Composting

Of the many things with which you must concern yourself if growing your own food, soil nutrients and soil ecosystems are among the most important. This is particularly important for those just starting out with growing on a new property or who are looking to drastically improve the yields from existing properties. You can build a greenhouse or cut down some trees to improve the temperature or sunlight situation in a matter of hours or days. Building up a healthy soil biology and reserve of nutrients, however, requires some time and is a commitment to an ongoing process.

On the other end, our daily lives produce waste. With the life we live now, my wife and I actually send very little waste to the landfill. We will remember to put out our garbage bin every couple months and even then it usually isn’t full. There is the odd jump in solid waste from construction activities but generally speaking we produce about half a bag of waste every month through the year. Recyclables are a bit more – a bin or so every few weeks. What we do produce fairly large quantities of, however, is biodegradable waste.

Meat that comes in a styrofoam tray with plastic wrap hasn’t entered our house in a couple years now, but the meat we eat comes in its own wrapper of fur or feathers. We bring home relatively few plastic bags of produce each year, but produce huge volumes of green waste as seasons progress and summer plants are ripped out to make way for winter crops. Even after the chickens are done with things like squash, there is often some green matter left over. With our allergies, a fair amount of toilet paper is used to blow our noses and, though it will require a little indelicacy to discuss, toilet paper used for its intended purpose is also diverted from our septic system.

In order to address these two needs – the disposal of biodegradable waste and the requirements of the garden for additional nutrients and a healthy biology, we do a lot of composting on the property. Here I will run through what we do as well as some other solutions that may be applicable to people in different situations.

Skid Composters

Skid Composter

As simple as it gets. Screw together a few skids and you have yourself a compost bin. The front skid leans against the pile and can be removed for easy access to the contents.

I will start with what is probably the simplest form of bulk composting. In this system you basically corral biodegradable waste into one area and, with some degree of turning, let it decompose. This is the system used in so many backyards, even in urban areas. In fact, some cities have systems in place to provide plastic containers to facilitate backyard composting.

In our circumstances, the solution has traditionally been to use skids (a.k.a. pallets) to create boxes .. three or four-sided, sometimes with another skid on top as a bit of a removable roof. We get the skids for free and screw them together with decking screws. They take a few minutes to build and disassemble quickly in the future. They are put up when we need them where we need them and generally last several years to a decade before our needs change and they are removed.

There is nothing sophisticated about these composters and we generally do not tend them. They sit and rot in their own time. We also do not generally concern ourselves too much with the balance of “green” and “brown” compostables on an ongoing basis. If we bring in a large volume of one or the other then we might consider its allocation across the available composting zones.

Pit Composters

Small Pit Composter

The top of a commercially produced composting bin over a deep pit creates a nice pit composter.

For years, we had designated one of our skid composters as being for “dirty” compost. It was into this bin that we would throw animal carcasses or other waste that was liable to produce a bit of a smell, attract animals or represent a biological hazard. In time, of course, this bin did compost out fairly well and was eventually removed when the area was turned into our first chicken pen. One can still find the odd animal bone in the area where the composter used to be, which has now been turned into a dust bath by the chickens. Decomposition followed by a thorough drying of the area has long ago rendered this area safe.

What has come to replace this skid composter for “dirty” compost has been a series of pit composters. Pit composting is exactly as advertised – you dig a pit, you throw in compost.

The first two I built, which are still in use, were dug down several feet into the ground and then topped with the round black composters that came with the property. These are currently used for a combination of kitchen scraps, garden scraps and the odd animal carcass. As long as we ensure that enough water enters the system, they decompose fairly rapidly and so always have room at the top to add more waste. A peek in the top also reveals a fairly rich and constantly shifting ecosystem unto itself. It isn’t uncommon to see fungal growth or insect larvae being hunted by some of the numerous spider species which have set up shop.

Large Pit Composter

The lid of the large pit composter with nested access hatches allowing more or less access to the pit. Also, a sophisticated tool for manipulating the pit — a broken hoe.

Eventually these two pits will have the plastic tops removed and the best of the nutrient-rich soil removed and used in our gardens. They will then be capped with dirt and the area planted with a succession of plants meant to even and redistribute the nutrients, culminating in food producing plants that will benefit from the mature soil ecosystem and abundant nutrients. New pits will be dug, the plastic tops moved over them, and the process started anew.

In addition to these two small pit composters, I dug a much larger pit composter to deal with the majority of our “dirty” compost as well as relatively large volumes of “green” waste to help balance it out. The pit is roughly a 4′ cube and is established in an area where I know the depth and direction of ground water flow. This pit accepts, among other things, toilet paper and so it was important to ensure that we were not contaminating the groundwater and potentially cisterns, wells or other methods by which we or our neighbours access water. Although it did take a while to get going, the pit currently appears to be active and now accepts a regular amount of biodegradable waste, reducing it in volume and thus leaving space at the top for additional input.

Leaves

The last form of bulk composting on our property at the moment is that of leaves and other “yard waste” from the local community. Every fall our community has yard waste collection, at which point lots of people in the nearby town go out and buy large paper bags, fill them with the leaves from their lawn and then put them on the curb to be collected by the county. In other words, they spend a lot of time and money packaging up all the nutrients their precious lawns need to thrive and ask for them to be taken away.

Composting Leaves

The composting of leaves from the local yard waste collection.

Last year, I took advantage of this phenomenon and collected several trailer loads full of these bagged leaves. The paper bags have since been used for sheet mulching and the leaves were caged and left to compost into a light, nutrient-rich soil called leaf mould and prized by gardeners.

Leaf Mould in the Raised Beds

The use of leaves collected from the local town’s yard waste collection day to mulch the raised beds.

