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Turn your garden trimmings into soil conditioner.

Backyard recycling is simple with the right composter

LET'S SAY YOU PUT ALL YOUR GARDEN TRIMMINGS AND kitchen vegetable waste in plastic bags and have them hauled off by your garbage service. In the process, you're adding nearly 25 pounds per week to landfill, based on California averages for a family of four.

Then you go out and buy plastic bags of soil conditioner to haul back to your garden. Now you and your garbage have just made what amounts to a costly round trip.

That's why backyard composting makes so much sense. And the payoff for your garden is a ready supply of soil conditioner that will improve soil texture, enhance nutrients, and increase water retention.


Essentially, you can make compost in a fancy bin or simply dump your garden waste in a pile. The manufactured models illustrated here get you started with a tidy container and a choice of composting methods. In addition to price, you'll want to consider convenience: the quicker you want results, the more maintenance (balancing different raw materials, turning, and moistening) you need to do.

Although composters are designed for utility, not aesthetics, these models can be tucked out of sight. If you think of them as just another type of recycling bin, they easily earn the space they occupy.

All types of composters are available by mail order, and most through garden supply and seed catalogs. Many are advertised in garden magazines. Increasingly, nurseries, garden centers, and even discount warehouses sell composters. The American Horticultural Society offers several types by mail; for a free brochure on its composters, as well as a source list for additional composters and composting supplies, call (800) 777-7931.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board's recycling hotline offers a free home-composting bin list that describes types of composters and gives their prices and manufacturers or distributors; call (800) 553-2962.

If you want to check out composters before buying, call your city or county recycling program to find out whether your community has a home compost demonstration site. These sites display a variety of composters in use, and instructors may be available to answer questions.


Composting enhances the natural process of decomposition in which microorganisms in the soil break down organic debris. By providing the optimum conditions for the organisms to thrive--a balance of raw materials, air, and water--you can help speed decomposition.

A composter's design influences the ease of composting and tidiness of the process, but it doesn't compensate for technique. Here are the fundamentals for getting the fastest results in any composter in which you turn the contents:

* Combine equal parts by volume of dried, brown, carbon-rich material, such as old leaves or straw, with fresh, green material high in nitrogen, such as fresh-cut grass and kitchen waste (excluding animal products).

* Ideally, a pile should have a volume of 27 cubic feet (1 cubic yard).

* Chop or shred organic materials into pieces 3/4 inch or smaller.

* Keep the pile as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Wet the pile as you build it, and then again as you turn it.

* Turn the pile regularly--about once a week. The heat in a well-built pile will peak between 120 |degrees~ and 160 |degrees~. When the temperature begins to decrease, turn the pile.


At right, we compare the four basic types of composters. The first two types are the fastest but most work-intensive; the other two are slower but more carefree. For help evaluating the pros and cons of each type, we consulted Sherl Hopkins of the University of California Cooperative Extension Service. As demonstration projects coordinator, he manages the home composting program for Los Angeles County and teaches backyard composting.

Bins for hot, tossed compost

These movable containers--usually designed as bottomless boxes or cylinders--easily lift off so you can turn the contents with a pitchfork. Holes or slats allow air circulation. It's best to fill the bins completely with balanced materials and let decomposition finish without adding materials during the process. If turned regularly, the contents heat to 120 |degrees~ or more. You may have finished compost in as little as 14 days, but it usually takes four to six weeks.

Pros: Materials compost quickly, with no odors. The heat destroys most plant diseases and weed seeds.

A simple cylinder costs only about $30. The unit above, about $100, has three bottomless snap-together tiers that ease turning; add-on tiers are available.

Cons: This method is labor-intensive. Waste materials need to be stockpiled until there are enough to fill the container.

Shopping tips: In order for the pile to hold its heat, choose a unit with at least a 12-cubic-foot capacity. Aeration holes should be small to keep rodents out and moisture in. A lid also helps retain moisture and deter rodents. If possible, test the unit for ease in assembling and disassembling for removing compost. Hopkins gives the stackable composter top rating; it's commonly sold as Bio-Stack.

Tumblers that do the turning

With tumblers, you turn the container to toss the compost; otherwise, the principles are the same as for piles you turn with a pitchfork. The tumbler above is one of several models with a crank handle. You turn others by pushing them on an axle or on the ground.

Pros: Like bins whose contents you turn, these are among the fastest composters. Most are fully enclosed with small aeration vents, which keep moisture in and animals out. They are attractive and neat. It's convenient to empty a unit that sits high above the ground, since you can push a wheelbarrow beneath it.

Cons: Units with cranks are expensive; the one above costs about $400. Those with moving parts may be difficult to assemble. It's hard to load tumblers that sit high above ground (although easier to empty them). Large tumblers are heavy when full, and some are hard to turn.

Shopping tips: Choose units with at least a 12-cubic-foot capacity. If possible, test large units for ease of turning; a full load will make turning harder. Aeration holes should be small so compost doesn't fall out. For its overall design and capacity, Hopkins prefers the 18-bushel (22-cubic-foot) tumbler made by Kemp Company, even though its size makes a full load that much harder to turn.

Static bins you keep feeding

In these units, the contents sit without being turned, although occasional aerating with a pitchfork is required. You need to properly balance materials, but volume is not critical: as the waste decomposes, you add more to the top. Finished compost starts to appear at the bottom of the pile in about three months, and is supplied continuously (in small amounts) as long as you keep adding to the pile. Containers have a door at the bottom for removing compost.

Pros: The containers and the process are neat. Most units hold moisture and deter critters well. No turning is required, and you can add organic waste as it accumulates.

Cons: The process is slow, and it delivers small amounts of compost. Plant diseases and weed seeds may survive since the pile does not become very hot.

Shopping tips: Choose a unit low enough and with a top opening large enough so you can easily load it. The bottom door should open easily and be large enough to shovel out finished compost. Hopkins prefers conical units (about $100) for best air circulation and moisture retention.

Anaerobic composters

Anaerobic bacteria, which thrive without exposure to air, do the composting in these fully enclosed systems--no turning or aerating is necessary. In the model shown above, the open bottom is buried underground. Some models have a buried waste chamber.

With either type, you simply fill the container with organic material and close the lid. You can add more material at any time. (Some manufacturers suggest adding small amounts of lime, bonemeal, and soil.) To remove compost, you must shovel out the unit. Finished compost takes six months or more, including drying time.

Pros: Little care or attention is required.

Cons: In Hopkins's experiments, the process created insect and odor problems. The decomposed waste was slimy and hard to retrieve. It required drying before use. Although the unit may be useful for waste disposal, Hopkins does not recommend it for home gardeners desiring high-quality compost.
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Author:Ocone, Lynn
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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