Thursday, June 27, 2013

Composting Part II: Advantages and Disadvantages of Compost Bins and Piles

Image Courtesy of nycompost.org

Various types of compost bins are now available for purchase. Some are completely enclosed, some are open at the top. Some are made of wood, some are made of plastic. Some are tall, some are wide. All of these are viable compost makers. Compost will happen with or without a fancy contraption. Compost will happen in a pile on the ground.



There is no perfect compost bin or pile. Each comes with its own brand of solutions and challenges. What one person swears is the best compost bin they have ever had may not be the best one for you. The best way to determine which compost bin is best for you is to consider what your needs are for composting. For instance, if you live in an area where there is a lot of wildlife visiting your yard, you may opt for a compost bin that is enclosed on all sides to prevent wildlife from eating or removing some of the kitchen waste. A compost bin that fits your particular needs will be the best compost bin for you.



Below is a list of some of the more common compost bins and piles with a list of their advantages and disadvantages:

Image Courtesy of the Town of Maynard, MA (Composting)


Freeform Pile or Heap

Advantages


  • Easy to create - A freeform pile or heap is very easy to create. Find a spot and begin throwing kitchen and garden waste in a pile.
  • Easy to use
  • Inexpensive to create - A freeform pile is the most inexpensive compost bin because there is no need to purchase a bin.
  • Easy to turn - Using a pitchfork, it is easy to turn the compost in a freeform pile.


Disadvantages


  • Compost material can roll out and be blown by the wind because there is nothing to contain it.
  • A freeform pile can be unsightly if located in a community with specific rules about waste disposal.
  • A freeform pile loses heat very quickly because it is not contained.
  • If the pile is too large, it will be difficult to turn. (I will go over the optimal size of a pile or bin for active composting methods in a future post.)
  • Wildlife can easily forage in the pile because the compost is not contained.




Wood Bin or Bins

Advantages


  • All compost material is contained. As you aerate the pile, all of the compost material will remain within the enclosure.
  • Multiple bins allow for several stages of the compost process. One bin can be the bin where compost material is added. Another bin can be the bin where compost material is no longer added but the pile continues to be turned as the material decomposes. And yet another bin can be a pile of finished compost used around the garden.
  • Enclosure retains heat for good composting process - High heat is very important in the composting process to break down organic material. Having compost in an enclosed space ensures heat will be retained for longer periods.


Disadvantages


  • Can be hard to turn because of the enclosed area - Sometimes it can be hard to turn the compost in a bin because it is difficult to reach over the top.
  • Heavy, difficult to move


Image Courtesy of Maryland Department of the Environment


Wooden Pallet Bin

Instructions for building a wooden pallet composting bin can be found at Maryland Department of the Environment.

Advantages


  • Free or inexpensive - Wooden pallets are a good way to recycle materials.
  • Easy to make
  • Can make one side a hinged door for easy access
  • Enclosure retains heat for good composting process - High heat is very important in the composting process to break down organic material. Having compost in an enclosed space ensures heat will be retained for longer periods.
  • All compost material is contained. As you aerate the pile, all of the compost material will remain within the enclosure.
  • Pallet cube is almost a perfect cubic yard - This is a good size to reach a high heat in the compost pile.


Disadvantages


  • Heavy, difficult to move
  • Some wooden pallets are made from chemically treated wood.
  • Can be hard to turn because of the enclosed area - Sometimes it can be hard to turn the compost in a bin because it is difficult to reach over the top.

Image courtesy of www.recyclestuff.org


Cement Blocks or Bricks Bin

Advantages


  • Blocks or bricks absorb and retain heat to maintain a good temperature for composting.
  • Sturdy and can be a permanent place for making compost
  • Having an open front makes it easy to turn the pile for aeration.


Disadvantages


  • Blocks or bricks can be knocked over easily. If you decide to use this type of bin, be sure to cement the blocks and bricks into place.
  • The blocks or bricks can absorb too much heat and overheat the compost pile. Be sure to build this structure with vents in between the blocks or bricks for added circulation.
  • Difficult to move
  • Wildlife can easily forage in the pile because the compost is not contained.



