Posts tagged compost

Adventures in DIY, or how NOT to make a compost tumbler

One of my first projects this past spring was to build a compost tumbler.  As an aspiring suburban farmer, soil is everything.  One of the hard lessons I learned last year was that poor soil equals poor crops.  Or no crops at all.

So one could go out and buy bags of soil and spend hundreds of dollars, or an enterprising suburban famer could simply make all the rich organic soil they desired!  Simple, right?  No.

I was Google-educated enough to know even the most effective composters still took weeks to break down base matter into hummus (black-gold soil, not that creamy dip from chickpeas).  So I knew it wouldn’t help me this growing season, but I figured it was better to start now and even if I didn’t get the composting ratios and ingredients correct for a good hot-compost, it would still break down over the summer with the copious amounts of heat and rain.

Full of ideas, plans for a compost tumbler in hand, and more ambition than sense; I set out for my local home improvement store to start my quest in outdoor DIY projects.   Looking back now, the journey seems more like Frodo traveling through Mordor…

If anyone is interested in the plans for a compost tumbler, here they are.  You might want to keep reading first to see if you really would rather just spend the $100-200 and just buy the darn thing.

So speaking of cost, that was my main reason for building my own.  That and I had an extra 55 gallon plastic barrel lying around from my abandoned rain barrel project.  If anyone remembers me talking about my “ingenious” idea of growing potatoes in a 55 gallon barrel with the top cut off, I learned something from that “experience building event”.  When cutting into the plastic barrel top, leave the lip on the barrel to give it additional strength.  Or rather help it retain it’s original strength, since that lip is thicker than the sides of the barrel.

So building the base was straightforward and easy as any wood project, but give yourself several hours, since measuring twice and second-guessing yourself three times is rather time-consuming.  The barrel cutting went smoothly, I just drilled a hole in the top and used a jigsaw to cut a big circular hole in the top.  Simple, right?  Just plop some hinges on it, a latch and presto: Instant compost barrel.  More on that in a bit….


The PVC pipe insert was also simple, drill some holes in it for aeration and attach the toilet flange to the bottom of the barrel with some machine screws and nuts.  The hard part was drilling the holes in the side to line up the PVC pipe and the barrel sides so that the galvanized pipe could be fitted through.  It took some heavy banging with a hammer to get the pipe to go through, and unfortunately I found out later that I should have probably put the cap on first, as I had completely mashed down the threads on the pipe to an unfixable degree.


Still undeterred, I mounted the barrel triumphantly to the base and coated the barrel with some metallic paint so that it would be more aesthetically pleasing to the neighbors and my wife (the latter of whom I’m much more afraid of)


Not having an end cap on one of the sides wasn’t a huge issue, it was just an hour further waste of time as I tried to bang the mashed threads apart with a hammer and chisel.  It didn’t work, by the way.

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I filled it about a quarter of the way up with leaves, wood shavings, cardboard from egg cartons (only non-dye type), toilet paper rolls and paper towel rolls (don’t use too much, they have glues in them and they take notoriously long to decompose).  Also I added vegetable scraps that I had been holding onto for a little while in anticipation of said composter, much to the chagrin of my wife, who had to tolerate a large bowl of slightly rotting banana peels, avocado rinds, and wilty lettuce in the kitchen for about two weeks.

I gave the composter a spin and heard the contents successfully moving around and combining in a pleasing “congratulations, you didn’t mess this project up” kind of way.  Perhaps what I didn’t hear as I walked away, proudly beaming was a snickering coming from the composter and a sly “…yet”.

The spring gave way to summer, and I assume the contents of my composter were happily breaking down.  I kept adding kitchen scraps and yard waste into the barrel.  Spinning it afterwards, and letting it do it’s thing.  I’ll tell you now, you might want to add some compost accelerator since, unlike ground-base composters, the microbes have no way of getting into the barrel.  If you already have a compost pile, transfer the contents of that into the barrel.

HOWEVER, and I hope to all that is good in this world, you have NOT been making the compost tumbler as you read this, since you will have traveled beyond the point of no return by now.  The instructions clearly state to use a pickle barrel.  Why is this important?  Because 55 gallons is a lot of volume, and essentially filing it with wet leaves, veggies, cardboard, grass and straw makes it heavy.  While the ground can hold up the tumbler contents with ease, the latch that I put on the lid….not so much.  Around the end of spring, I noticed that the tumbler was getting increasingly hard to spin, and as you probably guessed by now, one day the not-big-enough latch holding the lid closed decided to catastrophically fail on me, spilling the contents (luckily not all, just about 7 shovelfuls of rotting smelly compost) onto the ground around my feet.  The pickle barrel has a screw on type lid, so it’s much stronger and form-fitting.  One of the first things I noticed with my tumbler was how the plastic lid was starting to warp in the heat.  So it really didn’t even close tight after about a week or two.


