Monday, January 7, 2019

I Compost better than I Garden

I might be better at composting than gardening.

I’ve been working on the perfect compost style since being a mad teenager who, shortly after reading about it, had wind-rows of steaming mulch in my parent’s front yard.  I was ever seeking the ideal system, the perfect recipe, adapted to real people’s habits and realistic lifestyles.  Minimal effort for maximum gain by sheer efficiency- that was the goal.

I get a kick out of driving past a good municipal compost facility.

I might have nailed it a few years ago, at least for me, and anyone like me who resents waste in general and has questionable back health, deeply loathing unnecessary heavy labor. (i.e. TURNING compost)

So here I’ll use lots and lots of words and a few pictures for a truly very simple system which has been doing magic dividends the last few years.

The major advantages to my own system are:

1)Finished compost twice a year.
2) easily harvested/gathered/moved finished material
5) Got your attention there?
6) Up to ONE TON of finished compost per year, delivered manageably.
7) Intense production in a small space, and
8)It makes me so damn happy. When all else in life looks bleak, there she steams, reliably.

By following a couple rules:
1) good dimensions.
2) consistent watering. (lightly, frequently)
3) balancing and processing raw material.
4) using a simple twice-a-year schedule, and
5)keeping a stockpiles of “browns” on hand at all times.

It sure looks a lot simpler just sitting there than this description.

The Design
Half of the trick to this is what goes in, half of it is how the bin itself is constructed.

I made my compost bin from scrap lumber as well as some nice new (rot resistant) cedar lumber and fixtures. Use whatever you want.  4’ tall, 4’ wide, 2’ deep, each bay being 2’ wide.  Simple. The front doors and back are wooden slats with small (0-1/2”) gaps.  The sides and middle divider are 1/2” hardware mesh or thereabouts. That way, there is moisture retention as well as oxygenation, in balance.  Wider and the middle might get anaerobic. narrower, and the amount of dry outside edge would be too high in ratio, as well as the bin not being able to retain heat/moisture.

The bottom is heavy plywood, it and the doors (and perhaps the back in future?) are lined with a thick plastic “basin” which trails out the sides and flaps down; this is for three good reasons- to catch moisture and drain it outside to plants rather than saturate the plywood, to keep tree roots from invading from below (which steal all the moisture and nutrients; it happened to me one iteration before this design, it was very strange and a very serious problem) and thirdly, because the powerful decomposition happening in the bin will chew right through the bottom in no time; we’ll see how long other unprotected wood lasts in contact with the compost.

Accidentally, I found that having wire mesh in the middle allows the critters to transfer from one finished side to the other, be they visible things like woodlice and red wigglers or the invisible microbes. Perhaps this is a secret huge advantage to this system- that there is a massive population of hard workers able to move on to new quarry and not have their numbers decrease.

I put the bin on a platform of concrete pavers over a little layer of gravel. It can weigh up to a ton; small feet will be crushed or mashed into the ground. I’ve done it.

I used an experimental, hippy-dippy organic wood treatment: an emulsion of vinegar and canola oil.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

The doors, hinges and latches should be strong; the weight against them is surprising. There are beams spanning above the doors for essential bracing strength.  1/4” thick cedar fence slats alone were not strong enough for the doors. There is an unattached lid, which is simply a wooden frame stretched with shade cloth that snaps in. This sits on whichever side is digesting and not being fed, keeping some evaporation down, but mostly to send a very clear message for me to feed the other side; I first started using it to steer my neighbors to the correct bay, who would walk over and empty their kitchen compost pails themselves. 

The last element is a great stockpile of brown material. For us, this is a 6-8’ wide leaf cage hung right next to the bin for ease. You dump the leaves into it just once, but you’ll grab handfuls out of it every few days all year.  If you have no access to tree leaves, you can use straw bales, bagged paper shred, or even fine wood chips, but the latter had better be from untreated wood and you don’t have to use as much in volume.

Shade cloth-wrapped wire cages can even work fine for the compost bins themselves, but they should be designed to open easily for harvest, might be a bit too dry on the edges, and if you have nearby trees, will be pillaged from below.

