Composting is cheap and easier than you think.

bin from afar

I get a lot of questions about composting. People assume there’s a science to it and lots of ways of doing things wrong.

You can’t go wrong composting. Everything eventually returns to the earth. People fret so much about whether they’ll doing it “right” that they don’t get to composting.

You don’t need an expensive bin, either. I set up this (ugly) bin for $20, and in this post I’ll tell you how I did it and how I maintain it.

How composting works, in simple terms

Organic matter breaks down into compost. Compost is nutrient-rich dirt that has a lot of organic material. This means that plants like to grow in it and it retains water better than clay. That’s good stuff.

To make a compost pile, you just combine green/wet/fresh ingredients with dry/brittle/brown ingredients, at about one part wet to thirty parts dry (but you don’t have to be precise on this). The pile needs some air, which is why I suggest that you get a straw bale and use that to make layers in the pile of straw – they’re little pipes to pull in air into the middle. Simply layer up the green with the brown like you’re making lasagna, or stir it all together like you’re making brownie batter. Then let time work.

You don’t need to fork it or stir it. Ideally, you want to build a cubic yard of a pile at a time. Realistically, I’ve never had that much waste sitting around. The hoped-for goal is that the pile heats up through decomposition, but even without the heat (your pile is too small, like mine) it will still produce compost – just more slowly.

I dump about a gallon or two of water on my pile every week while I’m watering my seedlings. It’s good to keep it moist.

Composting bin construction

I like the premade bins you can get at garden stores. I didn’t have $100 for them. I thought about making one with wooden slats pinned together with dowels, but the cedar wood boards would have ended up at about $100, too. I decided instead to make my cheapo version, which you can see here.

I bought a roll of chicken wire (aka hardware cloth) and four fence posts. Total cost, about $20 from the hardware store. Now my roll of fencing wire was 12 feet, which meant that I had to position my posts about 2.5 feet apart. I then wrapped the net around, putting it in the little fencepost notches. I didn’t dig the fencing into the ground or put a bottom layer on or anything – I just wanted simple and cheap and useful.

This design works great. There’s a lot of air coming in the sides and you can see how full the bin is from a distance. The other great thing is that it all comes apart for easy storage or repositioning. I like to run a pile for a year, then let it cure for a few months to a year. That means that from the last day I put a leaf of lettuce on a pile, I want it to decompose down until it’s all ready to use. To do this, I just pull up the compost fence from the ground and rebuild it right next to the pile. Easy enough!

feeding your compost pile

Two things are essential: a straw bale and a bowl or canister for your kitchen.

You’re going to use the straw bale to pad out the pile with straw, like I mentioned above. You should start a pile with a few inches of straw on the bottom. You’ll use the bowl or canister to store your kitchen scraps while you do cooking prep. This encourages you to actually save composting scraps.

bin hole

What do you feed the pile? Just about anything that was recently alive. The easier list is what not to feed it: meat and twigs. Meat attracts bandits to raid it. Meat is fine to put into a hot-running pile, but that’s usually out of reach of most home composters. And anyway, shame on you for having leftover meat. Animals died to give you that, there’s got to be something you can turn it into.

Twigs, branches, sticks – they all turn into steel rebar in your pile. They never break down at the same rate as soft plant material. I keep a separate brushpile for that stuff. Some of it gets bundled and burned in campfires or our fireplace, some stays put to be a bird shelter in wintertime.

Everything else goes on the pile for me. I have composted:

  • eggshells
  • weeds from the garden
  • cardboard
  • fish bones
  • used vegetable frying oil
  • spoiled milk
  • moldy leftover pasta that I forgot about
  • dead voles that neighborhood cats kill and leave in my backyard

Leaves and grass clippings are tricky. Grass tends to form mats and air can’t get through. Better to just leave this on your lawn to decay or make a separate clipping pile. Leaves tend to be the same way. I leave them to their own pile. Grass and leaves will break down from fungal action, which doesn’t need air. It’s a longer process, but it will still work.

The more you feed the pile, the more you’ll notice what you’re trimming off that can go on the pile. It’s a pleasantly self-fulfilling cycle.