Archived Q&A and Reviews
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Garden Waste Composting
We're about to launch a new organic garden bed in a sunny Berkeley backyard. Any advice on a good quality, long- lasting, and EASY to use compost box? I'm hoping to keep the cost below $200. Please also advise on where to buy. And while I'm asking: I'd appreciate any advice on soil amendments and testing kits/services, best place to buy plants/seeds, how to keep raccoons and squirrels out of the garden area, or any other gems of local gardening wisdom! Thanks so much! gardener new to Berkeley
We've been composting for around 7-8 years now. Originally I tried using just a wooden sided structure, but that attracted rats & raccoons.
Our local waste management company sells a stackable plastic bin from Smith & Hawkin called Biostack. You can find it shown here: http://www.wastediversion.org/app_pages/view/58 Smith & Hawkin is out of business, but at least our local recycling company is still selling them.
This is much better than what I used to have which was a plastic bin with a door at the bottom that supposedly you can 'easily' take your finished compost out of. What happened was when the pile got wet in the winter, the sliding door burst out of its runners. Compost doesn't come out looking like it does in the color advertisements. It is much more heterogeneous.
The benefit of the stackable sections is that when it is time to turn the compost heap, you take the top section and move it next to the bin to start the new pile. As you transfer material over, you take the next section, etc. I bought some 1/4' wire mesh to make two bottoms for the stack. Why two you ask? Because when you turn the stack, one bottom is under the bin, so you need another one to put the first section on. The wire mess helps prevent burrowing by rats and raccoons under the bin. You also have to protect against raccoons opening it from the top if you put kitchen scraps (vegetables, grain, fruit, etc. no meat or fat) in your heap. I use bungee cords, but it is a continual battle of wits against the raccoons. Lately I'm winning.
The other issue is fruit flies. We put out all our non- meat/fat kitchen scraps into the pile. So there are lots of fruit flies when the weather is warm. I just try and leave the spiders around the bin alone and hope they have a good meal. I cover the week's scraps once/week by turning over the top of the compost using a pitchfork.
To harvest the compost, I build a sliding compost sifter like this: http://www.nifty-stuff.com/compost-sifter-screen-sieve.php Anything that doesn't go through the 1/4' wire mesh goes back on the pile. I'm about to turn my pile since my summer vegetable garden is kaput. The left over plant material breaks down much faster if I put it at the bottom of the pile as I turn it. I'll sift out compost to add to my other raised vegetable bed (I have two that alternate between) to get it ready for next spring. Good luck
p.s. Don't get one of those bins that is suspended above the ground and you flip. Our bin is full of worms that naturally came in from the surrounding soil. I guess you could add worms to the spinning bin, but I don't think it would work as well. Also don't worry about tending your pile that much except to cover the kitchen scraps at least once/week. My favorite expression about this topic is 'compost happens'. You don't have to do a lot to get good compost as long as you aren't in a hurry. The family gardener
I have the Smith and Hawken bin from Waste Management and it comes with 2 bottoms, so when you are transferring the top bin you have another bottom. There are 3 sections and they fit together well and are easy to use. We put in kitchen vegie and fruit scraps, lawn clippings, egg shells, tea and coffee grinds, leaves and prunings from the yard. Each week I add kitchen scraps and I have a small pitchfork that I use to make a hole in the compost pile. Then I put the scraps in and cover it up with grass and leaves. I have not had a problem with fruit flies or rodents. The rodents cannot get inside the bin and the cover is heavy so raccoons cannot open it up. I always have at least one foot of grass or leaves on the top of the pile, so there is no smell, and insects and rodents are not attracted to it. In the fall I collect leaves and store them in bags to use throughout the year. If you can get a neighbor's grass it is good for the composter too. Transferring the material back and forth mixes everything well. I have not needed to sift the stuff before I use it to fertilize my yard. My grass is green year round and I have not put fertilizer on it for 6 years. I add compost around my plants this time of year and the flowers bloom well all year. Judy
We just bought a house with two worm composting bins in the yard...we have no idea how to make use of them. Any advice on where to start would be great. Is it easy? Where can we get worms? Is there a lot of maintenance involved? Thanks! anon
There is a good book called ''Worms Eat My Garbage'' that has all of the information you need. I bought a pound of red worms on Ebay and had them shipped to my door. They multiply quickly. Also, my worms do a lot better when the bin is in a shady, dark area. If you leave it in the sun, they will not thrive. The compost is great in the garden. Good luck! Stephanie
Check out this website: www.mamaswormcomposting.com. It has all sorts of info on how & why to worm-compost, and you can buy worms right there from the website. The lady who runs it has a whole worm warehouse here in Oakland. With her help, I'm worm- ing-up my garden for winter vegetables as we speak! For direct questions, try calling her (that's what I did): 510-290-2668 -Happy worming!
