My Sooper Seekrit Compost Pile

Welcome to the Lucy and Ricky show!

As some of you know, Erik is a complete and utter compost wonk. A heavy book about the science of decomposition is pleasure reading for him. He has a really, really big thermometer and knows how to use it.

We’ve kept a compost pile for years and years, but only in the last two years has it become an obsession for him. One of his more recent projects has been to make an gigantic bin in our back yard. This is the sort of bin you could use to dispose of bodies. He became so persnickety about the proper usage of the Wonder Bin that I was afraid to take scraps out there. Emptying the compost pail became his duty.

Then, one day, something went wrong in compost nirvana. You’d have to ask him for the details of his crisis, but the upshot was that he didn’t want anything new to go in the bin.

“But…but…” I said, pointing at the full compost pail on the counter.

“I’ll deal with it,” he said.

One day passed, and the next. He put a big mixing bowl on the counter next to the overflowing pail and started throwing his scraps in there. Flies gathered. 10 lbs of rotting scraps on the counter bothers Erik not a whit.

Of course the notion of putting it all in the trash never crossed our minds. At this point, it’s unthinkable, like driving around without a seat belt.

“This can’t go on,” I said, when a second mixing bowl of scraps joined the first, and the fruit flies started passing out party fliers to the whole neighborhood.

“It will have to go in the green bin,” he said with an air of grim decision.

The green bin is the dedicated wheelie bin given us by the city to collect green waste. We use it only for green waste we can’t compost, partially because we need as much compost as we can make, and partially because I hear the city often uses the green bin material as landfill covering.

I just couldn’t put it in the green bin, so I went out in the back yard, collected a couple of the old tires rolling around back there (we’re classy that way), stacked them up under the avocado tree and started my own alternative compost pile.

I did not tell Erik about the AlternoPile because I knew he’d squawk about it. “There’s not enough mass!” he’d protest. Or maybe he’d cry, his face blanching with horror, “Your nitrogen inputs are way too high! For God’s sake, stop this madness!”  

Sometimes things just gotta rot without you thinking about them, you know?

I also was not worried he’d discover my sooper seekrit pile because Erik has a particularly advanced form of man blindness. He couldn’t find a boa constrictor in the fridge. I don’t have to hide his Christmas presents. And I figured a couple of tires under the tree were not going to attract his attention for a long while

To his credit, he did notice it, after a couple of weeks, and asked, “Did you plant something in the tires?” Because I was in the bathroom and didn’t have to look him in the face I was able to say, “No honey, I didn’t plant anything in the tires.”

He investigated no more, and the secret pile continued. Yesterday he finally rebuilt his compost pile, and now it’s accepting scraps again. The game is up.  I’ll let the tires sit and stew. In a few months I can move them and will leave behind nothing but a little pile of compost.

The moral:

If you’ve been thinking you can’t compost because you don’t generate much green waste, or you don’t have space for a big bin, or just don’t want to screw with it,  I’d say try it anyway. My two tires absorbed our green waste for weeks, and would have continued to do so. That’s kitchen waste for two people who cook a lot, but no yard trimmings, obviously.  I’d dump the pail in there, and cover the scraps with handfuls of hay or dry leaves.

Sometimes the level would raise high, but this stuff shrinks fast, so it maintained a level one tire deep most of the time, and would have done so until compost started building up at the bottom. Eventually I would have put the top tire on the ground and shoveled the contents of the bottom tire into the top tire, basically turning everything upside down. This would speed things along a bit, and would reveal any finished compost at the very bottom.

Caveats: This system doesn’t generate heat through mass, so will be much slower than a real compost pile. It is best used when the weather is warmer to help things along. And again, this isn’t what you do if you want compost for your garden. This is just one way to quietly return your kitchen waste to the earth.

When Erik sees this post he’s going scream, “Luuuuuucy!!!!” and proceed to write a rebuttal explaining why a tiny compost pile is a bad idea, but no matter what he says, I believe composting can be as simple as this.

