Do I need to buy a commercial compost bin?

Q. I’d like to start composting leaves, grass clippings and such in my (tiny!) backyard.  Do I really need a store-bought composting bin?  I really only generate a small amount of yard waste, and the bins seem so over-priced—and also sort of bulky. Couldn’t I just rake everything into a little pile and let nature take its course? –Bud, Queens, NY 

A. You could indeed forgo the commercial compost bin, no problemo. Much of what you read about composting almost makes it sound like you need a degree in chemistry to do it properly, but the truth is, organic matter decomposes with or without our coaxing. Simply making a little heap of leaves and grass in a corner of your yard is actually a perfectly reasonable way to compost, explains Carey Pulverman, a veteran composting instructor at Lower East Side Ecology Center in New York City. It’s definitely better than sending your yard waste to a landfill, and you’ll eventually be rewarded with some fluffy, fertile, organic matter that you can incorporate back into your garden. You can also just use your leaves and clippings for mulch by piling them around shrubs and plants to help keep the soil moist and choke out weeds That said, a simple bin would help keep your compost neat, ward off pests, and accelerate decomposition—all of which are especially important if you also want to compost food scraps, too. You still don’t have to buy a pricey, high-tech bin, though. New York City, like many other cities, offers subsidized bins to all residents for only $20. Another cheap, compact option: drill some ventilation holes in a plastic or metal garbage can (decomposition does require air). Happy decomposition.

-         Sarah Schmidt

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Here's an ABCs guide to composting we put together for

Aerate your compost so the pile receives oxygen and breaks down faster. If you are using a tumbling container, turn it when you add new materials. If you are using a static container, or simply a pile, make sure you regularly mix up the contents with a shovel or pitchfork.

Bigger is better. The bigger your compost pile the better since heat builds up more in a larger pile.

Compost is one of nature’s best fertilizers and is best kept in a container.

Dairy products shouldn’t go into the compost pile because they can attract animals.

Egg shells are wonderful to add to the compost but they decompose slowly so crush the shells before adding them.

Fish shouldn’t be added to the compost because of the smell.

Grass clippings and garden waste are perfect for the composter. Just don’t overload the container with any one material as it will slow down the decomposition process.

Higher-fat foods, such as salad dressing, peanut butter and mayonnaise, shouldn’t go in the container. They decompose too slowly and will attract small animals.

Information on composting can easily be found on the Internet.

Juice and other non-dairy beverages are great as they will moisten the compost.

Keep the compost container in a sunny spot so the sun’s rays can help the decomposition process during the winter.

Leaves are perfect for the composter. To help them break down, shred them with a mower before adding them.

Meat shouldn’t go into the compost pile because it will get smelly and attract critters.

Nitrogen-rich “green” materials such as grass and kitchen scraps and carbon-rich “brown” materials such as leaves and wood chips should be mixed at a ratio of 25 parts “brown” to 1 part “green.”

Odours will occur in the compost pile if you have too many “green” materials.

Pay attention to the amount of “brown” materials as they can slow down the breakdown in your compost.

Quality of your soil will improve when you add the end-product mulch. Compost will help loosen soils high in clay and will help sandy soil retain water.

Reduce garbage in landfills. About one-third of landfills are organic waste.

Sawdust and wood shavings from untreated wood can go into the composter.

Tea bags and coffee filters are suitable for composting.

Untreated wood ashes from fireplaces or wood stoves can be added in small amounts.

Vegetable and fruit peels are perfect for the composter.

Wet compost can become too soggy and smell. Ensure your compost isn’t too wet or too dry.

Yard work will become easier when you simply turn to your composter for fertilizer.

Zero waste might not be achieved by composting your kitchen and garden scraps, but at least you are reducing the amount of garbage going to a landfill.