We inherited a composter when we bought our house a year ago. I'd like to start using it, but can't exactly start from scratch because, last I checked, it is half full of non-stirred yuckiness, crawling with silverfish and other insects. If I just start turning it and adding new material will it take care of itself? If not --- if I have to empty and start from scratch --- what do I do with what's inside of it now? We have a small yard in Albany and no place to dump the contents. Tara
Stirring it and airing it should help a lot. There is probably gorgeous composted yuck underneath the bugs and top yuck. If you have a lawn that you mow (or a neighbor does) stir grass clippings in (nitrogen). Start putting your own vegie scraps in. You can go to a nursery and get nitrogen to put in and other compost ''vitamins''. You also might want to get red worms and introduce them. Even unturned, compost will compost. It just takes longer. It's a good idea to turn it now and then. I'm not a ''serious composter'' but we throw all our vegie/fruit scraps in our pile. It gets rained on...I turn it maybe once every few months and when I'm ready to use it I go to the bottom of the pile. Have fun. ''weekend'' composter
Just curious...if you have no place to dump the contents, what do you plan to do with the compost you will start making? anon
Hey, all that yucky bug- stuff is what you want in your compost! It's like you'll have a jump started compost bin! Just start adding your compostables to the top ( or mix them in) and add some water so that it's damp like a wrung out sponge. JM
I think you're on the right track. Nature is lovely in that things will turn right, if you just give it a nudge in the right direction.
We had a similar nasty problem with compost in our tiny, paved area behind the house (although ours was our fault, just adding too much wet material too often - and it just bleechh bogged down). Fixing it was easy, though. We added lots of dry material - leaves, mostly - and then chopped and turned and really paid attention to it every day. On sunny days we began pulling it out of the bin and, yes, spreading it over a corner of the patio to let the sun bake it a little. You'll find that you'll have these, say, banana peels in your compost that are just SITTING there forever, but if you take a shovel to them they literally disappear before your eyes. They just magically turn into dirt.
You'll know that your compost is alright when your nose tells you. It should smell yummy and earthy, like the forest floor.
And the bugs and worms and other crawlies in there are your friends, so don't be grossed out by them. They're doing the work of turning that leftover food into dirt. If you give them a hand and help them with some dryness and air, they'll work even faster. Have fun! Berkeley Composter
I adore composting. I love it even more than gardening. There's something perfect about returning things to the earth so that they will one day help other things to grow.
You simply need dry materials. This could be dirt, dry leaves, dry grass, etc. You could even use small sticks and pine needles, though they take a long time to decompose (but really, what's the hurry). Get as much dry matter as you can, to absorb what's in there and to be more or less balanced. In general, you want many more times dry stuff vs. wet stuff in your compost bin.
You can get these dry things from neighbors. Maybe not the best time of year since it's wet, but adding dry-ish, or brownish dead things (not meat or bones!) will help your compost bin come to balance. It will balance itself out after you give it the right components
Do any of you knowledgable composters out there compost garden weeds? Dandelions (flowering), grasses (before they go to seed, but flowering) mostly. Does the compost have to be a certain temp. for the seeds to die? Do you keep weed compost separate from vegie and food compost? Thanks for any help on this. anon
If you are composting seeds, then the temperature definitely needs to reach a hot temperature to kill the seeds. If you turn your compost regularly and it is steaming when you turn it, then you are probably ok.
If you tend to be a less regular turning/balancing of the composting ingredients, then definitely avoid the seeds and flowers if possible. If the weeds are not seeding, then definitely compost them. They are no problem. Pluck the flowers off the dandelions and compost the rest. If you have space for separate compost piles, then you can compost the weeds with seeds separately and use the resulting compost for mixing deep down in the soil for new plantings, but not for top dressing... Good luck! TT
Many weeds are ok to compost; however, those with adventitious roots or bulbs are not: ivy, ice plant, oxalis... Stopwaste.org has great composting workshops that I believe are free. Check 'em out! Good luck! Bay-friendly gardener
It depends on what kind of weed it is whether it's wise to compost it- some perennial weeds can regrow from even a small piece of root and should be thrown out (in your green bin), Bermuda Grass being the very worst offender. As a landscaper and horticulturist, I rarely put any weeds in my own home compost. In order for compost to get hot enough to kill weed seeds the pile has to first be carefully built with a combination of green matter (kitchen waste and grass clippings) and brown matter (dead leaves and sawdust). Then it has to be turned daily for three weeks, then every few days for another month or so- it's quite a bit of work and few people actually do it, but it's the only way to get a really hot pile. Cece
I put weeds in the green bin, not my garden compost box. Same for diseased and mildewed foliage. The municipal compost processing gets hot enough to kill seeds but my garden bin doesn't, and I don't want to be spreading grass seeds and diseases back into the garden next year!