SO…was it worth it in the end?  Yes…and no.  I gained more experience, which is always valuable to someone, most likely you all, since you can benefit from my mistakes.  I still have a semi-working compost bin, unfortunately it has all the cons of a compost bin, and all the cons of a compost tumbler with the only benefit being that I have a place to put our banana peels and vegetable scraps other than the trash.  It’s not a complete loss, since the base is still perfectly fine.  I could decide to get a pickle barrel on Ebay or something, but at around $40-80 plus shipping which is around the same price as the barrel, it is pretty much as expensive as just buying a ready-made tumbler.

I haven’t completely given up on my tumbler though.  I’m much more DIY-active in the fall and winter, since I’m not losing my body weight in sweat every hour.  So there’s still a chance I could fix the lid on the barrel by securing a sturdier latch to it.

Then again there’s a chance I could win the lottery, but nobody’s holding their breath around here that either will happen 🙂



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Farmers, start your gardens!

I can’t believe the average last frost date is already here. It seems like just yesterday I was buying seeds and starting up this blog. So much to do, and the clock is ticking! I still haven’t started up my tillers, so I don’t even know if I’ll have any mechanical help getting my garden bed dug. I should have really thought about this sooner, but time sure goes by quick. It really is a good thing that I’m not farming for a living, otherwise I’d already be sweating bullets about my harvest. So, with the average last frost date officially behind us, let me be the first to warn anyone in MD/DC/VA to NOT transplant anything quite yet. The forecast is calling for some cold weather to roll in on Saturday. Now, planting seeds might be OK since the frost (if it happens) won’t damage a dormant seed, but don’t go bringing your pepper, tomato, and cucumber plants outside. It will definitely be too cold for them still, even without a frost event. Best bet for those plants is to use my cicada planting clock that I posted about a few days ago, or go with the tried-and-true date of mothers day. By May, all worry of cold and frost is well behind us, and that’s precisely why we start the tomatoes indoors in Mar/Apr. By giving them those extra months of time to grow indoors or in a greenhouse, they may not grow as fast and vigorous as they do in the summer, but you’re giving them a head-start. By May, your growing season has been shortened considerably so you wouldn’t want to start by planting a tomato seed at that point.

This is my deadline for getting my tillers up and running though, so cold or not, I have to get my dirt loosened up and ready for the plants. I have quite a bit of nice, dark organic matter (an old leaf pile that has decomposed nicely) in the land behind my house, so I plan on working that into the soil where “the farm” will go. Also, while not of much use this season, I’ve been dumping all of my wife’s salad by-products into the compost pile, getting it ready to use next year. Yes, unfortunately at this point is literally is just a big pile of wilted lettuce, egg shells, pepper cores and other non-meat food scraps. I do plan on buying or making one of those really nice tumbler-style compost bins, but I do like the idea of having a giant compost pit that a bin just couldn’t match in terms of size. I will probably mulch-mow my lawn to build back up the topsoil, so I won’t have any lawn trimmings to add to the compost, but at some point I will get a chipper/shredder. With that, I’ll have plenty of shredded leaves and chipped/mulched wood to add, which will add a ton of minerals to my compost. All of that will have to decompose, which means I might want to have more than one pile/pit/bin so that I can rotate and let one decompose while I’m pulling from the other.

While I’m at it, I might find out what BG&E does with all that mulch that they make when they trim the trees by the power lines. I saw the truck just full to the brim with freshly shredded tree trimmings. I’ll ask them if they can just dump the pile in my yard (I know, I bet the neighbors will LOVE that). Trees are full of minerals like potassium, calcium, carbon, etc, which makes for garden gold once it has a chance to break down and release all of its goodness.

So, for those that are itching to start your garden like me, this looks to be a good weekend (45 degrees? Could be worse, just wait til the 95% humidity days are here). Grab a shovel, tiller, or just jump in with your bare hands, let’s make the step towards growing what you eat and having fun while doing it.

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