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Yes, it is a great solution when a compost pile is just not feasible because of small yards or sensitive neighbors.  Here’s a cheap and easy way to convert one of your garbage cans into a compost bin.

Materials:

- 30+ gallon plastic garbage can, with locking lid (optional: bungee cords to hold the lid on)

- Drill with 1/2″ to 1″ drill bits for drilling holes

- Bricks or something to rest the bin on top of

Begin by drilling holes into the body of the trash can, about 4-6 inches apart, around the circumference and vertically. Drill a few holes in the lid and the bottom of the bin to allow for air circulation and fluid drainage.

If the bin is going to be placed on soil, use the shovel to dig a hole the same diameter of the bin. Dig the hole about 6 inches deep, or deeper if you like. Place the bin in the hole and back-fill any remaining space to secure the bin in place. To encourage earthworms, you can experiment by drilling more holes in the bottom and sides of your bin that are below ground.

Begin filling your bin. Some suggest filling the bottom couple of inches with loose carbon materials such as wood chips or dry straw to help with air circulation and moisture retention.

Finally, affix and secure the lid and leave in place.

If you selected a circular bin, and it’s freestanding, you have the option of rolling the bin (with the lid on!) to turn and aerate the contents. If you can’t roll your bin, that’s not a worry. You can turn the contents using a compost turner or aerator, or just leave the contents alone.

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Although, pet waste can be composted, it takes careful monitoring to make sure the bin is over 140 degrees  for 14 days to kill all the bacteria, intestinal parasites and pathogens.  Also, the bin must be turned regularly to insure the cooler outside edges are moved to the hot center of the bin.

The intense level of monitoring necessary,  plus the high risk of putting “sick” soil into your garden bed make pet waste composting inadvisable.

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There are several things to keep in mind when setting up your composting station:

  • Sun or shade?

A worm bin is best placed in the shade. The worms will not fare well in hot temperatures or during a deluge of water during a rainstorm. By placing them in the shade, they will be more protected from the elements and less likely to dry out.

As for a regular compost bin, direct sunlight does not cause the compost pile to heat up. The microbes working busily inside the compost are why the pile heats up. With this in mind, keeping your compost bin in the shade will decrease water evaporation. Also, people are more likely to turn their pile if they do not have to go out into the hot sun to do it.

  • Dirt or cement?

For a compost bin, it is best if it is placed on the dirt. This allows the beneficial insects to crawl up into the bin.  These insects will speed up the decomposition process and are naturally occur in a healthy compost pile. Put hardware cloth or wire mesh underneath the compost bin to prevent the larger animals from digging underneath and into the bin. If a compost pile is set on cement, it is likely that the cement will be stained.

For a worm bin, it does not matter if it is placed on cement or on dirt. It is more important that the bin is in the shade. People often even keep worm bins inside their garage, under their counter, or in a closet.

  • How close do I want my compost bin to the house?

Most people do not want to put their compost bin directly up against their house because of smell and pest attraction fears. If you are composting correctly, neither of these problems should be of issue. How close you put your bin to your house should more so be determined by hose length (if your bin is further away than your hose is long, you’ll be lugging buckets over to your pile!) and ease of use. If you don’t see yourself hoofing it across the yard to dump out your kitchen scraps, then you probably shouldn’t put your bin all the way across your yard. As for the pests and smells, err on the side of caution. If something goes wrong in your pile and it starts to smell or you get an unwanted visitor, it’s better away from your house than directly under your kitchen window.

  • How much room will my compost bin need?

If you plan on being an active composter and turning your compost pile, it is important that you have a space twice the size of your compost bin. This allows you to turn and then rebuild your bin directly next to where it was previously sitting. Turing your bin increases air flow and allows the microbes to break down the material more quickly. If you plan on having a more passive bin, this is obviously not necessary, though you probably want a little room around the bin so it can be accessed from all angles. Worm bins, on the other hand, do not need extra space.

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If you put too much "green" material in your bin, it will not heat up and it will become malodorous.

If you put too much "green" material in your bin, it will not heat up and it will become malodorous.

Sometimes, composters find themselves lacking in browns (carbon rich materials like straw, mulch, shredded paper, etc.) and having a surplus of greens (nitrogen rich materials like kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, freshly cut grass, etc.). But is it bad to have too many greens? What happens if you have too many greens in your compost bin?

You will probably be able to smell your compost bin if you have too many greens. Your compost pile will get slimy and start to smell as the green material begins to putrefy. In addition to the malodorous quality of the bin, the compost pile will probably not heat up because it will not have the correct carbon to nitrogen ratio. The preferred carbon to nitrogen ratio is 30:1. This equates to about 50% of both green and browns by volume.