Image Courtesy of The Garden Gates


Wire Bin or Bins

Advantages


  • Can be placed anywhere
  • Multiple bins allow for several stages of the compost process. (See Wood Bin or Bins for more about why this is an advantage.) You can make several of these and set them side by side for multiple bin composting.
  • Very portable and lightweight


Disadvantages


  • Can be difficult to turn because the pitchfork may get caught in the mesh openings.
  • Compost material can fall out if the mesh openings are too large.
  • Can be unsightly
  • Can be moved by the wind - Be sure to stake these down to the ground.


Image Courtesy of Costco.com

Tumbler Bin

Advantages


  • Easy to use
  • If used properly, tumbler bins can produce compost more quickly than other bins.


Disadvantages


  • Can be expensive
  • Limited to size of unit - Once the tumbler bin is full there is no other place to add kitchen and garden waste to continue composting.
  • Must monitor moisture because of closed design




Earth Machine or Other Plastic Enclosed Bin

Advantages


  • Dark in color to absorb and retain heat
  • Enclosed to keep out animal pests
  • Air vents to allow good circulation
  • Staked to the ground to prevent toppling
  • Can harvest finished compost from bottom sliding door - Some material decomposes more quickly than other material and falls to the bottom during turning. This material can be easily harvested before the other material has completed decomposition.
  • Some plastic composting bins are made from recycled materials
  • Easy to move


Disadvantages


  • Enclosed compost bin does not allow rain into compost pile for enough moisture - Before it begins to rain, be sure to take the lid off the compost bin or water periodically to achieve proper moisture level. A compost pile must always be moist to maintain a good composting process. (I will explain more about this in a future post.)
  • Once the bin is full, there is no place to add kitchen or garden waste for composting.
  • If large compost material in bin, can be difficult to turn

There are other types of composting bins, but these are the ones most commonly used. Many of the advantages and disadvantages will fit some of these other types of bins. Knowing what these advantages and disadvantages are helps you decide what bin will work best for you.

I have a wooden bin as a three bin system on one side of the yard, and an Earth Machine compost bin by the vegetable garden. I like both of them. I do take the top off of the Earth Machine before it rains to get moisture inside the bin. And I like my wooden bins because they have removable front slats that help with turning the pile. With all of the things we compost, there is a lot of compost by the end of a cycle, and I am glad we have plenty of room for it.

Next month in this composting series:

How to Make Perfect Compost

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My eBook, 150 Things You Can Compost, is available on Amazon for only 99 cents. I wrote this as a resource for myself and others who compost. Often, we forget how many things other than kitchen waste or garden scraps and leaves can be composted.



Teaching compost classes as a Master Gardener, I often get the question of what to compost other than kitchen and garden waste. I compost everything from pizza boxes to old wooden chopsticks to pet hair to old leather gloves. So many of the things we use each day will break down in the compost pile.

© copyright 2013 Michelle A. Potter

33 comments:

  1. I have had them all it seems. I now have one like the last one you showed.

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    1. Sometimes it takes a while to discover the one that is just right for us.

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  2. I have tried them all too! I am now experimenting with small thermo bins situated anywhere I might need them. It's early days, but so far, so good. I would add that the tumblers can get a bit heavy to turn and unless the design has changed since I used one, they can also take up a lot of space for the quantity of compost they produce.

    Great post! Very useful.

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    1. That is a good idea to situate them all around for easy access. Some tumbler bins are very large and can be quite heavy when they are full. So glad you found what works best for you.

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  3. Very thorough post!

    I must admit that I haven't composted much - well, with the exception of a bunch of perennial stems that I cut down and that mostly failed to decompose over the winter. They were unenclosed and I guess the heat just dissipated.

    (On the bright side, a lot of the seeds from those perennials fell off and germinated, so I now have a dense stand of flowers where the 'compost' pile was.)

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    1. Thank you, Aaron. Thick stems do take a while to compost if they are not turned. How wonderful to get some free plants despite all of that.

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  4. I haven’t ventured into the world of composting yet, but like the idea of it. My local council is selling those enclosed bins almost for free on their website, but without any instructions there I have been reluctant to buy one as I assumed the compost would have to be turned regularly. It seems a bit pointless to fill up this bin for then having to scoop all of it out again every now and then as the bin is quite tall with a wide middle part and a narrow top – very similar to the one in your photo. I can’t really see me hanging over that edge trying to empty all the content out on the ground just to put it back in a different order...how often would you need to do that?

