Building Your Own
Compost Bin


Learn the basics of composting in this 3-minute video from GreenWorks "In My Back Yard" host Andrea Lacca. You'll learn the value of this earliest form of recycling, in addition to getting some practical tips from Steven Greene, a composting expert with the nonproift Pennsylvania Resources Council.

What is composting?
Composting is a way to turn your vegetable scraps, yard clippings and certain other organic wastes into healthy mulch and soil by accelerating the natural decay process. Decomposition that normally takes years can be sped up through composting to take only one year, or even as little as 14 days, depending on the steps you take.

What can I compost?
Most yard waste like grass clippings, fallen leaves, twigs, vines and plant stalks can be composted. Fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells and nutshells can also be composted.

In limited amounts, you can also compost wood ash, sawdust and black and white newsprint. These items compost slowly, however, and should not make up too much of your pile.

Do NOT compost anything that can cause odors, promote disease, attract pests or lead to any other problems. You should NEVER compost meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, or human or pet feces. You should also avoid composting weeds with developed seed heads and any plants that are highly susceptible to disease.

How do I start composting?
Start by selecting a location outdoors, at least six feet by six feet, which will not be a bother to you or your neighbors. A shady spot will help keep your compost moist in the summer, and a sunny spot will help keep it warm in the winter. That said, just about any place should do.

Enclosing your space with a "compost bin" will help you save space and prevent litter by preventing the wind from disturbing your pile too much. You can buy a bin, or you can easily build one yourself. Some suggestions are available here.

You can then get started by filling the bin with the compost materials described above. You generally need about 3 to 4 cubic feet of material to get the decomposition working actively. An easy rule of thumb suggests mixing an equal part of brown (dry leaves, straw, sawdust, etc) and green (grass clippings, kitchen scraps).

Once you have a nice-sized pile, mix in a few shovels full of soil to introduce some extra microbes to the mix. Your pile should be about as moist as a squeezed-out sponge, so if it's getting dry add some water. After a few days, the decomposition process should heat up the center of the pile. If, by touch, your pile is not noticeably warmer towards the center than it is on the outside, you may need to add more green materials.

How do I maintain my compost pile?
You should turn your pile with a pitchfork or shovel to introduce oxygen that is needed by the microbes at work. Recommendations vary from every three days to every six weeks; as a general rule of thumb, the more often you turn it, the faster it will work. Turning also ensures that all ingredients are thoroughly mixed and get their chance at the pile's center. The more you can bruise and chop up the material, the quicker it will decompose.

If you notice a bad odor coming from your pile, turn it right away; it may indicate a lack of oxygen. If the odor persists, you may need to add more brown materials. An overly wet pile can also create bad odors.

You may want to cover your pile with black plastic using garbage bags. It will keep moisture from evaporating, eliminating the need for watering. And it will prevent the pile from becoming excessively wet during a storm.

Small amounts of fresh materials, such as kitchen scraps, can be added to your pile over time, but they should be buried towards the center to avoid pests and to speed up the decomposition. If you have large amounts of waste, such as grass clippings and leaves, it is best to start a new pile.

What do I do with my finished compost?
Compost can be used as mulch around shrubs and trees to help keep down weeds and retain moisture. It can also be added to garden beds to help increase soil porosity and aeration. Fine compost can even be used for potting plants, and if you have a lot of compost, can be spread over your lawn.

Why should I compost?
When you compost grass clippings, leaves and kitchen scraps, you take responsibility for the waste that you and your family generated. If your trash collection fee is based on the volume of waste you produce, you can lower your trash bills. Even if it isn't, recycling your waste into compost is one way to be a good citizen and good neighbor.

On top of that, compost also provides a valuable soil amendment that can help improve the quality of your yard. Composting is easy, rewarding and can even be fun. People who compost rock!

Books containing detailed information on composting can be found in bookstores, garden centers and your local library. For more information, please visit some of the following websites:

Guide to Home Composting

Composting for Beginners

Composting, Soil Building and Amendments

Composting for Farmers

For more tips, visit our Composting Discussion Board. You can also learn how to Build Your Own Compost Bin.

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