Backyard Composting

earth machine in yard

Not that long ago, I would never have considered having a compost bin in my backyard.

The idea of letting stuff rot away in the proximity of my general whereabouts sounded not only nauseatingly stinky but also unattractive to look at.  It’s not that my yard is such a sanctuary (our dogs do ‘their thing’ there on a fairly regular basis).   But I imagined rotten odors emanating from a disturbing pile of rotting vegetation, various types of flea infested rodents foraging for snacks, and toxic germs spreading not only in my yard but into my home.

Well, now that I own and regularly contribute to not one, but two basic backyard type compost bins, I am happy to report I was wrong on every point that I listed in the above paragraph.

We have one large bin located in our very urban backyard in Chicago.  And we have the other bin located in the backyard of our more rural Michigan property.  Neither of the bins emits an unpleasant odor nor is visited by rodents or other scavenging creatures.  I doubt my neighbors in Chicago (or Michigan) even know the bin exists – it’s that innocuous.

And yet, we have 2 households contributing a significant amount of organic garbage to the bin in Chicago, on a very regular basis.  The bin in Chicago is full, and we are contemplating getting a second one!  And the bin in Michigan is also almost filled to the rim from last summer’s offerings.  Both bins are currently working away doing their thing, at full throttle – without us even noticing.

So, here’s what we have been putting in our bins:

Garbage from the kitchen – Vegetable and fruit scraps including citrus rinds and banana peels, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea bags including the string.

From the yard – Bush trimmings, fallen leaves, last year’s dead annuals including vines, grass clippings, pumpkins (after Halloween).

Other stuff – Newspaper (no colored ink), wilted flowers, deceased potted plants, straw from a Halloween display.

What shouldn’t you put in?  If you don’t want to attract unwanted pests, have a bad odor emanating from the pile, or encourage unwanted bacteria, don’t put these things in:  Meat or bones, used cat litter, pet waste, fish scraps, dairy products.

Why compost? According to the E.P.A., “Food makes up the largest percentage of waste (21%) going into municipal landfills and combusted for energy recovery.” In landfills, compostible materials generate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.  According to the E.P.A. website, “14% of greenhouse gases in the United States are associated with growing, manufacturing, transporting, and disposing of food.”  By reducing the amount of food wasted, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Garbage incinerators release pollutants, so the less we send to them the better.   Chicago has been slow to incorporate recycling into its methods of garbage disposal, in relation to many other big cities.  But not all cities are like us – San Francisco is one of the first cities to set significantly higher standards by aiming for recycling 100% of it’s garbage. That’s right, zero waste.  From the San Francisco Environment website: “Imagine a world in which nothing goes to landfills or to incinerators. We think it is achievable, and SF Environment is doing everything we can to make it happen.”  In San Francisco, residents are now required to compost all their kitchen scraps and yard waste, or face high fines.  Small plastic bins are distributed to each household, to collect the scraps in their kitchen, and special garbage cans are situated outside along with the regular cans for the collection of the compost matter.   The city then transports the matter to ‘centralized facilities’ for processing.

Here’s the collection bin in my sister’s San Francisco kitchen, and the instructions on top….

….and by her front curb, ready for pickup

And here’s a photo of a garbage can in the Oakland, California airport….

see the recycling sections for food waste, cans/bottles, paper?  And then the section for landfill?  We need this in Chicago!









But, since we don’t have ‘centralized’ composting facilities in Chicago yet, I use my backyard bin.  But how to get the scraps from my kitchen to the backyard bin?  After pricing the many options of ‘collection’ bins on the market, I decided to save the cash and make use of what I already had.  I found the best container to stash the stuff is an empty (and clean) cat litter container.  See below photo.

It is the perfect size for easy, manageable transport, has a large opening, and best yet, a handle.  I can leave it on my back porch (outside), sealed shut, and add stuff as needed.  When full, we lug it out to the bin, dump the contents in and throw in some ‘brown’ matter to balance the recipe for decomposition.

Brown matter?  Without getting too scientific, here’s the basics for the recipe to make decomposition a happening thing:

Nitrogen rich materials (green matter): fruit, vegetables, coffee grounds, grass clippings

Carbon rich materials (brown matter): leaves, hay, peanut shells, straw,

Click here for the more extensive list from the University of Illinois Extension Program.

