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How to Start a Compost, Part 2

April 13, 2010

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Starting a new garden? Got a limpid garden? Do you have weak, impoverished soil? Boy oh boy, do I have news for you! It’s time to play in the dirt! Compost is fun, folks! In case you missed the riveting Part 1 in this series, go ahead and read it.

This post is going to be How to Make a Wire Bin, and will be filled with tips and stories of what’s worked for me these years. First, you’ve gotta getta bin.

The Wire Bin
WHAT YOU NEED
Hammer
Shovel
Heavy-duty gloves
Tin snips or cable cutters
Four metal garden stakes or 2 x 4 posts**
Chicken wire, about 15 feet length or so
Twine or heavy-duty garden twisty ties for stakes, or metal staples for posts

Your Wire Bin will probably look a lot neater.

Of course, you can go much fancier, but don’t you really want to get a compost going right now? Sure, you do. Throw together a quick bin and get the compost going. Then you can start constructing your St. Peter’s Basilica of Compost Bins later, and take your time at it. Compost takes about a year to get ready, so time is of the essence.

1. Stake out an area in your yard that receives sun for at least half the day. Hammer the four stakes in the shape of a square. If you have a large yard with a lot of leaves and grass clippings to add, each side of the square should be approximately 4 to 5 feet, with a stake at each corner.

2. Starting at one stake, take the twisty tie and secure the chicken wire to the stake. Or, if you are using wooden posts, tack the wire onto the post using the staples. Go all the way around the square.

3. Now, you can leave the front part of the square open, as I do, or you can loosely secure the wire to the front for easy access later. Just keep in mind that in a year, you need to get all the stuff OUT of the bin.

4. Dump in your waste. Experts say it’s best to try to layer the stuff: leaves, then grass clippings, then food waste. etc. I do not layer. I just dump *whatever* in. It’s been working so far. This is nature we’re talking about– it’s well able to what it needs to do without much pampering from a human.

5. You can add stuff like compost starter to the mix, if you want. But a shovelful of garden soil or cow manure will do. The purpose for this is to give the compost a little kick-start with that wonderful aerobic bacteria that will be making your waste into humus (prepared compost). I have never added anything, and have done fine. The garden soil is a good idea, and I’ll be trying that this year.

**Do not use pressure-treated wood. PTW is coated with chemicals (such as arsenic) that will leach into the soil and into your vegetables.

    Tips for a Really Good Compost Pile:

  • Add earthworms to your pile. Earthworms are marvelous for compost. They help aerate the mix and their, uh, poop, is a great addition to any compost pile!
  • During dry spells, water the compost pile. Just a little.
  • Every month or so, turn the mix over, or stir it up best you can. I actually NEVER do this, because the pile is so heavy. My compost turns out OK. But turning may help make the compost decompose quicker. Use a shovel or pitchfork to mix the waste. Watch out for innocent earthworm bystanders.
  • Add only vegetable matter to the mix, never meats, fats, or grease. This will disrupt the bacteria revelry going on. And meats and grease may attract skunks, raccoons, and rats.
june-garden

Gardens love compost!

In the next and final installment is this series, I’ll talk about what to add to your compost bin, and what NOT to add, and what to do when you finally have your compost ready for adding to the garden. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

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How to Start a Compost, Part 1

April 12, 2010

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If you have a garden, a compost is important. If you are a tightwad like me, and don’t like buying expensive fertilizers, bagged compost, and peat moss every year, a compost pile is REALLY important.

Compost is just a fancy word for decomposed waste. Or, as en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compost says, “a combination of decomposed plant and animal materials and other organic materials that are being decomposed largely through aerobic decomposition into a rich black soil.” Right. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Veg Garden1

My garden at planting time, last year.

welcome

My garden thrives after amending with compost.

