First things first: The compost bin

Any basic introduction to organic gardening will stress the importance of soil quality. Compost starts as a tossed pile of gathered leaves, scattered grass clippings, and scraps from the kitchen. The decaying plant matter plays host to hungry guests who happily digest our trash and with a little effort on our part it becomes the stuff of legend: black gold. This is added to our garden plot, and thus the building blocks of a diverse soil ecology are born. Compost provides macro and micro nutrition, as well as a happy and safe home, for our new growing food plants. A bin for our compost pile makes compost easier to manage and keeps large pests at bay. In suburbia it makes us good neighbors.

It was near the end of June, the middle of Michigan growing season, when we bought our house. Considering the importance of compost in integrated pest management and basic soil ecology, this was the first project I tackled after we settled in. I knew it would set up our garden for a great future. It also made sense to put our food scraps to use instead of to waste. However, I was not prepared for the dramatic decrease in our household garbage output. We had substantially cut down our trash by committing to recycling plastics, metal, and paper with the city as apartment dwellers. We were still producing up to three garbage bags each week. With composting for our three person home, we now have ONE sack of trash per week. We cut our landfill dependence by two thirds. Incredible!

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I modified a design from The Vegetable Gardener’s Book of Building Projects. Built from untreated pine lumber and 1/2″ hardware cloth, this compost bin is a basic cubic yard. The young fellow at Lowe’s trimmed pine rails into 3 foot lengths and my sister helped me construct frames using decking screws. We then stapled the hardware cloth onto the frame, creating four panels.

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I attached hook and eye sets to the left and right side of each panel, making the bin approachable from all sides. This feature is great for intensive turning if you prefer the “hot” method of composting. It took about a weekend of hard work (for us, novice builders) to complete this project.

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Observing my enthusiasm for compost and gardening research both online and at the Kalamazoo Public Library, my Honey gifted me a wonderful resource last year to deepen my education. The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin, is a beautiful book. The color photos are gorgeous, science is presented clearly without condescension, and personal stories are told to illustrate the imperfection of human plan as it intersects nature’s. I read it cover to cover as our bin laid under a blanket of snow.

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The authors outline several methods of composting, including vermicomposting, which has my interest… But now that it’s spring I’ve got about all I can handle between the compost bin and our first garden bed.

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