    Anyway, great post, looking forward to the next part!

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    1. The compost class I teach offers participants one of the Earth Machine bins for only $25. It comes with instructions. It can be hard to reach down and turn, but you can open the bottom door and turn it from down there until it is higher. Turning should be done about once a week for active composting (fast composting), but you do not need to turn it for passive composting. So glad you enjoyed the post.

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  5. Good info. I have a wire mesh one. I used to have a black plastic enclosed one, but that conveyed with the old house. The wire mesh is easier (and cheaper). We don't have as many animals in this neighborhood. Raccoons used to take the lid off the old compost bin. My thought about composting is - do it! It's easy. I get annoyed with composting articles that make it seem like composting involves scientific recipes of layers of types of stuff and a regular schedule of turning. Just throw organic material in a pile and let nature do the rest.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. I had a wire mesh one many years ago, and they work very well. I agree with you. Compost will happen no matter what. There are those that want compost very quickly to use in the garden, and for them there is a recipe to follow. It is not necessary, of course, if you are not in a hurry.

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  6. Very informative. Good research done for this and thanks for sharing.

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    Replies
    1. I am so glad you find it interesting, Indrani. Composting is so easy...anyone can do it.

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  7. Michelle, you've written very thoughtful post! The comparative review of many compost systems. I have the wooden boxes, only two and think to add one more.
    have a nice weekend!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Nadezda. I had to add more, too, because I ran out of room. I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

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  8. Great post and information. Thanks for sharing, wishing you a happy weekend!

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    Replies
    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Eileen. Have a great 4th celebration!

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  9. I enjoy composting. It is rewarding to see kitchen and yard waste ("junk") turn into rich black compost for the garden. We have the wooden two sided bin. One for adding to, one for still in progress of decomposition but not adding to. We used to have a tumbler and it was way too small. We also had the large plastic bin and it was impossible to get in and turn the compost. I like what we have now. It's perfect for us. Great post!

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    1. I find it just as rewarding. And it has done wonders for the garden plants.

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  10. A very informative post. I've started to compost about 6 months ago and have yet to harvest the yield. I should checked it out soon.

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    1. So glad you enjoyed it. It can take about three to six months to make compost if you are active composting. Wishing you lots of black gold.

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  11. I used a plastic box with holes along the bottom for drainage and air. It worked out pretty well but now I need to remove the compost and store is somewhere else so I can reuse the box, so it is limited. I only have a few containers though so I guess it's fine for my purpose.

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    Replies
    1. That seems to be a common problem. There is nowhere else to put the compost once the bin is full.

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  12. I have two plastic type bins. One has holes in the top for rain to be able to get in, and it is my favorite. It seems that I can never get the moisture right on the other one. I'm hoping to get a couple more of the type with the rain holes at the top. I enjoyed seeing all the different options.

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    1. I take the lid off the enclosed one before rain, and it seems to help a lot. It dries out very quickly.

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  13. Great info on composting. I have a plastic bin, too. I think some rain gets in, but I have to add moisture, too. The plants sure respond well to the compost. Thanks for this excellent post!

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    1. I enjoy composting because it seems to be a miracle brew for my plants. So glad you enjoyed the post...thanks, Beth.

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  14. Thank you so much for this informative post! I've started researching different bins but it's so helpful to have all the options in one place. Is your wooden bin the one in the 3rd pic? It looks well-built.

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    1. So very glad you enjoyed the piece. Yes, that is my bin. We purchased it from Plow and Hearth. It is actually three bins set side by side and made from cedar.

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  15. You're right about all the different ways to compost. We used to turn the pile of compost until we got too old to really want to do it anymore, and it still does fine. Just takes about twice as long to compost as before.

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    1. Compost just happens no matter what. I try to turn it but sometimes it is a chore.

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  16. Thanks Michelle for this post as it helps detail the issues with compost piles and bins...love the book. I need to get better and turning my bin and piles...

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    1. You are very welcome, Donna. Composting is so easy no matter how you do it.

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  17. I enjoyed reading this post. I have two wooden compost bins and I think they are my favourite part of the garden :). I started with a plastic bin years ago but the wooden bins work better because they are larger.

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'I see trees of green, red roses, too
I see 'em bloom for me and for you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world'
--What a Wonderful World

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