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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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Tumblers are a style of composting bin that is manually flipped, spun, rolled or crank-turned for aeration, depending on the style. These types of bins do not require turning with a pitchfork, instead, the whole compost bin is turned for aeration. The Solana Center has four different styles of tumblers at our compost demonstration site. Please feel free to drop by on a Tuesday or Thursday between 9am and 4pm to check them out! To find another compost demonstration site in San Diego County, please click here.

This tumbler is turned by cranking the handle.

Crank Tumbler

Material is put inside the doors on the side of the barrel. To aerate, the handle is turned, cranking the barrel in a circle. There are two separate compartments within the barrel, so compost can be finishing in one side while the other side is being added to.

Pros: can hold a large volume of materials, easily emptied, two interior compartments

Cons: most expensive type of tumbler, material has to be lifted up into the barrel, when the barrel is full, cranking becomes difficult

This tumbler is rolled like a ball.

Rolled Tumbler

The lid of this tumbler spins and unlocks so material can be loaded inside. The tumbler can then be rolled like a ball for aeration.

Pros: easily filled, can be fun for kids to roll

Cons: because it is not completely round, it does not roll on a straight path, can be difficult to empty, not good for someone with back problems

This tumbler is flipped on its central axis.

Central Axis Flipped Tumblers

These tumblers are loaded through the top. Some models have an aeration tube going down the center, our particular model does not. The tumbler is flipped around its central axis for aeration.

Pros: the center axle doubles as a mixer, blending the materials inside the tumbler.

Cons: difficult to load, difficult to turn when full,  difficult to empty. We had a unit similar to this and its lid warped. Because we could not fit the lid back on, the tumbler became completely unusable.

This tumbler is spun around a central axis.

Spinning Tumblers

This tumbler is loaded through the side panel and sits very low to the ground. It spins around a central axis like a hamster running wheel.

Pros: easily filled and emptied, compact size means it does not fill with as much material, making it easier to tumble.

Cons: does not hold a large amount of material, requires a bent position to turn.

There are other various models of tumblers out on the market. Remember to do your research and read reviews before purchasing a tumbler. Pay close attention to door hinges and closures because if you cannot close the compost bin, it cannot be tumbled. Please see below for a general list of tumbler pros and cons:

Tumbler Pros

There is no pitchfork required to turn a tumbler. When you turn a tumbler, all the material is getting turned at the same time, not by shovelful like a compost pile would be turned. A backyard is not required to own a tumbler; it can be placed on a patio or in a garage because it does not need to sit on dirt. Tumblers close tightly so there is no fear of four legged pests infiltrating the bin. With routine turning, tumblers can make compost fairly quickly.

Tumbler Cons

Generally, we’ve found that once a tumbler is full, the weight of the material makes it difficult to turn (on the pro side, you’ll definitely be getting a good workout!). Depending on the model, especially if the opening is not near the ground, tumblers can also be difficult to load or empty material out of. Because tumblers do not sit on the ground, it is unlikely that beneficial insects will find their way into the bin to help with the decomposition process. Depending on the tumbler model they can also be very expensive in cost ranging from $120 to $550.

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Water is added to a Biostack during a rainless day.

Bin wetness from rain is usually a non-issue in San Diego County but recently, with the extreme rain that has fallen on our lovely County, outdoor compost bins are probably on the soggy side. Remember, optimum bin dampness is comparable to that of a wrung out sponge so if your bin is dripping, it is probably too wet!

Backyard Compost Bins

A “too wet” compost bin will naturally dry out over time as the water in the bin evaporates, but if it is rainy or cold outside, the bin may stay wet for an extended period of time. A bin that is too wet can lead to a smelly, anaerobic situation that most strive to avoid. To speed up the drying process, add additional browns (materials high in carbon) to your bin. Items like dead leaves, straw, shredded paper, and mulch will suck up the excess water, drying out the bin. Once the bin is back to the dampness of a wrung out sponge, the microbial population will increase, speeding up composting in the bin.

Worm Bins

Red Wigglers are terrestrial creatures. They will quickly perish if placed into a pool of water. If their environment gets too wet, they will wriggle for their lives, migrating to a safer location, probably out of the worm bin. To dry out the bedding, add shredded paper or cardboard. The worms will eventually eat the paper and in the meantime, it will absorb excess water. If space in your bin is at a premium and additional material cannot be added, placing a piece of cardboard or burlap on the surface of the bedding will absorb moisture and can be replaced if additional moisture needs to be removed. Make sure to also check the worm tea level of your bin. Most of the water in the bin will end up in the worm tea level. If it fills, it will saturate the lowest level of the worm bin. If the tea levels are high, drain the tea from the bin and use it as a liquid fertilizer on your plants! They’ll love it!

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The Solana Center cares for a number of Compost Demonstration Sites throughout San Diego County. These sites are maintained by Master Composters and feature many different types of bins.

The Solana Center Compost Demonstration Site

The Solana Center Compost Demonstration Site

Encinitas

Solana Center for Environmental Innovation: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9 – 4 p.m.

San Diego Botanic Garden

San Diego

San Diego Zoo

East County

Summers Past Farms

Water Conservation Garden

Crestridge Ecological Reserve

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Wire Mesh Compost Bin

Wire Mesh Compost Bin

Here are a couple of designs we recommend:

Stackable wood bin: minimal carpentry skills needed, can use recycled lumber (as long as it is not treated)

Wooden pallet bin: all you need are four wooden pallets, bolts, and latches and you’re on your way

Wire mesh bin: easy to make and inexpensive

Homemade designs often do not include lids which is not a problem as long as you are burying your food correctly. In dry climates, is it recommended to line the following designs with plastic or thick cardboard to retain moisture.

Click here for information about compost bins offered by the Solana Center.

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prod21199_aux_defaultThe best place to keep your bin is in a shaded location. There is a common misconception that the sun causes the contents inside the bin to heat up but it is actually the thermophilic bacteria creating heat as they decompose the material. Keeping your bin in shaded location will help maintain the bin’s moisture. You may also want to consider keeping your bin near a water source as you will need to add water occasionally to the bin. If you plan on turning your bin, make sure you give yourself adequate space.

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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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