Dr. Grow: Convert waste into compost

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Leroy Schenimann drills holes in a trash can to make a do-it-yourself composter. (Fred Lynch)

There seems to be a lot of interest in composting these days. Chris Harris, features editor at the Southeast Missourian, mentioned that some of her friends are looking for information on composting and composting containers. Southeast Missouri State University just completed a new composting facility adjacent to the Charles L. Hutson Horticulture Greenhouse. And, of course, everyone is talking about going green these days. Composting is a component of this movement.

With this in mind, I thought I would review the basics. Composting is a natural process that results from microorganisms breaking down organic matter in such forms as leaves, stems, roots and fruits. The resulting compost, if done correctly, is devoid of weed seeds, disease organisms and residual pesticides.

To begin a compost pile, you should place six to 12 inches of organic matter in the pile. Spread a thin layer of soil over the pile. Then soak the organic matter with a water solution of compost maker (a combination of microorganisms) and a soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer. Repeat this process with additional layers of organic matter, soil, compost maker and fertilizer.

Place a compost thermometer into the pile so you can monitor the temperature within the pile. You would like the temperature to get up to between 125 and 160 degrees. If the temperature goes higher, you must turn the pile by mixing all of the ingredients. The turning will reduce the temperature of the pile and will add oxygen to the mix. Without this turning, the normal aerobic decomposition of organic matter may cease.

The turning process can be done with a pitch fork or a special compost turning tool. If the compost pile is large enough, turning can be done with a front-end loader or with a road grader. Compost can be ready within a few weeks to a few months depending upon all of the variables mentioned above.

If you don't want to make a compost pile, you can purchase compost makers that look like barrels. Mix all the ingredients mentioned above into these containers and roll them or rotate them when the temperature reaches 125 to 160 degrees. While the containers limit the amount of organic material you can put in them, they certainly make the process of mixing the compost much easier.

If you decide that you want to make your own container, find an old garbage can. Drill a few one-inch holes into the sides of the container so air can get into the compost. Fill the container as mentioned above and secure the lid on the container. Turn the can on its side and roll it to mix it up.

The production of compost reduces the amount of waste delivered to landfills and its addition to soils improves their ability to hold moisture and nutrients while increasing drainage characteristics. It is an environmental win-win process.

Send your gardening and landscape questions to Paul Schnare at P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, MO 63702-0699 or by e-mail to news@semissourian.com.


Convert your old trash can into a bin, which can be painted and decorated or left natural.

Things you'll need:

* plastic trash can with lid

* rope

* drill with 1-inch spade drill bit

Turn the can on it's side. Drill holes about 10 inches apart evenly around the can and one in the bottom. Make sure the lid sits securely on the can or drill holes in it so you can thread a rope through the holes and handles of the can.

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