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43 Comments

  1. Very interesting. We have city compost picked up but I’m running out of room for all the chicken poop. Obviously I don’t just want to dump all that valuable stuff in the city compost bin. We’ve also got several old tires courtesy of the previous owners. Do you worry at all, though, about toxins from the tires leeching into the compost? That’s been my concern with using tires for this sort of thing.

  2. At any given time, at least one of my two or three compost piles is “not right.” In the long run, it doesn’t matter. It all rots eventually. It may stink and draw flies for a few weeks (or months, if something goes REALLY wrong), but sooner or later all organic matter returns to the earth.

  3. Love it. i am very much of the “compost happens” school of thought…stuff rots, usually with no help from anyone.

    Like the new blog look and name, too!

  4. HAhahaha my neighbors HATE our compost pile. I have it contained on two sides, but it’s right in the front of our house, right where the whole neighborhood can see it.

    I think the flies and wasps and snakes are really really interesting, and I love how close the compost pile is to the kitchen door. I’ll sit out on the kitchen steps and clean veggies just so I can watch the fauna at work while I’m doing basically the same thing on a macro scale. :D

    All the neighbors see is a pile of garbage. hahahah… Idiots.

    Hubby keeps trying to pressure me to move it to make peace, but I refuse!!

    Vive la compost!

  5. OK, so I guess I’ll have to write a rebuttal!

    And, no, I’m not too worried about tires. That being said, a pile in a tire does not have enough mass to heat up. I’m working on another use for tires . . .

  6. @ Green Bean: I’m not too worried about using tires for this. But I will admit my standards are low. I figure I’m so chemically compromised I’m like a glow in the dark cockroach. If I was feeding kids out of that compost, I might be a little more picky. But maybe not. I haven’t seen any science on it.

  7. Our compost bin is also not my neighbour’s favourite thing but I would be happy if only I could figure out a way to keep our resident pug out of my compost! He’s a clever little mite and rather food motivated; no matter how rotting! ;)

  8. Question for you… I grew up on a farm where we had a major compost pile (not as scientific as your’s, but it did the job just fine). Now I’m stuck in suburbia for a while and trying to make our family footprint as small as possible. Thinking about composting, but as we live on the outskirts of a park, wonder if you’ve had trouble with attracting skunks or coons? Thanks!

  9. @Leslie: Compost could attract both skunks and raccoons. We never had any problem with either when our dog was alive. I think just the scent of his pee kept them away, since he wasn’t outside at night. Now that he’s passed on, they’re encroaching.

    A low compost pile like my tire pile is easily accessible to critters. I found mine dug in one morning. It wasn’t a big deal, you could just see a skunk had been rooting around. I could have prevented that by putting a lid on the pile.

    Lids are the key (along with dogs). If your pile is well-contained so they can’t get anything out of it, they shouldn’t hang around your yard.

  10. I’m curious to hear what went wrong with Erik’s bin. Sounds almost as if a creature started growing in there. ;)

    I’m fairly new to composting. Just started last summer. It’s going along pretty well. I wonder what others are including that causes their compost to stink like so. Ours basically has a mild earthy odor. Though that may change this Summer when it really starts cooking as we finally have the proper mass for that.

    - Damian

  11. This is just what I needed to cheer me up at the end of a long week teaching 6th graders:) Great post! Last fall I spent weeks trying to figure out what persistent creature was trying to claw its way into the base of my compost pile. The claw marks in the dirt were large and I had visions of a super-raccoon. Then I caught my 9-year-old dog (a terrier mix) red-handed (or red-pawed)…She was the culprit. So, I fortified the pile with some cement blocks to encourage her to find a new hobby.

  12. Name of blog has changed in feeds, perfect :)

    liked this idea as a quick compost thing, but would be slightly concerned about chemicals and other nasties from the tires

  13. I also have a fairly small compost bin (well, actually I have 3 of them). I rent and I can’t have a regulation-size one due to neighbors and landlords so I have 3 trash cans hidden around the place that are composting. I know they aren’t big enough to get hot enough to kill everything, but I still think it’s better than not composting.

    In the winter when they’re all frozen solid and fill up, I even throw stuff in just a rubbermaid bin until I can add it to the newly-melted compost bins in spring.

