Q: I want to start composting this spring. I don’t want a pile of compost sitting in my yard, and I don’t want to make a fenced-in wooden structure. I see there are different kinds of composters that you can buy. Is it better to get a small stationary one or one of the barrels with a handle that you can turn?
A: Composting is a process in which naturally occurring microbes convert yard waste (leaves, twigs and grass clippings) and kitchen waste (fruit and vegetable peels and coffee grounds) into a useful organic mulch. Compost is used to help plants grow and to improve soil. It can help sandy soil hold in moisture and can improve the drainage of heavier soils. How well your composting works depends on several things, including the size of the waste particles you are composting (smaller is better) and the availability of water, oxygen, and nitrogen which are the elements that help your waste break down and become compost.
There are a number of ready-made composters available. If you are planning to compost just food scraps from the kitchen, a smaller composter with good aeration (air flow) will be just fine. But be sure it is at least 3 feet high and wide. If it’s too small, your compost won’t get warm enough.
If you plan to include grass clippings and leaves with your kitchen scraps, you will need something bigger. Barrel composters and continuous-use bins would work well for this situation. Look for a composter that is bigger than 10 cubic feet, but don’t go bigger than five feet high or wide. If it’s too big, air and water won’t be able to penetrate it.
A compost tumbler can help you keep your compost well mixed, but a sturdy one can be expensive. You can also use a simple barrel with holes drilled in it and just roll it on the ground to turn your compost. If you opt for a stationary composter (or you just don’t want to roll your barrel around), you will need to mix the compost occasionally with a pitchfork to get it all to break down.
Before you start composting, it’s a good idea to check with your city or township to see if there are local regulations. Meat, dairy, or oily food scraps should never be included in your compost bin; animal feces/waste are another element that should not be added to a composter. You should place your composter in an area that is easy to access and which has access to water, because you will want to water it occasionally to keep the microbes alive.
There are some excellent resources on “how to” compost located on the University of Minnesota Extension and the Minnesota Pollution Control websites. Composting is not only good for reducing waste in the environment, but also for improving the quality of soil and health of your plants.
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Written by U of M Extension Master Gardeners in St. Louis County. Send questions to email@example.com.