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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Compost by the barrel

After my disappointing experience with a commercial plastic compost bin, I was tempted to give up on closed composters. The plastic bin didn’t produce any usable compost, and it attracted an unknown animal that easily chewed its way through the side.
            Searching for advice on line, I learned that plastic bins sitting on the ground were well known to attract animals. I looked into more expensive bins, some standing on legs that kept them off the ground and enabled spinning them to turn the compost. I didn’t feel like spending a lot on another possibly ineffective commercial product.  
            I remembered that I did have two aluminum garbage cans full of bird seed standing a few feet from the plastic compost bin, their lids secured with bricks. In five years no animal had managed to penetrate those. And they were round. Maybe metal barrels could be modified to serve my composting purpose, and maybe I could even turn the compost by rolling them.
            In April 2013, I started my experiment with garbage can composting. I bought a small barrel with a tight-fitting lid for about $25 at the local hardware store. An obliging staff member punched half-inch holes in the bottom and sides for ventilation.

Through that summer I dumped in kitchen scraps, adding some soil and finished compost that I hoped would inoculate the waste with hungry microbes.
            This weekend, two and a half years later, I harvested some recognizable compost from my first two trash-can batches. In both barrels, the materials I’d added had shrunk from filling the barrel to the top to occupying about a quarter of its volume. 
This is what the finished compost looked like. Newspaper I used to line the kitchen bucket didn't decompose but was easily extracted.

The finished product was black and seemed fulling decomposed, with no recognizable food bits. I dumped one barrel’s contents in the vegetable bed and another in a perennial border. 

            Why did my garbage can composters work better than the plastic one? They kept animals out, of course. I also think adding soil and compost helped them along. I’d learned my lesson and left out paper shreds, torn-up cardboard from take-out food containers, and fall leaves, all of which had proven to be too slow to decompose in a closed bin, although they worked fine when incorporated into open compost piles. I gave the barrels’ contents one to two years to decompose after adding the last deposit of food scraps, much longer than the sixty to ninety days predicted by the manufacturers of commercial bins.
            I also think rolling the cans occasionally probably aided the decomposition process. I had tried to mix the contents of the plastic bin but found the mechanics completely wrong—because of its diameter and height, about 2.5 by 3 feet, I couldn’t dig inside the bin with a small spade, and the material was too heavy and solid to stir with a stout stick.
            I recommend aluminum garbage cans as effective, inexpensive, and trouble-free closed composters. If you’re haunted by coyotes or vexed by relentless racoons, give it a try. 
The circle of life--from rotten food scraps to compost to New England asters in the garden

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