The secret sauce- how to add material.
The trick is that things get mixed and cut up as they go in. Generally nothing thicker than 1/2” or longer than 4”.  A whole halloween pumpkin will get smashed up with a shovel in the bin or cut into chunks in the kitchen before it goes out. No twigs larger than a pencil.  Think of it as you roughly chipper-shredding everything that goes in, as it goes in.  I knew a lady who used an old food processor as her countertop compost pail, because she could just buzz it on and it would pre-mince everything before it went outside.  Brilliant. chopping stuff up as it goes in is perhaps the only “hard” thing about this system. Take the time to simply cut up that old peony plant into pieces as you drop it into the compost. But it eliminates so much else- like bad smells, waiting for years, and ever (EVER) turning the pile! It also has the wonderful side effect of breaking things down fast enough that it greatly diminishes the probability of scavenging animals finding nice big food treasures worth their time.  

“Greens” are the gardener’s word for nitrogen rich material: grass clippings, spent coffee grounds, the average table scrap. Oddly; hair, blood, and feathers count as greens. Don’t think too hard about that. This also includes literally green garden trimmings. Don’t fail to take advantage and use coffeepot dregs, rinse-water from the blender, juice drained from canned fruit, pasta-cooking water, and other kitchen liquids. Natural sugars basically classify as strong greens. If any of these are left on their own in a pile without “browns,” they will reek; that is almost the only reason for anyone’s compost smelling: Inadequate browns to balance the greens.

“Browns” are the carbon-rich stuff.  It does not stink if it piles up, so that's why we stockpile it to pair up with the greens as they come along. When in doubt about the ratio, do a little more brown; that way you err on the side of not-smelly, and if you do find that too much brown is not breaking down completely, it’s easy to tip that balance by adding just a little more coffee ground, blood meal, fish emulsion, or another fine green source to get it dialed close to that happy 50/50.

Browns are stored next to the bin so that they can be added to it as “greens” arrive, so there’s roughly equal parts “green” and “brown.”  When a bucket of grass clippings arrives, it is dumped in with about a bucket’s worth leaves, maybe lightly stirred up a little. Some folks use thin alternating layers of green-brown-green-brown so they are essentially mixed. This is the part that totally eliminates the odious, evil, murderous task of compost-turning. (It was the cause of my first serious back injury).  What will you choose: snip-snip with the pruners, or vile backbreaking drudgery?

Avoid high salts, and generally avoid meat to avoid pathogens. We get away with small amounts, like the ground beef within a chili, table scraps and gristle, as well as small bits of dairy, because it gets well absorbed into the browns, getting fully digested, and our bin is almost always hot. Most men and some emphatic ladies pee on their compost. 

Which leads us to watering. A compost bin needs roughly the same water schedule as vegetable plants. I hit my compost bin (both bays) with the hose for a few seconds every 1-3 days in the growing season; whenever I’m walking by on my way to water potted plants.  Stealing an idea from an old friend which I use in other gardens, I simply divert a drip emitter or micro-prayer from the nearby veg irrigation system and put it on the bin. That’s some all-star lazy-clever labor-saving gardener stuff right there.

A simple schedule: 
On an airplane coming back from North Carolina, I figured out that a schedule which splits the year’s warm months in two timeframes would allow you to use just two bays, each getting about 6 warm months per year to fully mature. Nov 1 is good because it is about the right time to accept a whole bunch of dead plants from cleaned-up veg garden as well as apply finished compost to bare veg garden soil, leaving June 1 as the corresponding date. So on those harvest days, the bin that’s been getting filled is now capped off, and the other bin is harvested.

June 1: harvest/empty the right bin and cap the left one to leave it alone until November 1.

If there was a a third bay for finished-compost-storage, it would give you six months to procrastinate using your finished batch while the schedule keeps moving: the first bay would be accepting input and the second would be capped and digesting.

Things it has eaten:
-King crab shells. I was curious how much it could break them down during 6 months. Couldn’t find them.

-Citrus, the books say, is too acidic or something.  Well, our compost bin is not allowed to read such books and is not aware of this, enjoying all kinds of rinds. 