The ratio should be about 2 parts brown matter for every 1 part green matter.  So, when I add green matter to the bin (generally kitchen scraps) I also add carbon rich brown matter from a pile I keep in the yard (leaves and straw).

It’s essential that you keep an eye on the compost bin, to make sure there is enough oxygen reaching the materials, and that the contents are ‘as damp as a wrung out sponge’.  Oxygen because:  microorganisms work in an aerobic way and need oxygen to keep producing. Moisture because: having too much water can ‘drown’ the microorganisms, too little water can slow the process down considerably.

It’s a good idea to stir the contents once in a while to encourage more rapid decomposition.  Yes, someone has even invented a special (not cheap) utensil to stir the bin!  Or, you can buy a bin already designed for easy stirring – the round bin sits on a stand so you just flip the container around once in a while.  Kind of like a dryer keeps the clothes moving while drying, this keeps the material inside mixing with oxygen, and not stagnate .  Needless to say, I found a long stick-like wooden thing in my tool pile, and I’ve adopted it for stirring.  However, I have been very lazy about doing the stirring.  So most likely the contents of our bin will take longer to reach the finish line of the decomposition process.

Is one bin better than any other?  For sure.  I suggest you read the reviews online before making your decision. There are lots of different types of models out there – some are stationary, some roll around on a stand, some are wood, and other are plastic.   According to the reviews, some seem to fall apart easier than others, some don’t let in enough air or water, or any other number of issues occur.  I have grown to love the model we have in Chicago – it’s easy to put together, easy to use, and built of a sturdy plastic.  It was a lot more than I wanted to spend, around $100. (I bought it at Home Depot, and the shipping cost as much as the bin – the problem being it’s not available in their stores, so one has to order direct from the manufacturer in Canada and pay huge shipping fees).   But the city of Chicago offers rebates up to $50. to city residents for compost bin purchases, (as well as rain barrels, trees and native plants).  So, I ended up getting a considerable amount back.  Click here for more info on the Chicago Sustainable Backyard Program.

As you may have already presumed, our garbage output (stuff that goes to the garbage can in the alley and eventually the landfill), has been dramatically decreased.  Add the fact that we recycle most of our plastic, paper and glass means it takes us longer to fill a regular ‘trash’ bag in the kitchen garbage can.  My family is getting closer to the goal set by San Francisco – zero waste.

How do you tell when the compost is ‘finished’?

  • Compost is ready to use when it is dark, brown, and crumbly with an earthy kind of odor.
  • It should not be moldy and rotten.
  • It should not smell bad.
  • Crumbly compost will be sort of fluffy; it does not need to be decomposed to a point of being powdery.
  • The original materials that went into the compost pile should no longer be recognizable in the finished compost, except for some woody pieces.
  • The volume of the pile should have reduced by 30-50% from what went into the pile.
  • The temperature of the finished compost should be the same as the outside air temperature, and the material should not reheat.

The bottom of our bins have a small door – the idea being that when the compost at the bottom is done, you can access it by opening up the door, and the luscious stuff will spill out for your ready use.  What are the Uses of Composted Material After it is Complete? The basic uses of compost are for mulch, soil amendment, potting mix, and compost tea.

Eventually, I plan to start a larger ‘open’ compost pile at our place in Michigan, with leaves, grass clippings, and non-food waste.  I’d like to explore composting using the heat generated in a larger pile.

The compost bins we have are truly amazing.  No modern scientific invention, or highly evolved (and expensive) technology necessary here either.  And no need to buy soil amendments with who knows what scary ingredients.   I know I’m waxing poetic about garbage, but once you experience the compost process, it’s remarkable.  The idea that I can take nitrogen rich ‘garbage’, place it in a container with some carbon rich ‘garbage’, and then later find it all transformed into a super rich nutritious soil amendment perfect for growing stuff, more valuable than gold to a garden and gardener…. is nothing short of an amazing feat.  And all this is accomplished by a small army of industrious creatures, most not visible to the human eye.   But why should I be so surprised?  This has been going on with our natural environment since the first Earth plant rolled over and died, then decayed, and finally decomposed back into the ground to feed another generation of life.  It’s just part of our natural cycle.

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