Tag Archives: compost bins

Labor Day for Gardeners

Storm Hermine gave us perfect gardening weather: soft, cool, fall-ish, and the garden, free of humidity and intense heat, and almost lacking in mosquitoes, was also free of the strife that can often be the background noise there. At the garden debris compost bin, I was overjoyed (really, truly) to find two gardeners cutting up plant waste and putting it in the bin and not in the trash. I was so moved to see this that I walked up to them and thanked them. They happen to be two very nice guys I’ve run into off and on at the garden but don’t know all that well. They told me that they were a little afraid of composting, afraid of not doing the right thing and so—having been yelled at—tended to err on the side of caution and the garbage can. This day, they had decided to go for it. They were being careful not to put in invasive weeds. I was consoling, telling them I know it could be difficult to tell what was what sometimes.* This led to questions about composting in general and how food-scrap composting works at the garden. I organize this side of our composting efforts and require gardeners who want to do it to participate fully in the project, not just drop off their food scraps (the how and why of this I’ll get into in an upcoming post on composting). The starting place is a lesson on how to do something that seems kind of simple but can go so wrong, especially when it involves ten or more people. The timing was right, I was there, and one of the gardeners was actually interested in getting a lesson. And now I have a new food-scrap composter/gardener. Some good labor was had by all.


The food-scrap compost intake bin at the Clinton Community Garden. I use a garden fork to first dig food scraps in and later turn the material. After each addition of food scraps, I add a layer of leaves two to three times as thick as the food-scrap layer. These scraps are nicely chopped and have been eye-balled for bad stuff, like dairy, bones, rubber bands, and plastic bits.



Here’s what I don’t like to see. Yes, these items are all compostable, they might even be organic, but what are they doing here? They weren’t spoiled or even wrinkled. A family of four could have gotten breakfast out of this compost bin. I chalk this up to a rogue “composter” who seemed to joy in dropping perfectly edible food in the bin once a week and not even attempting to cover it up. All my regular composters know to chop up their peels and rinds and that wasting food is pretty uncool.

*As a side note, I tend to take a broader view of what plant matter can and can’t go in than our particular setup allows. I will never, ever compost morning glory—though the flowers are endearing, the plant is deadly in its ability to self-replicate and strangle a garden—but I am comfortable with most roots and even some seed heads that come out of garden beds going into the compost as long as they are broken down and treated to a good smothering layer of leaves. If there’s space, I will sometimes dry out borderline weedy plants by hanging them up or laying them out on a hard surface in the sun.






Bin Composting Step by Step

I refer to composting a lot in this blog, but only until recently, prompted by a reader, did I realize that I haven’t yet given any practical information about composting. Now that we’re heading into summer, a composting step-by-step is in order.

Plant food.

Plant food.

First, a little background: Growing up, I knew about composting as the semi-secretive operation that my father carried out on an overgrown strip of land to the side of our driveway. It was possibly an eyesore to the neighbors, but fortunately these were pre-Martha Stewart Living days and they didn’t complain. From time to time, I also leafed through a very ’70s-style book called Mulch that my father thoughtfully kept on a shelf in the bathroom (along with a variety of other garden literature). That was the extent of my knowledge and participation in composting.

About a year ago, I felt it was necessary to confront the old pile. By then, my father the gardener was no longer around to ask, but I’d become a composter in my own right and was curious about what my father’s work had produced. The first part of the journey into the depths of the pile was nightmarish. He had secured a seemingly indestructible plastic enclosure with metal stakes, now rusted. After a trip to the emergency room, so my husband, who was helping me, could receive a tetanus shot, we proceeded to detach a network of vines and tree roots that grew over and around and through the pile. In the end, I did get a little of what I was looking for: rich, crumbly humus that I put to use right away around newly planted shrubs. And the importance of pile placement was brought home to me. Trees and vines are opportunistic. They had been feeding on that pile for several decades. Some vine control earlier on would have left us more of the good stuff.

I bring up this story partly to illustrate that there are many ways to compost and what works best has much to do with the kind of gardening you do, what kind of space—and how much of
it—you have, and what materials you are planning to compost.

The guide that follows is based on the three-bin composting system for food waste that I set up at the Clinton Community Garden. It’s easily adaptable to a backyard garden.

Bin Composting 

Finding a space for your bin or bins: Well-managed compost does not stink, but it’s still better to place it in a low-traffic area, away from patios, windows, and curious kids and pets. Extreme shade, sun, and moisture are not ideal, but there are ways to work around those conditions if necessary. Bare earth, as opposed to pavement, is nice to have, but many urban gardeners, whose backyards are courtyards or balconies or rooftops, don’t have access to the ground. No matter, compost will still happen in the right kind of container (I will report on this soon in another post).

Fresh compost.

Harvesting from a Garden Gourmet.

Preparing the space: Clear away plants from the spot you’ve chosen and smooth out the ground. If you have trouble with rats or mice, you can rodent proof your composting area with hardware cloth, a heavy wire mesh. Use hardware cloth with quarter-inch holes. Lay the cloth on the ground and stake it in place. The bins will sit on top and should also be staked in (I’ll explain further on).

