Are composting bins necessary?

When you start learning about organic lawn care, one thing you're going to hear a lot about is compost. Compost, compost, compost! It has many uses but primarily it is considered a soil conditioner, fertilizer and mulch. Compost is simply decomposed organic matter.

The more you read the more you discover that there is no better compost than the compost you make yourself. Not only will you be creating a great amendment for your lawn and garden but you'll be doing your part to help the environment by reducing the amount of waste you send to the landfill. It's also cheaper and easier than buying it.

I'm not going to get into the details of making compost, if you want more information you can view the links at the bottom of this post. The basics involve using the right materials at the correct ratios. Other than a little turning to aerate the mix and possibly adding water, there's not much to it.

Most people who compost, including large commercial operations, just throw everything into one big pile, turn it occasionally and possibly water it from time to time. So why would you need to spend hundreds of dollars on a commercial composter? The answer is you don't. If you just throw everything in a pile you can use a pitchfork, or the compost aerator (aka compost turner) pictured on the right to help make things easier. Without enough air, your compost can start to smell as anaerobic bacteria develop. The compost aerator seems like it would work better on a compost pile than a pitchfork, especially if you have it enclosed. It is reasonably priced.

So why do people spend so much on composters? I think a number of reasons and I can actually agree with some of them but I'm not sure if the reasons justify the cost for everyone. I was interested in compost bins primarily because I didn't know what to do with my grass clippings and I read that compost does wonders for a lawn. Turns out I didn't need a composter, I simply removed the bag off my mower based on advice I read online. Didn't even need to get a mulching blade. I haven't had any problems with clumping and it seems like it's working. The nice thing is I don't have to empty the bag, turn the compost, then spread it around. It all happens right in the lawn. This fall I'll see how mulching the leaves goes without a mulching blade. That might be a bit harder so I'll order one to be on the safe side. But mulching your fall leaves with your mower is a great way to add nutrients and organic matter to your lawn. So right there, the majority of the items I would have composted disappeared.

Reasons people buy composting bins:
ComposT-Twin with Free Activator
  • Having trouble making compost - They may have tried to make compost without a bin and haven't had much success. I think this is mainly due to not using the right ingredients in the right proportions and not properly tending the pile. A commercial composter may not fix all these problems.
  • Find it difficult to turn - Turning compost isn't that hard or time consuming but some people may find it difficult or don't have time to do it twice a week. The compost turner I mentioned above should help. If you're composting a lot of material it may be heavy and some people may not be able to easily handle it.
  • Don't have the skills to make their own - Making a compost bin isn't hard but some people just aren't very handy.
  • Find them more attractive - I think that some people, especially around metropolitan areas, where neighbors are so close, are worried about how their backyards will look with a compost pile in it, or they just don't have the room. I can understand that to a degree, but many of the compost tumbers I have seen have not been all that attractive. The exceptions are the Urban Composter Tumbler and the Mantis ComposT-Twin which is by far the nicest looking one I've seen and looks to be easy to turn and has two compartments. The Mantis composter seems to address many of the concerns people might have, it is also the most expensive home composter I have seen.
  • Speed - The more controlled environment you have, the faster you can decompose the organic matter and have good compost. This makes sense and the ability to easily aerate the compost may make people turn it more frequently. The Mantis composter claims to be able to make compost in 2 weeks and one review I've seen confirms it. One of the problems of making your own compost is making enough of it. If you can make compost this fast, that shouldn't be a problem.
  • Temperature - Temperature is important in making good compost. It is hard to control temperature in a small compost heap. The high temperature also helps to kill weed seeds and possibly other potential problems that may end up in the bin.
  • Smell and rodents - From what I've read, properly maintained compost should not smell or attract rodents. You need to be mindful of what you put in it and keep the right proportions of greens and browns. Also keep it aerated and do not compost diseased plant materials.
If you absolutely must have a compost tumbler, go with the two I mentioned above. They seem to give you the most bang for the buck.

Even though I've eliminated most of the items I'd want to compost in my yard by mulch mowing, I'm still considering composting. Right now I just throw the few items I have in a pile in a corner of the yard. It is very small but decomposes fairly quickly. In the fall, when I'll have a lot of garden waste from pruning and pulling the vegetable garden, I might consider composting the material instead of throwing them out. Since I plan on mulching most of the leaves directly into the lawn, I'm going to be short on browns. I've read that paper is good and I shred a decent amount of mail to give me a good balance. A good crosscut paper shredder is nice to have for privacy concerns. The cross cutting action creates smaller particles that will decompose faster. It may not be a big deal but I would also pull out the little plastic windows on envelopes before shredding.

Since I don't mind building things myself and I like to save money, I'm going to plan on making my own tumbler some day. It's a bit different from some of the other plans I've seen so I'll come back and post some more information. If I don't make a big one, I still might make a smaller one out of a 5-gallon bucket for smaller batches.

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