It's difficult to make the compost area itself very attactive, even with planting some flowers on the sides of the bin.  So some kind of screening device may be of interest to you. In any case, let's now get to the specifics.

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