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Composting Options: What's Worked, What's Failed, What We Do Now

So we all (should) know about the value of composting, from a multitude of perspectives - it reduces how much is sent to the landfill, it reduces greenhouse gases by preventing the methane created in aforementioned landfills (which are anaerobic, meaning stuff does not decompose in there, y'all....hence why "compostable" dog poop bags, for example, are the ultimate in greenwashing), and of course adding a TON of value to your plants, soil, and overall garden health.

With that, I thought I'd share the various ways we've composted over the past 20 years, as we've reached the "we've tried almost everything" place in our live and have learned a LOT. Before we got to our current home, here were the variety of outdoor composting methods we tried, where we did it, and how each of the methods worked out...

Left to right, starting at top left:

  • Earth Machine: This is the one that most city composting programs will sell you for $30-ish and is basically a giant piece of plastic with a lid on top and a small place to scoop it out at the bottom. It was my first time composting as a first-time homeowner in the city, and I had it for about 8 years before I married my sweetheart. While the black plastic was good for keeping everything hot, it did require turning, it was bottomless and therefore vermin had no problem digging under it to get at the goods, and the 'trapdoor' at the bottom made gathering compost messy and inefficient (not to mention it never looked like the picture, LOL...)

  • The DIY Two-Section Wooden Bin with Lids: FYI this is a screenshot of one similar to what we built from leftover wood after replacing our backyard fence in the city. A neighbor of ours had done this so we copied the idea so that we could a) compost more, and b) once it was filled, let it 'cook' while filling a second. Well, it looked cool, but even though we'd reinforced the base with hardware cloth to supposedly rodent-proof it, and even had big rocks on top to keep the lid closed during windstorms? The rats totally got in. Rats in the city have teeth that can gnaw through just about anything. In fact, in the winter when I'd opened the bin to find a family of them living it up? I ended up exacting my revenge on the rats by deliberately leaving the lids UP during a deep freeze...and my husband disposed of their rock hard frozen corpses the next day. Serves them.

  • Off-the-Ground Composting Tumbler: After the DIY one ended up being a rat-bust, I splurged and bought of two of these for our urban backyard. While these were by far the most user friendly to keep mixed, they didn't hold as much as they appeared to and worse, within a few months, rats had literally climbed up the legs and chewed THROUGH the plastic to get into the tumblers. Holy crap. I'd never seen anything like it. Fortunately in Portland we had curbside composting that had recently been implemented so we always had a backup, but it was definitely a trial and error 13 years...

  • DIY Barrel Composting Tumbler with Wheelbarrow Access: so when we moved out to the farm, this was the dream plan I'd found and couldn't wait to build this. With the 5 1/2+ acres we'd moved to, rodents weren't my priority since this was a couple hundred feet from the house. I scored a metal barrel off Craigslist in the city and popped into the moving truck as well. However, when we arrived and started to work on the plans, cutting through the metal safely and without fatally sharp edges was not realistic, so we ended up converting our old 50 gallon rain barrel that we'd brought with us from the city, which worked fine. However, this plan provided no way to easily turn the barrel - and once it got heavy, you could really only rock it a bit, and in our coastal farm environment, it didn't get as hot as we'd have preferred to truly break it down. At the end of each season, we'd end up dumping out the half-finished compost and burying it into our raised beds, then covering it for the winter, to create good soil. So the compost bin was more like temporary storage til winter. Hmm. But it looked cool....

  • FoodCycler: When we downsized back to city living, I splurged on the FoodCycler machine thingy as our housewarming gift to ourselves, and it was definitely interesting. We affectionately (in our twisted sense of humor) referred to it as the "puppy crusher" because of the sounds it made each night grinding and dehydrating the food, but were impressed by how it reduced everything. That being said? It's NOT a composter. It just grinds and dehydrates your food so you can't just use it immediately. So we stored it in bags in the freezer until we could bury it in our raised beds...but with the amount of cooking we do? Realized we just didn't have the space to store unfinished semi-dried food, nor the capacity in the super-small yard to do anything else with it.

  • Curbside Composting: As Seattle requires outdoor composters to be their buried $200 versions, and our soil was far too rocky to dig 2' x 2' holes in to fit one, we ended up selling the FoodCycler and doing 100% curbside composting, which had the benefit of accepting things like bones, etc., as well as of course accepting the larger things we took out and would have never wanted in our compost, like the Evil Sumac Tree and English Ivy that was pervasive when we first moved in. My only complaint? Unlike the garbage bins with latches, for some reason the Yard/Food Waste bins don't have latches which makes them super susceptible to - you guessed it - RATS. So while we put a heavy rock atop ours to prevent that, many neighbors in our alley did not, and it was...gross. Especially when storms knocked over unsecured bins. Food for thought, NYC and Seattle and EVERYWHERE else - if you just give people latching bins, you don't have a rat problem. What a concept.

So what do we do now? Well, in our town they have curbside composting, thankfully, but they only have one HUGE size of bin, which for us is far more than we need, and is therefore a budget item that seemed ripe for slashing if I could find a plan that would work. While I haven't seen huge evidence of rodents in our small town, I didn't want to take chances - and also was craving an option that conserved space (our backyard here is considerably bigger, but nowhere in the ballpark of farm-size), was plastic-free, and utilized the same concepts as the buried ones they charge and arm-and-a-leg for in Seattle.

And I found it in the easiest form possible - the buried garbage can composter. Turns out my favorite magazine Mother Earth News had an article about how to build these on their website - originally written when I was just two years old. That'd be 1976, y'all.

While there are many plans out there for turning any old garbage bin into a buried composter, I cannot emphasize enough how bad it is to bury a plastic bin in your soil. Folks, plastic garbage cans are NOT food safe and they leach chemicals into the soil. And - yep - the varmints can chew through them. We got a new galvanized can with lid for $35 at the hardware store. Cheaper than ones sold by cities, and a fraction of the cost of the plastic tumblers (anywhere from $100-500 online), this has turned out to be very promising for our needs. PS - If you're worried about wildlife messing with the lid (i..e, raccoons), just put a bungee cord over the top from handle-to-handle.

While it might look a little odd, you can definitely paint these lids - that's definitely my plan for when the weather warms up!

Oh yeah - and we've canceled our curbside compost service.

Next up? Creating a second, smaller one for dog waste (yep, it can be composted as well...!). As we've noticed that 99% of what gets tossed in the garbage bin is Charley's poop, we are finally going to do something about that in 2024 that doesn't involve sending it to the landfill!


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