-Paper towels used to soak up a pan of bacon grease regularly go into the pile.  Paper is rendered 100% gone.  I got so cocky about this, I put in a whole phonebook.  For some reason it left the yellow pages, but the cover and white pages were very much gone. ( I trashed the yellow pages in case they had something dubious in them)

-Financial documents, ripped up a little. Not for privacy but because I’d rather not be reminded. A good brown.

-Dead cactus and agaves. I usually put them in the middle to ensure they don't stay intact on the outside edge of the bin. Their claws don’t survive.

- All of our immediate neighbor’s fall leaves and even some from distant friends get stockpiled.  And a local business or two. They are almost enough to be a year’s supply of “browns,” stored in a big wire cage right next to the bin.  We usually run out just before fall and resort to shredded paper, egg crates, or straw for “browns.”  We accidentally discovered straw last year; it's a lot of good carbon that stacks nicely in a small space. I think it's actually more carbon-potent than leaves. Our friend steals leaf bags off the street; they also store neatly and easily in those bags.

- All the coffee grounds from BestSlope Coffee Company come here. They are a wonderful small roastery and coffeeshop down the street.  It’s a couple 5-gallon buckets every week.  Coffee grounds are the ideal “green,” because its fine texture settles and trickles into the “browns” and seems to marry them into oblivion. It’s probably the single most active and beneficial component for our composting.

- 3 homes worth of kitchen scraps: several friends’ households have 5 gallon buckets in rotation that we take in. It’s been strange how we started with just our own kitchen and garden scraps,  then steadily increased the volume going in over the years, and it just kept taking it. I kept increasing the flow to see how much it could handle. I think what I’m doing now is the maximum, because now, one bin will be piled high over the top of the rim right on its rotation date. It still manages to gobble that up.

-Bread. We don’t think twice about it.

-Candy and sugary desserts are better composted than eaten most of the time. Well, someone eats it in the bin.

           Am I worried about the thistles?  Snooze.

-You know those funny corn-starch “compostable” but totally plastic-looking cups, plates and utensils?  I’ve put them in occasionally out of curiosity. Having never found them speaks for itself.

-The easier to get the raw material, the better.  I go to the coffeeshop regularly enough, and it’s a close walk.  Now, my neighbors drop their leaves/scraps off out of habit.  The fewer extra steps needed to make it happen, the easier it is to keep doing.  Now, I’m so entrenched, I think it would be harder not to compost.

How it gets used: 
I harvest twice a year.
On June 1, the bin that’s been capped and not filled since Nov 1 is opened, and despite being completely full back then, it has reduced to about half its volume.  It looks like a chocolate layer cake.  I usually give a few buckets to friends, a wheelbarrow or two to a neighbor for his/her veg garden, and then take the rest and simply pile it on any bare soil I can see in my veg garden. I try to totally empty that bin so I can immediately start re-filling the empty bay with raw stuff.  A harvested bin is worth maybe a dozen full wheel-barrows. Wet, it’s just under 1000 pounds. (I only know this because when we moved, I had to carry it in half loads in my little pickup, whose springs squatted the way they do for exactly that much rock…)

After visiting the amazing  Juniper Level Botanic Gardens in North Carolina, I adopted their system of compost application: make lots of it and just lay it down 6-12 inches thick. Yep. No mixing: just let nature do its thing. This is not surprising in “no-till” gardening circles.  Holy #$%@ ! does it work.  It starts to incorporate so fast into the soil profile. You do have to push it aside in order to sow or plant new plants on the native soil if you’ve recently laid it down, but I’m amazed how fast it all evens out and even more amazed at how plants do; mostly just rooting straight into the compost. It’s extra convenient if you site your bin inside your veg garden, because you don’t have to haul the finished material anywhere when it’s done and the “compost tea” which oozes from the bin bottom enriches the nearby soil in an unbelievable way.

So, to sum it all up: there is a two-bay compost bin sitting in the veg garden with a heap of leaves next to it.  Scraps and such get chopped as they goes in with commensurate browns added in. It is allowed to fill up for half the year, getting watered lightly, frequently, and half a year later, it’s perfect, glorious, black gold. Get you some.

(photo courtesy of dirtanddogs)