I have “maintained” a compost pile for a few years now. I say “maintained” in quotes because it’s been largely trial and error for me. Everybody makes it look SOOO easy– and indeed it is, kinda– but you have to do it right, or it won’t work. Me– I don’t like babysitting the compost pile; I have so much to do that turning the blasted 200-pound pile over every week never gets done. So I’ll tell you about my woes and wins, and throw a few tips in, as well. Here goes:

  • You do not need to buy ANYTHING. Nothing. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise! You do NOT need that fancy $500 hand-cranking bin, nor the $50 compost starter mix, nor the nice $100 pitchfork. You may buy things if you want. A compost can be a hole in the ground, if you want. Most people like things a little neater (including me) but don’t think that you need to spend a fortune even for that. Keep reading…
  • The compost will not smell bad if you are doing it right. Compost is decaying organic matter, and it needs a few things to decay properly. I call it the Big Three: oxygen, moisture, and friendly compost-making bacteria. If you have too much moisture, or not enough oxygen, it will smell. Believe me, it will smell.
  • The compost bin should be in a sunny area of the yard, in a convenient area near the garden.
  • You can keep your compost going all year ’round, or only in the warm months. I do it only in the warm months, because my son dislikes hauling the compost bucket from the kitchen to the backyard in 3 feet of snow every night. Sheesh. lol.
  • You need a healthy assortment of waste: “green” waste like grass clippings; “brown” waste like leaves and topsoil; “food” waste from the house.
  • Compost ONLY vegetable matter. Do not compost bones, meat, fat, grease, etc. These will disrupt that friendly bacteria that you will soon covet– they are vegetarians, ok?
  • You will learn to love earthworms, and get to know their favorite foods.

OK! Let’s get started! First, you need a compost bin, or a place to dump your loot. I have used the “dump” method as well as a variety of bins. In the next post, I’ll show you how to build a quick and easy bin. Here’s a rundown of the various compost bin styles:

  • The Hole:
    Very ugly. Tends to get quite soggy. Not recommended, but in a compost emergency, it’ll do.
  • The Pile:
    Like The Hole, it’s ugly and messy. But effective. I have The Pile in the back– it’s full of weeds, discarded garden waste, small twigs, etc. It takes a long, long time to decompose. I’m still waiting, actually. The bigger the waste, the longer the wait. There’s a family of rabbits living in there right now. You can create a Pile if you don’t want to use a bin. The Pile works well if you include the Big Three. The main problem (besides ugliness) with The Pile is that the food waste may attract unfriendlys, like rats, raccoons, and other unsavory critters. I only throw large garden waste in The Pile, no food waste.
  • The Wooden Bin:
    I have a wooden bin. I threw it together. It once had a lid, but that decayed after a few winters, and I never replaced it. The bin can be constructed of pallets or plain old 2 x 4s. The Wooden Bin is nice because it keeps critters away (if the slats are narrow enough) and allows for enough oxygen to pass through the mix. It’s very tough to turn over, though. Ugh. Note: do not use pressure-treated lumber for your compost bin. More on that later.
  • The Plastic Bin:
    I use this mostly, right now. It’s not the greatest. I have one large plastic garbage can and two 35-gallon Rubbermaid totes. I drilled holes in the sides and top, but even then, there really isn’t enough oxygen. I sprayed water in them, and the water wouldn’t seep out, so they got waterlogged. The bins are very convenient– compost is easy to turn, and the bins have lids, but the lack of oxygen and the water retention problem makes it a bummer. You can buy one of those expensive plastic bins designed specifically for composts, if you want. I have not tried them. I assume, like Little Tykes toys, that they would fade over time and look awful. But they may work.
  • The Wire Bin:
    In my opinion, this is THE BEST choice. All I did was plug a few metal garden posts into the ground and wrap chicken wire around them. There’s plenty of oxygen, and there’s as much moisture as the surrounding area– and when there’s too much, the extra seeps out through the wire– and it’s relatively easy to turn over.
CompostLevs

The Wire Bin works best for me.

I have heard lots of opinions on when your compost should be garden-ready. There’s some “instant compost” flukes out there that I have heard about. I don’t know about them. It generally takes a year for me. I start this year’s compost for use next year. I always spread the compost before spring tilling time. I have a huge yard, with loads of leaves, grass clippings, and kids who eat a lot of veggies. So your mileage may vary. All I know is that a compost is usually ready in 12-14 months. So you’d better get going!

Compost soil, also known as humus, is rich, black, and loamy. It should smell earthy, not like sewage or mildew.