Hi, Unless you have something really invasive or virulent I wouldn't worry about throwing it in with the regular compost. If you're dealing with a weed that you find very difficult to get rid of in your own yard, put it separately in your green waste bin, if you city has one (they use a heat process) or simply throw it in the garbage. I'm a very lazy composter and haven't come across any weeds that cause problems for me if I just toss them in my bin with everything else. Kudos for composting
We were thinking of composting in our backyard with the Wriggly Wranch and I wanted to hear if others had done it. We have 2 kids and a dog. Will this be a problem? Does it really help your soil? How much time does it take to have one of these and how much work is needed to keep it up? We already are really good about putting all of our food scraps into the green (Oakland) recycling bin but thought this might be good for our garden. But I don't know anything about it and what it entails. Plus we are two working parents so want to make sure it is worth it to buy. Any advice would be great. Future composter?
Have been using a Wriggly Ranch for years. It's a rotating, 3 tier system and really simple to use. I also had the Smith & Hawkin type bin and find that the stuff just dries out so fast that nothing ever gets composted. I've had great success w/ the Wriggly Ranch and would highly recommend it. We love our little worms! -Worm lover
please give worm composting a try. Actually on two different occassions I have seen the worm farm for sale at Urban Ore. I have found that the legs that come with the standard worm farm from the city of oakland dont last, my worm farm currently sits on a sturdy wooden box I got at U.O.
Worms take very little work, and the results are nothing short of fabulous. Feed them once a week, any veg scrapes will do, I find mine eat about a pound of scraps a week, it is also important to put lots of damp newspaper on the top of your worm bedding, and to run some water through the whole thing at least once a week. The worm farm has a spigot, this is for the ''worm tea'' to come out, this stuff is worth its weight in gold and I give bottles of it to special friends. It makes orchids blume and will do amazing things to any plant.
I use scredded cocoanut for bedding, you can buy it in big slabs at the Longs on 51st (the big one) for very little money. I bought some smaller bricks at berkeley hort. but they didnt work properly, so i recommend gettting the larger amounts.
Once your worms have turned their bedding and food into compost (which you can tell by lookign at it) you must migrate them to a new tray.
To do this, first stop feeding your worms and give them some newspsper to eat then simply put a new tray (the worm box comes with three seperate trays)on top of the old one and put fresh bedding (the dampened cocoanut stuff) and veg scraps on the new bedding, the worms will ''migrate'' up to the new box, like magic!
One other piece of advice, when you add vegs to your worms, dont dump and run, get a good garden fork and mix them in.
also, you can buy good worms at spiral garden on sacramento (? I think that is the right street) I dont recommend ordering them by mail
hope you start your worm farm soon! p.s. kids love to help with this and soon lose their bug phobia if they have one.
feel free to email me if you have any other questions. alexis
I'm on the market for a backyard composter to compliment our garden and not sure what to get. I'd like something that is easy to remove the finished product from. It definitely needs to be under $200 (I was looking at a few in the $100 range). We probably produce about 2L of compost a week. Any suggestions? Also, if anyone has a used one for sale, please let me know. Lisa
I got a discounted Smith & Hawken compost bin through stopwaste.org which I'm happy with so far. As long as you're an Alameda County resident you can order one online and it gets delivered to your house. Here's the link: http://www.stopwaste.org/home/index.asp?page=175 anon
If you live in Alameda County, you can get a composter at a subsidized price from stopwaste.org: http://www.stopwaste.org/home/index.asp?page=317 There are also free classes on how to compost and they are quite informative, though you could get the same information from a book like worms eat my garbage. Eric
My husband has succeeded in composting in a home-made cylinder about three feet in diameter made with flexible wire fencing (four-foot width). Not pretty, but functional. He stirs it up with a pitchfork every few days. This type of composting may be more appropriate for yard litter than for kitchen waste, given the smell factor. For kitchen waste we've started a worm farm, which is just a couple handfuls of red worms and some garbage in a wooden box; the worms came from a local nursery. He learned about these approaches mainly from judicious web-surfing and is very pleased that he hasn't used any specialized equipment. Best of luck. Kim
I saw a really great composter at Elephant Pharmacy. I think it was $179. Very easy to get stuff in and out, and the best part is that it is very compact and it ROLLS on a base to mix the contents. VERY VERY COOL. No pitchfork necessary. I think it would take 2 L a week no problem. -Thinking about buying one myself!
