Fire in the compost bin!

We burned the compost bin in January. Not intentionally, but accidently. We never much liked that bin. Maybe we burned it accidently-on-purpose.

Building a compost bin frame on a slope is a challenge. But as you see, every part of our farm is on a slope.

Early one morning I cleaned the ashes out of the woodstove, shoveled them into a steel pail, and set the pail outside on the deck. Unbeknownst to me, there were a few embers among the ashes, glowing coals that were hungrily searching for something else to devour. They found fodder when we dumped the pail into the compost bin.

Firewood ash is a good addition to the compost pile because it raises the pH of acidic soils, if you do not add too much. Garden magazines recommend that no more than 5 percent of the compost should be ash. Experience has taught me that no more than .001 percent of the ash should be live coals.  Better to dump all questionable ash on the driveway where the grit may aid traction on the icy curve at the top of the hill.

But the compost bin is closer to the house, a handier place to dump the ash, and less messy than scattering in on the driveway. Unfortunately, on this January morning there were several of those small but red-hot coals lurking in the gray fluff, waiting to do their devious devil’s work.

Late that afternoon I noticed the compost bin was steaming. This is not unusual. Compost heaps remain warm down in their depths through the coldest winter weather, something to do with anaerobic decomposition. A smoky vapor arising from a compost pile is a good sign: it means the kitchen scraps and grass clippings and all else in the heap is breaking down into humus that will enrich the garden soil when it is applied in the spring.

By the next morning it was clear that the anaerobic burn had gone full-out aerobic. There was fire in the hole.

Not a conflagration on par with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 with towers of flame soaring skyward, only a steady and insistent column of smoke that implied a languid smoldering deep in the pile. This has happened to us before, a slow but all-consuming burn that reduces three wheelbarrow loads of ripe humus to a paltry two or three buckets of sludge that does not loosen and enrich the soil.

In past years, I have defeated compost bin fires by trenching the smoldering heap away from the wooden sideboards and pouring on several bucketsful of water. That smothered the burn and returned the bin to its work of slow decomposition. Not this year.

Despite my best efforts, the slow fire burned and burned, with occasional tongues of flame bursting free and laughing at my attempts to quench them. Maybe I had dumped too many grass clippings and twigs into the bin last summer, inflammable stuff that would ignite in a grease fire flash rather than gently and evenly bake down to chunks of peat.  

One night the wooden frame began to smolder, the burn was beyond control, and the firefight was over. By mid-February, all that remained was wreckage that resembled a fire-swept homeless encampment, charred wooded posts jutting up at bizarre angles and tangles of collapsed wire. Sic transit gloria compost bin.

We were never really satisfied with the old bin anyway. It was too small, even with a welded wire and metal fencepost addition, and shoveling the humus out from the narrow, sagging gates of the bin had become a noisome chore. The tomato plants never complained about its appearance, but it was crudely built and ugly.

Green-treated lumber is a must for compost bin construction. Mud is the essence of a compost heap, so the wood is always wet

A halt to compost production was not an option. There was no choice but to construct a new bin.

Determined to design and build a larger and more functional bin, I hauled away the fire-ravaged debris and then made a critical study of the site. A solid foundation was clearly the first requirement. Playing in the mud (mud is the essence of a compost pit), I trenched and tamped the earthen base, hauled three wheelbarrow loads of sand to level it, and laid the new foundation of concrete blocks, paving stones, and a half dozen bricks salvaged from a chimney torn down from our house several years ago.

On top of that foundation, I stacked green-treated landscaping timbers (three tiers on the downhill sides, one tier on the uppermost side) and nailed them together with barn spikes. Note: I strongly recommend using a carpenter’s level and T-square to make sure all corners are perfectly square and the tiers of timbers are level. Do not trust that your eyes will “square and level” your construction work, especially on a hillside slope. Just – DON’T.

Cut into 38-inch lengths, the landscape timbers also served as sturdy upright corner posts.  I nailed the posts to the foundation timbers using barn spikes. Unless you are much stronger, quicker with a hammer, and steadier with a tipping post than I, drill pilot holes for the spikes. I cut angle braces for the posts from green-treated 2×4 and attached them with 3 1/2 inch wood screws – until I ran out of screws and had to hammer them together with 10-penny nails.    

The top boards of the frame were also cut from green-treated 2x4s, with a 45-degree angle cut at the ends of the boards atop each corner post to join them. I “encouraged” a snug fit with a rubber mallet, then nailed them down. Do not look too closely at my work. Remember: it’s a compost bin, not the Taj Mahal.

Despite being chased inside by intermittent rain, three days of work in March completed the project. Well, mostly completed it. I still have to attach the welded wire facing to the frame and build the gates. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither is a good compost bin.

This one should last for as long as we live on the farm and can keep gardening. If we don’t burn it down. My new rule: dump the woodstove ashes directly onto the garden. That is probably not as efficient for controlling the soil’s pH level, and it is possible that much of the ashes dumped on top of snow will be blown away by winter winds.  

But the evil embers will be banned from the new compost bin. When I look out the kitchen window next January, I want to know that the misty vapor rising from the compost is the warm and gentle toasting of yard waste into mulch and peat, not the bubbling, simmering subterranean lava of Mauna Loa before it erupts in flame and destruction.

We’ve had enough compost fires.   


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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5 Responses to Fire in the compost bin!

  1. Scott says:

    I, too, have had wood stove ashes start our compost afire. I read your piece to start the day and laughed out loud several times. Many thanks for the chuckles!

  2. David Meier says:

    Another indication of how truly nuts you are. Looking forward to seeing you and we can discuss compost, wondering what Kind of sign you put up to keep the rodents out talk to you later have fun.

  3. Yeah, well, we needed a new compost bin anyway. See you in April.

  4. Pingback: A builder’s guide to handbaskets for a world that is going to hell | Dispatches from a Northern Town

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