The Back Yard Composter

The Back Yard Composter

By Andrew Gale

Composting is that backyard chore everyone wants to do, but believes they can't find the time to do – at least to do it right, anyway! It's actually a lot easier than you might think. As a matter of fact, nature is already composting out there in your yard, and would not mind very much if you wanted to actively join in. Your grass clippings in your lawn along with those blown leaves along the side of your home are in the process of decomposing as we speak.

The first thing you need to do is designate a spot not too close, not too far from your back door; maybe 30 feet or so away from your house. Then, pick up some wood pallets or wood fence from a repurpose store – be creative! From these materials create a compost bin that is about 3 foot x 3 foot. Set it right on the soil in your yard and make sure you do not put a bottom on it. What you're looking for is a convenient place to mix your yard waste (brown carbon) and your food waste (green nitrogen) together.

What you can compost:

– Fruit and vegetable waste

– Plate scrapings, including meat

and cheese

– Soiled kitchen paper waste

– Compostable cups, plates,


– Waxed paper

What you should not compost:

– Dog or cat feces

– Magazine paper/glossy paper

– Coal or ashes

– Pesticide/treated wood

– Human bodily fluids

Now all you need to do is place those leaves from your driveway into the bin. This bin can be filled right up to the top with this loose-leaf material. This creates a carbon-rich basis where the magic will all happen: Millions of tiny microscopic creatures, in search of some green nitrogen rich-material, will rise up from the soil and move into their new home. They love to eat our leftover food waste and help along with the decomposition process.

In the kitchen you'll need to find a countertop compost bin. This is a small, one-gallon bin where you put your veggie waste, plate scrapings, paper towels, etc. This can be found on line by searching for "kitchen countertop composter." Pick a style that matches your d├ęcor so it'll be out and ready for use. A bucket under the sink will also work, but be aware of the old adage of "out of sight, out of mind."

Once this bin is filled up, it's time to head outside and put into the compost bin. With your hayfork, open a pocket in the middle of the pile and dump your food in. Mix it with your leaves and cover it with about 6 inches of leaves. Repeat this process every time you have a full countertop bin. What you will notice is that the pocket of food and leaves you are creating will start to heat up with the activity of those microorganisms.

You'll notice that the previous food you put in there is not looking the same as the fresh food; in fact it's on the fast track to decomposition. Make sure you keep the mixed leaves-food ratio to about 2:1. Within a few weeks, you'll see that the compost pile has a warm center, reaching up to 150 degrees. It's important to maintain this temperature to kill off any pathogens that are in the food.

Every time you mix in new food, you're reintroducing oxygen to the pile. This is important to keep the pile from going anaerobic. A pile without air will start to get an odor as the food is not rotting and not composting. Toss in some wood chips or sticks; this keeps small pockets where air can be trapped into the pile and provide the necessary oxygen for your microorganisms to thrive.

Each fall you can empty the contents of this bin next to your bin and allow the new fertile soil to rest until the summer. Put the fall leaves in, and you can start the process all over. Make sure to get kids involved; they are always fascinated by the steaming science experiment in the back yard.

If you're interested in learning more, please sign up for our composting seminars this spring: April 17 at the Traverse Area District Library ( and May 3 in Bellaire ( )

Andrew Gale is the founder of Bay Area Recycling for Charities; 231-884-3417;