  14. when all else fails, the city of los angeles’s green bins are a great alternative. they do grind up all the materials and are left in various spots throughout the city – as available mulch for anyone to come by and shovel away. we use their mulch at least once a year to lay new ground cover around our CA natives…though we also compost, the city green bin is a still a winner!

  15. Hey, your tire compost pile sounds about like mine. I never worry about the “science” behind it. As far as I’m concerned, dirt is dirt ;) .

    And, yes, I often have things growing in my garden that I didn’t plant, but sometimes that’s a very good thing – sometimes it’s 180 lbs of volunteer hubbard squash good :) .

  16. I’m also of the school that holds “compost happens.” I can’t seem to get myself fussed about compost. We just don’t generate much material for compost most of the year since we have chickens. Most kitchen scraps go directly to them. Only in fall do we suddenly have a lot of material (leaves), and only then do I give even a smidgen of thought to dealing with it “properly.” We have one big leaf pile that I’ve just this week started putting pee on. I figure dry leaves are basically all carbon, and pee has a lot of nitrogen. We’ll see if it breaks down with regular pee doses.

    Good for you for starting your own compost pile. I look forward to Eric’s outraged rebuttal.

  17. Great post. Our neighbors hated our compost bin, so we dumped the kitchen scraps and bits from the veggie garden into those re-usable fabric bags from the market.

    The first one took a whole 8 months to process, since they get a lot of air and not much heat.

  18. The solution for the exess compost raw materials is a worm bin so fun. Eric can read up on it and be excited and then you have two options for the stuff, worms are totally fun to do, hell i think you could use the tires as a bin, some thick black plastic for a top light barrier and maybe some ventilation in the tires. All in all, to much raw materials = fun new adventure.

  19. @Anon: You’re absolutely right about worms. A great solution for the compostless. We have a worm bin. Thing is, it’s citrus season and at least half–no, probably more than half– of our compost we’re putting out is citrus peels, which they can’t have. Or banana peels, which I don’t want to chop up. Or onion family stuff, which I believe they can’t have either. Basically, I still needed regular compost.

  20. Great idea! If you were to do this for any length of time, you’d want to cut the sidewalls out with a jigsaw so they don’t trap water. As for the toxins, a friend of mine and I are building raised bed gardens out of semi truck tires like this and any reliable research that we’ve been able to dig up says that even if it’s going to leach stuff out(which is unlikely), it’s mostly zinc anyway and isn’t going to hurt anything.

  21. Hey EarthsShaper,

    Growing potatoes in tires works great. I tried it once and got a decent crop. The idea is that you add tires as the plant grows. That way you get more ‘tators. If I did it again I’d paint the tires white due to the fact that we’re in a hot, sunny climate. Folks in cooler places could skip this step.

  22. Thank you! I’m going to do just that — tenant left some tires and I need to start a pile. I’ll have to get some hay.

  23. bokashi. i am headed in this direction as a parallel to my composting an worm bin to take scare of the meat, bones, cheese and bread, citrus etc that we can’t give to our dogs and don’t want to compost.

    what do you think about bokashi?

  24. So – when we lived in CT on 10 acres we had a 3 bin system for compost. Then, when that got old we made
    2 foot diameter tubes of 4″ wire mesh about 4 feet tall – threw all the compostables in them and planted around them – tomatoes, pole beans, etc. Changed position every year – best garden we ever had.

    Now in FL with no where to put a compost bin I make instant compost. Throw all kitchen veggie waste in the blender with all the leftover cooking water, tea, coffee and blend every night.
    In the morning I ‘plant’ it in the garden (raised beds, pots, around trees, etc) by the next morning it is gone. I’ve checked. The only thing left is the citrus smell!! And the garden is doing great.

  25. I really like the tires idea for a compost container. I was planning to grow my winter squashes and melons in the three we’ve scavenged, but this is a good use for in the winter when the compost pit I have in the back under the oak tree is not getting much sun.

