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Spring Compost Bin Tune-Up

Now that yard and garden season is here again, I’m sure many people are interested in getting their backyard compost bins and heaps up and running once more. If you piled up lots of organic matter in the fall you may be surprised to find that it has broken down a fair bit during the winter. This material can be used as a great mulch for your gardens, or can simply be combined with new material and turned into really nice compost.

If you are fairly casual with your composting efforts – not overly concerned with the speed of the process or amounts of material produced – simply starting to add kitchen scraps to your bin once again may be just fine for you. If on the other hand you are keen to really kick your composting activities into overdrive so that you can produce lots a compost for your garden, then more effort (and attention to detail) will likely be required.

The first thing you’ll obviously want to do is open up your system and have a look so you can get a feel for what you are working with. Better yet, remove the composter entirely (assuming you even use one) so that you can really get a good look at any materials that may be left over in the bin. What’s there? Is it dry or wet? How does it smell? Is there a lot of bulky plants materials (perhaps woody waste)?

These are the sorts of questions to keep in mind as you scope out the situation.

I’d recommend that you start by chopping up as much of the bulky/woody materials as you can – the more surface area you create for decomposers, the more quickly this stuff is going to break down. Next assess the water-holding capacity of your current mix – if you have lots of dried up leaves and debris and little in the way of humus (the dark, earthy smelling stuff) you should add some materials that will help maintain moisture levels in the system (something that is very important). Something like coconut coir is an excellent choice since it can absorb a lot of water and is more environmentally responsible than peat moss. The downside is that it can be somewhat expensive. Shredded cardboard is a free alternative, and while it can’t hold as much water as coir, it has the added bonus of improving air flow in the bin (it acts as a bulking agent). Some other great materials to consider are finished compost, well-aged manure, or partially decomposed straw or leaves.

Next you need to add some new materials to your system. Hopefully you will either A) Have some yard wastes (such as fall leaves) left over from last year, or B) Have some materials from spring clean up to add to your compost bin. Raking the thatch (dead grass) and leftover leaves out of your lawn can be an easy way to get yourself a decent amount of excellent composting fodder. Weeding your gardens and/or cutting the lawn should provide you with some nice green wastes as well. Even if you use a mulching mower, why not just use the bag for the first cut of the year? Grass clippings, if mixed well with the rest of your materials will provide you with a nice boost of nitrogen and will definitely help to get your heap ‘a’ hoppin!

Kitchen waste is another valuable ‘green’ waste and should help to keep your heap moist as well. As is the case with the grass clippings, just make sure you spread these materials out – too much in one area will likely just create a smelly anaerobic mess.

Once your materials are mixed (better yet, while you are mixing them) use a watering can to add some water to the mix. You don’t need to totally soak everything – keep in mind the often-cited “damp sponge” recommendation. If you are adding (or have already) composting worms you might want to add a little more water since they will help to move/aerate everything and they also really love wet conditions.

Speaking of composting worms, I do highly recommend adding some ‘Red Wiggler’ worms (Eisenia fetida) to your system if you are looking for a way to speed up the composting process in a typical backyard composter. The compost they help you produce is outstanding stuff for your garden and can actually provide major benefits in much smaller amounts that most ‘regular’ composts. One thing to keep in mind though – don’t bother adding them if you are making a giant hot composting heap, since you’ll just end up killing them or at least forcing them to evacuate the system. Worm composting is better as a ‘continuous’ process (I’m going to write about ‘continuous vs batch’ composting in my next post), whereby smaller quantities of wastes are added on a more regular basis.

In case you are wondering what I did with my own backyard composter this spring…

When I first opened it up I found lots of dry, bulky plant wastes that I had jammed in last fall during my garden clean-up activities. I had been a tad lazy with in the fall since I expected to simply end up using the material as fodder for my winter composting bin. When I opened up the trap door in the bottom, things look a lot better – materials seemed to be broken down quite nicely (thanks to the activity of my composting worms) and there was ample moisture.

I didn’t end up chopping up the bulky materials (which I should have), but I did add leaves and well-aged manure to the bin to help fill in the spaces and to improve the moisture retention. I next gave the bin a healthy sprinkling of water to ensure moist conditions in the upper reaches of the composting mass. I was happy to see that a lot of Red Worms managed to survive the winter (remember this is my regular, non-insulated bin), but I decided to add a lot of new worms anyway just to make sure there is a good population of them in there.

That’s pretty much it. Now it will simply be a matter of adding more waste materials, maintaining moist conditions in the bin and of course starting to remove some of the compost from the bottom.

As you can see, it’s not too difficult to get your bin back in shape this spring!

[tags]compost, composting, compost bin, composter, compost pile, worm composting, vermicomposting, yard waste, spring clean-up, fall leaves, thatch, manure[/tags]

Written by Compost Guy on April 28th, 2008 with no comments.
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