SprdgLeavs

The rich humus of compost contrasting with the brown topsoil.

So this ends the Part 1 of How to Start a Compost. In the next articles, I’ll show you how to construct a Wire Bin, give some tips, and show you what to do with your composted humus when you have it.

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Secure Your Home Before Vacation

October 27, 2009

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February is a big vacation month for us in the Northeast, but you don’t want to wait until then to prepare your vacation plans. If you will be leaving your home for any length of time on a holiday, you want to be sure that your home and all its contents will be safe (and still there!) upon your return. Here are a few security and home care tips to prepare your home before you leave for any extended trip:

  • Turn off your water supply.
    In your basement near the water meter (where the water comes in to your home), there’s a valve that controls the input of water. It’s recommended that you turn off your water supply before an extended trip. Be sure to do this and empty your plumbing of water if you turn off your furnace during your vacation, so that a deep freeze does not freeze your pipes and cause them to burst. I’ve heard through the grapevine that some insurance companies insist you shut off your water supply AND drain the water from your plumbing before a vacation, or any damage will not be covered.
  • Turn off your furnace, or set it on low.
    This is best if you live in a high humidity area, to prevent mold and mildew. You can even get a timer to have the furnace turn on periodically; or, set it at 55 so it will run when the temperature drops.
  • Unplug large appliances.
    The refrigerator, hot water tank, computers, power-sucking TVs, etc… these don’t need to be on. If you have those “vampire” appliances (appliances that still use energy even when in “off” mode), unplug them all.
  • Place a “hold” on your mail.
    One of the first things a thief looks for is if the mailbox is being emptied regularly. You can go to the […]
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Securing Your Garage Door for a Hurricane

September 3, 2009

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My weatherman has been warning us from time to time of “tropical systems” creeping up into the Northern/Western Hemisphere. While hurricanes rarely hit the Northeast (they DO strike us, though– check out this post about the most damaging one to ever hit the U.S., in 1938), they usually do affect our weather. But this post isn’t for those of us in the Northeast; it’s for my many readers in the South, who are in the midst of hurricane season right now. I have never been through a hurricane, but it must be a horribly harrowing experience. The photos I have seen on the hurricane-chasers’ digital cameras and videos are scary enough!

Bob Vila has a great article about getting your garage doors storm ready. I think it’s very timely!

Hurricanes have taught us that garage doors are possibly a home’s greatest danger zone in a high-wind event. Bracing garage doors against failure has become the focus of code officials and manufacturers as buildings are built better to resist damaging winds.

…In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in 1992 the building codes in many coastal counties and storm-threatened areas made a leap in stringency. One of the most important changes in code concerned the biggest hole in our homes—the garage door. Failure of the garage door in a hurricane leaves a breach in the house envelope that can be as big as 300 square feet. Experts conclude that the resulting change in pressure can blow a roof off the house or create other tears and fissures in the home that allow rains and water to invade and damage or ruin drywall.

Basically, your garage door needs vertical AND horizontal bracing along the interior of the door. You can buy a new garage door specially built for hurricanes, build the bracing yourself, or buy kits to “retro-fit” your garage door to bring it up to standards. Of course, the bracing is only as good as the structure you are attaching it TO. Check out Vila’s article for more info!

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Help and Ideas

January 21, 2009

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I don’t get any television reception. I don’t miss TV at all, but there are a few shows I’ve seen (at the dentist’s office– they have small TVs for patients in the chairs!) that I wish I could see regularly. One of them is This Old House and the DIY Network. I could watch them for hours and reap such great information! Well, this morning I was surfing a site called Hulu, and guess what?! I found some DIYNetwork shows there! For free! To watch!

I really enjoyed the show “Desperate Landscapes.” That’s kind of what I feel about my property, lol. It’s pretty… overgrown… and it’s taking me a long time to restore it. I have scads of gardening and landscaping textbooks, but sometimes you need to watch someone else show you how, you know what I mean? Anyway, I’m thrilled that I can watch the DIY Network’s Desperate Landscapes and other home and garden shows online, and for free! Woooo! Check it out, I’m sure you’ll find some great ideas. Go to Hulu.com, choose “channels” and then “Home and Garden.” Or, click here for the direct page.

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