  26. Ha, Mr. Homegrown would have a heart attack if he saw our compost pile. I’m picturing it like this:

    (driving home from a home grown dinner party at our house)
    Mrs: Well, they seemed nice.
    Mr: Uhr. (non-commital man grunt)
    Mrs: And that eggplant thing was pretty tasty, huh?
    Mr: Uhr.
    Mrs: Oh, What??/
    Mr: …I mean, did you SEE their compost pile??
    Mrs: (sigh)

    FIN

  27. Kristina: LOL! Actually, it’s only good homesteading manners to keep your nose out of other people’s piles. Spying on their compost is too much like peeking in their medicine cabinet.

  28. @Anon–re: bokashi

    I don’t know much about bokashi. Maybe others can comment on it?

    Funny thing is we met some great people who had a bokashi system (? is that the correct term? maybe I should say they were bokashi-ing?). Anyway, we met becausae they needed to get rid of their finished bokashi gunk, so asked if they could put in our compost pile, and we said sure. The stuff made our bin smell like pickles for a couple of days, but seemed like good organic matter. And whenever they come by to drop off a bucketful, it’s a good excuse for a beer and a chat.

  29. I have two plastic garbage cans with flip-top lids. We drilled holes on the bottom and sides for aeration. It’s my first attempt at composting. Stuff is rotting in there. That’s about the extent of it. I keep adding more kitchen scraps, and other compostable materials. I imagine it heats up pretty well. Not sure if plastic leaches into the compost or how one would go about determining that. Guess I should do more reading and get a clue. I’d like to use my compost at some point ;)

  30. @Sheryl: Good on you for starting composting! It’s fine to compost in a bin like that–smart move to drill holes–and I wouldn’t worry about the plastic.

    Are you adding dry/brown stuff every time you add scraps? Can’t tell from your post, but it’s really key. The combination of nitrogen rich green waste and carbon material is what makes the magic happen. It also keeps smells, flies and slime away.

    So gather up a pile of crunchy dry leaves, or straw, or dried grass trimmings, or wood shavings or even shredded newspaper (or a mix of everything) and keep that by the bins. Every time you add fresh waste, cover it with dry stuff. In a pinch you can use dirt. The pile will be much nicer and healthier.

  31. Re: Leaching

    This question keeps popping up. I addressed it above, but maybe we need to go into detail.

    Basically we’re not worried about it. It’s up to you how fussy you want to be about these things, but:

    a)I have no science either way to quote. Above The Fuz says their research shows any leaching seems to be zinc.

    b)I live in a sea of chemicals, have all my life, and figure I’ve adapted to them and can withstand tire juice leaching into my compost–even if whatever leaches gets back to me via my crops, which I doubt. (Decomposition is a cleansing process. Trust the worms)

    c) I think it is a mistake to let the perfect get in the way of the good. Composting is good. It’s better to compost than not, in any circumstance. Too often we let fear or fussiness interfere with getting down to action. If a tire pile makes it possible for you to compost, use the tires.

    If you’d rather not use tires, there’s lots of other cheap alternatives, like building a bin of scrap wood, or making simple circles of chicken wire.

  32. FUD (Fear Uncertainty Doubt)

    Frankly I follow Mrs. Homegrown’s lines of simple reasoning, and pick better battles in my environment and at home. Common, we live and work and eat and grow in major cities. Mainly, I don’t succumb to FUD. I do research, and sometimes I move on.

    So, I did this research when creating a tire stack for potatoes because the Missus was expectantly hesitant, “what about chemicals?”.
    Like a good little Urban Homesteder (can’t trademark a typo) I hit Google. I didn’t look for people propagating FUD, or agreeing with Momma’s concerns. I looked for studies and science. The results weren’t conclusive, as there are no major studies. But there were some, and they centered on the use of tire bits as earthfill and topping in playgrounds. They studied leaching of zinc, but this only occurred when you cut through the radials, which you won’t be doing, not even if you cut the sidewalls out for ease of access to the inside of the stack.

    There could be off-gassing, but this will only happen ‘outward’ from the surface’s long term exposure to the sun. IMPORTANT: only from the exposed surface! Not inward to your stack. And you can mitigate this by painting the outside, as we did, for two good reasons. One: to block the sun from heating up our potatoes, Two: it’s more attractive in urban areas where tire piles tend have a negative connotation.

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