We were great about composting when we lived in the city and regularly dumped out countertop container into our compost bin in the buiding's garage. Now that we have our own home in the Oakland hills, complete with deer, racoons and who knows what else regularly traversing our property, I am a little unsure of how to proceed. Should we keep the large green bin in the garage or outdoors? If in the garage, will it attract ants, etc? If ourdoors, will the deer, racoons, squirrels get into the bin and make a mess? Can the lid be adequately secured and if so, how? If we create our own pile will it create more animal and insect attractions? Any suggestions appreciated! Compost-Confused City Slicker
Ah, composting! How I love it! I am not in the hills of Oakland, but down by Lake Merritt, so maybe a hills person will give you different advice, but... I have racoons, skunks and squirrels that are causing their own problems, but none of them do anything with my compost. I have the bin issued by the city and the lid isn't particularly tight. The skunk path goes right by it. I don't put in meat or cheese or bread. I do add horse manure and straw from the stables up on Skyline. happy gardener
Hi there, Alameda County Master Composter here. Do your composting outside as you normally would. You DON'T want it in your garage! Two things: 1) Be sure to use a bungee cord to secure the lid on it so raccoons can't get into the bin. 2) Use lots of ''browns'' to cover up the fresh stuff you put in there to keep flies and other insects & vermin away.
Go to www.stopwaste.org for lots of great information as well as reduced price compost and worm bins. They also have a ''Rotline'' you can call with your questions--the number's on the website. Good luck!!! Elizabeth
One way to handle this is to do two different kinds of compost. I have a small yard and have one compost bin (but this could be a pile) for clean green yard waste--leaves, grass clippings, any gardening scraps. I also have two green cones that I use for kitchen compost. You bury a basket part of the green cone in the ground--it has holes that worms can go in and out of to break down the waste. There is a plastic cone that attaches to the basket and protrudes above the ground--you stick the waste in the hole in the top. When one basket is full (takes about 6-8 months for my family of 3), you let it rest and fill the other. The design keeps out animals. The resulting compost from the green cone is a great fine grained soil. The leaf pile gives a courser mulch. You can find green cones on-line. Happy composting. Jamila
We live in the hills also, and use the green container. Deer are not interested in it, and it seems that it is too big for the racoons to tip -- I say this because they used to tip the smaller brown container all the time when it contained food, but have never tipped the green container now that we put the food scraps in there. If you are really nervous, you can get a bungee cord, and string it between the handle, and the small handle on the side. This worked even wth the brown container Karen
We also live in the Oakland Hills and LOVE that the city sells our compost to farmers in the Central Valley, who say they are amazed by its effectiveness. In any case, we use the big green bin all week long. You can cut down on animals breaking into it in several ways: put damp paper towels (also compostable) on top to cut down on the smell, use bungy cords to secure the lid, or put in your garage). Deer aren't really interested, but raccoon definitely ARE! Good luck
Hi, our public elementary school in Alameda is interested in adding a compost bin to our gardening program. We're slightly concerned about attracting rats, however (rats are a constant problem on the island). Any suggestions on a rat-proof bin that would work well for a school setting? Susan
We had a compost bin and a worm bin like these and they are rat proof. Alameda county residents can order at a discounted price. https://www.stopwaste.org/AlamedaCommerce/ProductList.aspx?View=Detail=13 https://www.stopwaste.org/AlamedaCommerce/ProductList.aspx?View=Detail=14 M
If you follow proper composting rules, your compost bins should not attract rats. Do not compost any grains (bread, crackers, rice, etc.) or meat products. These are the things that they are attracted to. If you want further precaution, there are many compost bins available that are closed on all sides and if you do a search online you can even find designs that you can build yourself (or with the kids!) For more specifics, the Berkeley Ecology Center is a great resource too. www.ecologycenter.org Happy Composting! Nicole
Is cat box debris compostable? I see compostable cat box liners, and the idea does make some sense. But we're not supposed to flush cat poop these days because of the risk of illness to marine mammals. What about the back yard compost pile? Municipal composting? curious cat person
Definitely DO NOT compost cat poop or anything that's been in contact with it. Clay, sand and crystalline litters aren't compostable anyway, only the pine/wheat/paper ones. There are some VERY experienced and careful composters out there who do it, but personally I wouldn't go there. Cats (and all meat eaters) have all kinds of dangerous bacteria in their digestive systems and feces, and most home compost piles don't get hot enough to kill it all off. The only kind of poop I'd compost is chicken poop. Ok With My Carbon Paw-Print
Nope, you cannot compost poop, cat or otherwise. I have seen those biodegradable pet waste bags too and I'm not totally sure what the point of them is -- I guess it is just so that there is less plastic in the landfill?
Well, my first reaction is, hell no! And I have cats! I don't see how cat poop is any different from other poop, and we don't put our own No. 2s in the compost. Would love to learn more if I'm wrong, though and wonder what others will say... anon
I don't know about backyard composting, but you cannot put human or animal feces in the municipal compost. They specifically mention this on several flyers. Disease...mess...yuck! Anon
Due to the risk of toxoplasomsis to marine mammals or to pregnant moms, my understanding is that you should put the cat poop in the city trash. You can call your city to see if they feel it is okay to put it in a ''green bin'' for city composting, but I bet not. a gardener