Way to Compost 4: The Barrel

We bought our first house this year, and the first thing I looked for was a place to build a compost pile. I found a nice, hidden corner for the food digester and a place under a tree in the back for a version of the 3 bin system. It would be a year before compost was ready, but I needed some now! I was planting a garden soon and had none of the humus-rich, wonderfully textured stuff to fork into the soil before planting. My worm bin was humming along in our garage (we moved it with us, worms and all), but it did not produce enough compost for even 50 square feet of a garden.

The appeal of the barrel system is that turning it is as easy as turning a handle. Barrel composters often sit up off of the ground on a frame with a handle that turns a paddle inside of the barrel to mix up the browns and greens into compost. Other designs allow you to turn the entire barrel, rather than having a paddle and axle inside. I had a friend who had his barrel on the ground. He added materials to it as needed and simply rolled it on the ground about once a week. Because it was on the ground, red wigglers found their way in and helped out.

Like all successful compost piles, a barrel composter will need both brown and green materials, moisture, oxygen, and mass. If you can provide all of the necessary ingredients in the right ratios, it can work just as well as a hot compost pile. If your barrel is up off of the ground, critters won’t be able to access it as easily. Turning it is also easy, and you won’t need to get out the shovel every few weeks. It can also fit in a smaller yard much better than a three bin system can, and for those who like a tidy garden, it looks neat and tidy. This is a good option for those who do not have time to make and turn a pile, have little room in the backyard, and want compost fairly quickly. Barrel composters often claim to provide compost in just a couple of weeks. But like good wine, good compost takes attention to detail and time to cure. You might get compost in three days to two weeks, but it will not be as humus rich as a pile that cures for a year or more.

Humus is a gardener’s gold. It is the final result of decaying plant and animal matter, whether in a forest or in your compost pile. As leaves or your leftovers break down further and further, they get down to their most elemental selves, a negatively charged humus particle. Think of humus as a plant buffet—the most stable form of plant food on the planet. Briefly, humus holds minerals, nutrients, and nitrogen in the soil without leaching away. When plant roots come into contact with humus, they exchange their positive ions for what they need to grow—phosphorous, calcium, nitrogen. Humus also gives the soil more water and oxygen holding capacity.

Humus is in sharp decline in the United States. Modern farm methods need crops in quick succession. Instead of adding organic matter in the form of cover crops and letting the soil rest and regain its humus for the next crop, we add synthetic fertilizers. Fertilizers are often over applied and leach away into our water systems. They cannot create the kind of tilth, the crumbly, dark, sweet-smelling soil that humus creates. They are a quick, chemical fix to a deep and long-term humus shortage. Without humus, the soil is simply a medium for chemicals and in danger of being washed or blown away.

The answer to the humus shortage is right on our dining room tables. The soil needs humus, and humus is created through decomposing organic matter, organic matter that Americans throw away up to 40% of. We are not only throwing away food that others don’t have, but also throwing away all of the energy required to make that food. Millions of tons of organic matter is sent to landfills each year where it creates methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide, instead of humus, the very thing we need to replenish the soil. Cities like Seattle, New York, and Portland, OR are beginning to divert organic waste to compost facilities in large numbers, but we need more cities on board. Some European cities even use anaerobic composting (without air) to create energy from the decomposing food waste. Leftovers are not waste, they are an opportunity. An opportunity to heal the soil, mitigate climate change and grow beautiful crops. To some, putting leftovers in a barrel and turning it might sound as crazy as getting in one and riding it over the edge of Niagara Falls. Compost barrels are just as thrilling in their own way for the worms, bacteria and fungi inside, turning your compost in a national treasure waiting to be buried in the soil and brought to life.