Later on, some of the leaves were transferred to the garden to be used as mulch – simulating, in some way, what you see in natural environments. This has worked out splendidly so far and has not only retarded moisture loss from our raised beds but has added nutrients to the soil and promoted a very diverse and healthy surface and soil biology.

Hot Composting

So far, all of the bulk composting methods I have covered take place in their own time. We may accelerate the process a bit by ensuring that the piles are watered when we have the water to spare or through occasional turning, but generally speaking these composting processes are somewhat inconsistent and will speed up or slow down depending on the nature of the items added, the amount of water provided or other environmental factors. This is what is generally termed “cold composting.”

There is, however, a method of composting that seeks to optimize the various factors and accelerate the process. In just a few weeks, a pile of properly balanced organic material can be reduced to a pile of ready-to-use dirt. In order to accomplish this feat, the pile must be properly balanced between carbon and nitrogen, the moisture level maintained in an optimal zone, and the pile turned regularly throughout the process. This process is referred to as “hot composting” because the heat produced by the decomposition results in a pile that is literally hot to the touch and will produce plumes of steam.

Hot composting is not only rapid, it also has the benefit of sterilizing the compost to some degree, killing off weed seeds and interrupting the life cycle of some deleterious organisms. If done correctly, the resulting pile also retains more of its initial volume and nutrients than does a similar pile that is cold composted. As such, the increased input of labour results in a more efficient yield. Although not an ideal solution in all circumstances, we have hot composted a few piles over the years.

Chop-and-Drop

Chop and Drop

Fallen wood is moved inside the tree’s drip line to ensure that the decaying material returns nutrients to the tree. Placing bulk composters near large trees is also nice, as nutrients that may leech from the pile can be collected by the roots underneath.

In contrast to almost every aspect of hot composting is chop-and-drop composting. In this system, there are no piles or centralized collection of material. Instead, material is just left to lay on the ground. The term comes from the practice of chopping fresh growth from suitable plants or entire plants in the case of successional plantings and leaving them to lay in order to mulch and return nutrients to the standing plants. In practice, the term could also be extended to the practice of scattering material over a large area even if the material doesn’t come directly from the surrounding plants. Chop-and-drop composting takes a few forms on our property.

Fallen branches from our trees are usually moved to lie at the base of younger trees and shrubs. This not only provides habitat for local biodiversity and nutrients to the trees, but also helps to define the shape of the area around the plantings and protect them from the dog and lawnmower. On occasion, I will pull out the boxelder or walnut trees that grow like weeds on our property and use the trunks and larger branches as temporary fence posts or, more recently, in wattle fencing. The finer branches and leaves then get dropped at the base of plantings to act as mulch and compost. These young branches have a better ratio of cambium to cellulose than older wood and thus provide a lot of accessible nutrients to mycorrhizal fungi, promoting a healthy soil biology.

Wattle Garden Edging

Wattle fencing acts as a nice garden edging that will eventually decay and release nutrients back into the soil.

Even though we have the compost bins, we also exercise a degree of chop-and-drop or informal composting. Inedible parts of plants like an apple core or pea pod might be casually thrown back into the raised beds, where they will decompose and add nutrients back into the soil. When harvesting leaf vegetables like lettuce, chard or spinach, leaves that are past their prime or damaged are often also cut but left to lie instead of being collected for salad. In this way, we are constantly adding some nutrients directly back into the beds – even between adding finished compost from our bulk composting setups.

Lastly, we have a small bed that is bordered by larger logs. This creates a raised bed of sorts but also allows the decomposition of the logs to feed the garden. I recently edged a tree nursery bed with a small wattle fence, which should have the same effect over time. Should I ever find a suitable source of larger logs from outside the property, I would like to try my hand at Hügelkultur in a low spot on our property. It should be possible to scrape the area with our tractor bucket, fill it with logs, and then replace the soil on top in order to create a raised mound filled with eventually decomposing wood. The mound also ought to have the effect of being a sponge of sorts and soaking up some of the excess water in the spring and after heavy rains and then releasing it slowly back to the plants in the garden.

Manure

Another great source of nutrients is manure. The chickens in Worker Town have access to pasture, to an enclosed area outdoors and then the interior of the coop. Of those, only the outer pasture does not have material added to it. Both their outside run and the interior of the coop are not regularly mucked out, but rather have material such as shavings or straw added to them. This is known as the “deep litter” method and results in a sort of composting system whereby the waste is kept dry and decomposing through the addition of the desiccating, carbon-rich, material. Eventually portions of the composted litter are removed and used in the gardens, with additional dry material being added back to the coop in its place.

Outdoor Chicken Run Bedding

Adding woody material to the chicken droppings and food scraps inside the chicken run helps to produce a usable compost while keeping things dry. The chickens constantly mix the material with their scratching and even the material inside the coop may go years without needing changing or developing odour or other issues.

A similar, if cruder, process is used to handle the waste of rats from the local pet store. The store breeds rats to be used for snake food and produces a fair volume of wood shavings mixed with rat droppings. We retrieve these and then leave them in a pile in order to compost a bit and to allow the rain to temper the nitrogen levels in the pile. Once they are deemed safe for plants, they can be used to amend soils.

With there being no such thing as too many nutrients, however, we also jumped at the opportunity last year to secure a large pile of already composted cow manure from a local farm and add it to our various beds at opportune times.

Worm Composting

Despite our numerous composting efforts, we have only scratched the surface of what is possible. One of the more interesting techniques which we have little experience with is vermicomposting – the use of worms to convert compostable material into soil. High-intensity vermicomposting is popular in urban settings due to it being very space-efficient and relatively odour free. Unfortunately, it isn’t ideally suited to our situation and so we have had to be content with the somewhat less intense, though still impressive, worm population which comes to naturally populate our various composting bins.

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