Everything You Need (Or Don’t Need) to Compost: A Guide to Equipment
If you are a casual, carefree sort, you can just toss your organics into a corner of the garden and they'll slowly become humus without any intervention. But depending on your personality and the amount of time and money you are willing to put into composting, you can also get fully outfitted with an array of composting gadgets and accessories, from auger-shaped aerating tools to herbal compounds designed to inoculate your compost with "medicinal and homeopathic forces."
Below is a description of the composting armamentarium; all of these items are available through a variety of catalog companies and many can be found in garden centers.
The most widely available composting tool is the bin, which can neaten up your yard and speed the composting process by consolidating ingredients. To decide what kind of bin is right for you, determine how much kitchen and yard material you have to compost. Then flip through a few catalogs to get a sense of what various bins look like, how big they are and how much they will set you back. A recent survey of suppliers found bin prices from about $10 (for a paperboard tube) to about $400 (for a heavy-duty metal tumbler).
Make sure the bin you choose is easy to open and allows you easy access for loading and unloading finished compost. Compost bins should be vented to allow air to circulate through the pile, and look for one with a lid if you need to keep moisture in or out, depending on conditions inside and outside the bin.
Many bins are made from plastic, some from recycled plastic, and come in camouflage colors—green or black. Plastic bins tend to be lighter in weight than those made from other materials. Wood bins usually look great but will very gradually decay as microorganisms that are at work on the compost break down the wood, so look for a naturally rot-resistant wood or replace rotted pieces periodically. Over time, wooden bins may also warp as they are exposed to the elements. You can extend the life of your wooden bin by treating it with a non-toxic weatherproofing substance such as Thompson's WaterSeal.
If rodents or raccoons are a potential problem, make sure that the bin you buy is fully enclosed and "rodent resistant," with openings no larger than 1/4-inch to deter mice and 1/2-inch for rats. Look for bins with rodent screens on the bottom or add your own screen cut from 1/4- to 1/2-inch wire mesh or hardware cloth.
Some bins can be turned; these "tumblers" are designed to make turning the compost easier; some work well and others don't. Be sure the composter you choose is convenient to load and unload and extremely easy to turn because wet compost is heavy. Some recent additions to the tumbler selection include bins shaped like "orbs" that you turn by rolling around the yard and drum-shaped bins that spin on a base covered with little rollers.
Bins may include a number of other features such as slots in the side where you can stick in a pitchfork to loosen the compost, perforated pipes to increase air flow, or doors at the bottom that allow easy access to finished compost.
You can make your own compost bin from lots of different materials—including garbage cans, pallets, and snowfencing—and in lots of configurations.
Worm bins are a different breed of bin. Most are plastic; some have stacking perforated trays that worms travel up through as they eat, others are basically boxes or trash-can like containers that have spouts to drain excess liquid—compost tea. Some come complete with redworms, others don't. You'll spend from $50 to $150. Again, you can make your own worm bin from lots of different kinds of containers as long as you create holes for air flow.
Shredders and chippers
A chipper or shredder is an investment—expect to spend at least $150 for a small shredder and in the thousands of dollars for a heavy-duty commercial machine. But if you're into making hot compost and have lots of big pieces of yard waste—tree limbs, for example—or bags and bags of leaves that you'd like to compost quickly, this may become one of your essential tools.
Machines range from small shredders with half-horsepower motors that run on household current to large, industrial-style chippers with 12-horsepower motors powered by gas, which can reduce 4- to 6-inch thick limbs into tiny chips that will quickly decompose in the compost pile. Combination chipper/shredders are also available.
Shredders are designed to break up leaves, twigs and other light plant material; these are dropped into the shredder's chute and pass by a spinning drum, which has a number of flails (nylon lines) or blades attached to it. Chippers are similar but have one or more blades instead of flails, and can cut larger branches and brush. Shredder/chippers can both shred and chip. Wear protective goggles and earplugs when using this equipment.
An excellent way to get oxygen to the hard-working bacteria in your compost pile is to turn it regularly with a compost fork, a long-handled fork with five or more thin, rounded tines. There are also several other tools that have been designed especially to aerate compost piles. When thrust into the pile they create long air shafts and stir the contents around a bit; they also minimize your upper-body workout. These compost ventilating tools are basically long metal shafts with handles. Some have small paddles or "wings" that are closed against the shaft as you plunge it into the pile, and which are supposed to open up (they sometimes don't) as you pull it out, mixing the organics. Another type is like a very long corkscrew, which is easy to turn into the pile to make holes. For the lazy composter, there's even a 3-foot-long ventilator that attaches to a power drill. Expect to spend from $15 to $30.
The claims made by purveyors of a group of products called bioactivators, inoculants and accelerators are impressive. These additives will "kick start" your compost by "harnessing the power" of various concoctions made from bacteria, fungi, hormones and enzymes and other ingredients such as wheat bran, "granular humates" and seaweed. Inoculants aren't necessarily costly—they average about $6 to $40 per pound (enough for one to two cubic yards of organics). But most of the organics you put in your pile are already covered with the right kinds of organisms. You can also throw handfuls of finished compost or soil, introducing millions of microorganisms and costing you nothing at all.
If you plan to use your compost in potting soil or to topdress the lawn—or for any other purpose where you might not want large clumps, stones or other debris—a screen (also called a sifter, sieve or "riddle") can be very helpful. Small screens have rails that allow them to sit atop a cart or wheelbarrow. One type of larger model is a tub on legs with a screen in the bottom of the tub. You can usually choose the size of the mesh—1/2-inch or 1/4-inch are common screens. You can also make your own sieve by stretching a piece of hardware cloth over a wooden frame.
Compost collection pails
You can collect kitchen scraps in just about anything, although a container with a lid is probably better than one without. You can also purchase one of several pails designed especially for this purpose. These include a chic galvanized pail with tight-fitting little lid, a brightly colored plastic bucket with a charcoal filter in its lid to eliminate odors and a flower-covered plastic bucket with an optional fruit-fly trap. These range in price from $15 to $35.
Mulching mowers and mulching kits for regular mowers chop grass into fine pieces; leave this shredded grass on the lawn where it will break down into the soil, or throw it into the compost pile. Regular mowers can be used for mulch mowing too, if you keep the blades very sharp and cut only a third of the grass off at a time. You can also run over leaves or twigs with a mower to turn these into more refined mulches or compost ingredients. Depending on the mower's other features, a "walk-behind" mulching mower can cost from $125 to close to $1,000.
Stick your pitchfork into the center of your compost pile; if the tines are hot to the touch when you pull the fork out, your pile is cooking. If that doesn't tell you enough about the temperature inside your pile, you probably ought to buy a compost thermometer. If you're hoping to do hot composting to kill weed seeds and pathogens, your pile needs to reach at least 130 degrees F and stay there for a few days. With a thermometer, you can be sure you've gotten it right. These range from 12 inches to 36 inches long and from about $15 to $80.