What bins to use and how many: I’ve had good luck with Garden Gourmet composting bins. If you have a little extra space to accommodate a round shape, Earth Machines are lower to the ground and broader at the base, which is helpful both for aeration and turning the compost. At the garden, I placed three bins side by side against a shed wall. A single bin might be enough for one household. The advantage to having two or more is that composting can continue after one bin is closed off for “cooking.”

Securing the bins: Garden Gourmets come with plastic anchor stakes, but I found these didn’t last long. To keep the bins in place, I used long coated metal planting stakes (slightly less than a quarter inch in diameter), which I cut to fit and ran down through each corner of the bins. These stakes also help retain the shape of the bins, which are made of recycled plastic and benefit from some extra structural support over time. To further discourage rodents and weigh down the hardware cloth, I filled in the spaces surrounding the bins with gravel and broken bricks.

worms n bin

Decomposition in progress thanks to billions of visible and invisible creatures.

Now the bins are ready to receive food scraps and garden waste. At my garden, we compost food waste and garden debris in separate bins. We have so much garden waste that it would quickly overwhelm the Garden Gourmets, so vegetation is corralled in a large open bin where it breaks down over the course of a summer. In the enclosed bins, food waste decomposes rapidly and compost can often be harvested a few times over the summer.


What to compost:

Kitchen scraps.

  • fruit & veggie scraps (peels, skins, cobs, pits)*
  • egg shells
  • loose tea and tea bags
  • coffee grounds and paper filters
  • nut shells
  • food-soiled paper napkins

*For best results, chop up food scraps in your kitchen with a sharp knife before adding them to the compost bin.

What not to compost:

  • dairy products
  • meat and bones
  • animal litter
  • bread, cooked and uncooked grains, baked goods
  • liquified, slimy organic matter
  • compostable or biodegradable bags—they turn into a goopy substance
full bin

A full bin soon to be closed off for “cooking.”

Layering is the preferred method for adding material to the compost bin. By alternating layers of “greens” and “browns,” you can balance nitrogen-rich material with carbon-rich material. Food waste and fresh green garden waste, like cut grass, is high in nitrogen and water. Dry leaves, newspaper, cardboard, and saw dust from untreated wood are all good sources of carbon. The recommended carbon to nitrogen ratio is 30:1, which may sound off-puttingly specific. Composters learn to eyeball it. For instance, for every new deposit of kitchen scraps, I add a layer of browns that’s about twice as thick. It also helps to dig into the pile before adding fresh material. I know when my calculations are a little off and the bin is too wet (the most common situation) because it will give off a slightly sour ammonia smell. The fix is to aerate the pile by digging and turning the material and adding more dry ingredients (shredded newspaper and dry leaves are the best for this). You will want to keep a container of browns nearby. Turning the bin once a week will speed along the process and keep all the bin inhabitants (the decomposers, the chewers, the tunnelers, and the diggers) active and happy.


Browns at the ready.

Tools and materials:
Pitchfork, shovel, gloves, sifter, wheelbarrow, compost crank, hardware cloth, and bins

good compost

The results: Nice dark compost. Time to sift it.

Garden Gourmet compost bins:
If you live in NYC, visit the Lower Eastside Ecology Center for discounted bins (http://www.lesecologycenter.org). You can order them and then pick them up at the Union Square Farmer’s Market.


A Word About Compost and Other Things

Kitchen compost.

Kitchen compost.

After the long, cold winter, the worms are peeking out of the food-scrap compost bins at our community garden. I wasn’t sure I’d be seeing them again, but there they were caught in the act of consumption and for that I’m grateful. With some pitchfork prodding, the compost fluffed out and we’re on our way. Now to the less-fun task of setting up a schedule of volunteers to receive the compost once or twice a week from our garden neighbors.



This garden work was doubly satisfying because my daughter, home on break, was helping me. She’s been involved in the garden since before she was born, first nudging me to think about gardening from a child’s perspective and later telling me what she thought… in great detail. One of the things she took me to task on was how boring it is to stand around watching someone else do the gardening. Sending her off to look for butterflies, I thought I was saving her from chores that I hated doing as a kid. Instead, I made her feel that she was just a visitor. Now I think of her as my partner.

A reminder of why you're doing all this mucking around with rotten vegetables

A reminder of why I do all this mucking around with rotten vegetables.

P.S. If you’re going to the GrowTogether conference tomorrow (Saturday, March 29), I’m leading a workshop on gardening with kids, “Gardening From Toddlers to Teens.” It runs from 11:30 am to 12:45 pm The conference is held at Hostos Community College, 500 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY 10451, from 8:30am to 4pm (Building C, “East Academic Complex”). One more thing, I think this year’s t-shirt designer for the GT is a longtime gardener at the Clinton Community Garden.

Red wriggler at work at the Clinton Community Garden.

More about GrowTogether: http://www.greenthumbnyc.org/gardenevents.html?qs=2014/03/29/30th-annual-greenthumb-growtogether.