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Smaller pieces will break down faster in your compost bin.

Smaller pieces will break down faster in your compost bin or worm bin.

Shredding and grinding materials speeds up the process of composting. Smaller pieces will break down faster in your pile because it increases the surface area. This makes the material easier for bacteria to break down the material. You do not have to shred or grind your materials. The process will just take longer.

If you would like to speed up the decomposition process in your bin, here are some shredding/grinding suggestions from our Master Composters.

  • For outdoor materials place clippings in a large bucket and then use hedge sheers to chop the material before adding to the compost bin. Augers are also a helpful tool for shredding materials. For large pieces, like tree branches, chipper/shredders can be very helpful.
  • For kitchen scraps our Master Composters suggest simply chopping up scraps with a knife before adding them to your compost bin or worm bin. Some of our Master Composters take it step further and blend their scraps in a blender before adding the materials to the bin.

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FG20P_dial_smallYou can definitely compost without a thermometer, but thermometers do make composting a bit easier. Thermometers can help you know when to turn your pile, when to add more material, when to add water, and when your compost is finished. Many composters also enjoy the satisfaction of seeing just how hot their pile can get!

Optimal Temperature: The target range for optimum composting is between 100 and 140 degreesfg Fahrenheit, where thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria thrive. This temperature is achieved by having the correct carbon to nitrogen ratio, moisture content, and optimal pile size (3′ x 3′ x 3′).

Low Temperatures: suggest decreased activity, at temperatures under 90 degrees beneficial microbes will go dormant, piles will still break down at low temperatures but will take longer to decompose

High Temperatures: At temperatures over about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, weed seeds and pathogenic organisms will be destroyed. Over 140 degrees thermophilic bacteria will die or go dormant. If your pile heats up over 160 degrees it is suggested to split the pile in half and water it down.

The Solana Center sells Compost Thermometers for $20 on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during our bin sales. Click here for directions.

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Image courtesy of University of Illinois ExtensionIf you are using a Smith & Hawken Biostack or other bin, you will want to fill the bin to the brim with materials when you start. Most people will stock pile materials for a couple of weeks before building the bin.  A volume of 3′ X 3′ x 3′ is ideal. Be sure  to balance your greens (nitrogren-rich materials) and browns (carbon-rich materials). Creating a “compost lasagna” by layering is great way to mix greens and browns.

If you already have a compost bin or have a neighbor who does, adding some finished compost to your new bin is a great way to get it started. This  will add an abundance of composting microbes to give your bin a boost.

Be sure to select a shaded location near a water source  and make sure you have enough room for turning your bin.

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pfkitchenwasteWorms can eat half of their weight in one day under the best conditions. For a Wriggly Wranch Worm Bin one pound of worms is needed to start your bin. There are about 1,000 worms in a pound. For the first few days you will only want to add a small quantity of food as the worms get acquainted to their new home. Eventually you will be able to add up to half a pound of food per day. Your worm population will increase quickly over time and you will be able to add more and more food. What is great is that you can never have too many worms. They will populate to the size of the bin they live in.

To help your worms consume your food scraps faster, try chopping up your materials before adding them to your bin. Some Master Composters will even go to the extreme and make smoothies of food scraps for their worms! If your bin has a foul odor, you are probably overfeeding. Make sure to always keep meat, dairy, and greasy foods out of your bin.

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Let thermophilic bacteria do all of the work!

Let thermophilic bacteria do all of the work!

Worms are generally used in closed-system compost bins. Worm bins are used to house the worms, which will digest your materials and create castings. When using a worm bin, you will need to add worms to the bin.

Compost bins are generally open-bottom bins and do not require worms.  In a compost bin microbes called thermophilic bacteria as well as a vast network of microorganisms and invertebrates break down materials and turn them into humus, or compost. These organisms will come to your bin entirely on their own for FREE!

The activity of the microbes and the insulating mass of organic material will combine to create temperatures of 140 degrees or more.  Thermophilic bacteria, the most efficient composters, thrive in temperatures of 100 and 140 degrees, which is the target range for optimum composting. Worms thrive in temperatures between 59 and 77 degrees. They will enter your bin when it is cooler and leave on their own when the bin achieves higher temperatures.

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Heating up your compost pile is beneficial for you and the organisms inside.  Compost that peaks at temperatures between 130° and 150°F breaks down faster due to optimal activity.  It also helps with getting rid of invasive pests and dangerous pathogens in your materials.  However, some composters just can’t seem to get their compost to heat up to these levels.  How can they raise the temperature in their piles?

Use the link on the right to submit more “Rotline” questions.

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