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, N.Y. 

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.

Story by Sarah Schmidt. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Tailoring your composting needs to fit you
Do you really need to buy that expensive compost bin?