Thursday, July 15, 2010

How We Compost - Is It All Wrong?

After reading EG's post about composting this morning, I felt deflated, like we were a textbook case of how NOT to compost.  Is our beginner's composting effort totally doomed?  Please read on and let us know your thoughts.

Since Keith and I decided to start our own vegetable garden, my feelings regarding home composting have evolved from common fear (is our backyard going to stink like a mini landfill?), to cautious intrigue (can we really turn everyday garbage into "black gold"?), and finally to newbie enthusiasm (let's do it!).

I did some online research on how to start backyard composting at home, and learned about "browns" and "greens," also known as carbon and nitrogen sources.  I also read up on oxygen and water requirements for good composting.  We looked at countless pictures of backyard compost bins, checked out a few commercial composters at local garden stores, and eventually made a decision to build our own.

The "building" part was actually really easy.  We bought a food grade 55-gallon plastic barrel with a screw top lid from someone on craigslist for $20.  We then drilled many holes at regular intervals all around the barrel (including top and bottom) for air circulation and drainage.

Next up was the "filling" part.  I didn't really think through this part very well.  I had a vague idea that we would just toss all our kitchen scraps (minus the meats and the fats) in there, mix in some grass clippings and leaves, and we would magically have our compost some months later.  Ha, it didn't actually work out like that.

First problem: 55 gallons is actually a really big space to fill with kitchen scraps from a household of two adults.  Grass clippings added some bulk, but we discovered that they reduce down a lot as they start decomposing.

Second problem: we live in a new-ish subdivision, and we only have one very small tree on our property.  So... no brown leaves for the compost pile.  I told Keith that come fall time, we might have to sneak around the neighborhood at nights with a large trash bag and collect brown leaves from our more established neighbors.  He didn't like that idea so much.

Anyway, our current composting routine goes something like this:

  • We keep a small plastic container (big enough to fit a plastic grocery bag inside) in the kitchen for all vegetable and fruit scraps.  I'm anal enough to chop everything into smaller pieces, because I read that small pieces are more accessible for microorganisms during the composting process.  Keith thinks it's funny that I chop things like watermelon rind into bite sized pieces, only to throw them away in the compost.  Hey, if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well.
  • We toss in crushed eggshells and used coffee grounds whenever we have them. 
  • When the small container gets full, it gets emptied into the compost barrel sitting in the backyard. 
  • We add some newspaper (hand-shredded into approximately 1/2 inch wide strips) in the compost barrel as our main carbon source.
  • Grass clippings get added to the compost barrel after mowing. 
  • Oh, our compost barrel also serves as an earthly gateway to vegetable plant heaven. 
  • We spray water inside the compost barrel daily to make sure that it stays sufficient moist (but not too wet) inside. 
  • The compost barrel gets rolled around on a weekly basis to ensure proper aeration.
We don't keep track of the volume ratio between browns (newspaper) and greens (kitchen scraps, grass clippings and dead vegetable plants), but we haven't had any issues with bad smells, which I read may be attributed to the way-off brown/green ratio, so I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that our ratio is at least somewhat acceptable.

So far, things look okay in the compost barrel. Everything is starting to decompose into a dark brown mass without smelling bad.  We don't have a compost thermometer, so we don't know if our compost is heating up to the ideal range of 130F - 150F.  The barrel is still only about a third full, and we keep adding more browns and greens to it, so I guess we can't expect to get any usable compost out of it until at least several months after we get the whole thing full.  I'm starting to realize the limitations of the one bin (or barrel, in our case) composting method.

I also found this fascinating tidbit on wiki: 
People excrete far more plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) in urine than in feces.  Human urine can be used directly as fertilizer or it can be put onto compost. Adding a healthy person's urine to compost usually will increase temperatures and therefore increase its ability to destroy pathogens and unwanted seeds.
I asked Keith if he would consider peeing in our compost barrel.  He countered with an offer to add a built-in toilet seat to the compost barrel lid, complete with a step stool for me to climb up to the top.  I think he was kidding.  At least I hope he was.  I may be eager, but I guess I'm not THAT dedicated to composting.  Yet.

Aside from building a new compost pile (the barrel did not work well for EG) and finding a good source of browns for carbon (EG mentioned that paper is not a good choice of browns), do you have any ideas on how we can salvage our composting method?  Does spraying your compost pile with tap water really kill all the good microbes?  It's not so much that I want to doubt EG, I'm just so sad thinking about how we may have been killing all our compost microbes with our daily watering.


Shawn Ann said...

I say, do the best you can with what you've got and see how it goes! And make improvements as you see needed!

thyme2garden said...

Shawn Ann, thank you for the encouragement. I guess that's what trial and error is all about.

Annie's Granny said...

Sounds good to me, but then I'm a compost failure. I toss in my scraps, shells and grounds. I run my newspapers through a shredder, and I try to remember to turn and wet down the entire mess once a week or so. I can't roll mine around, it has no bottom and the middle comes apart. Eventually nature will compost it, probably whether you're doing it right or not. Some ways are just faster, but pile it all up and ignore it, and you'll still get compost some day.

meemsnyc said...

I'm new to composting, and I'm really not that sure if we are doing it correctly either. We made an amateur mistake early on by not putting in enough browns in the compost and it became a wet mess. To compensate, we added a bunch of browns and it sorta balanced itself out. We added shredded cardboard. We read it could be a good brown.

For the fried Zucchini, I use seasoned bread crumbs. Any store brand like 4C or Ronzoni.

It's so easy.

1. Slice the zucchini.
2. Beat 1 egg.
3. Dip slices in egg then in a bowl of seasoned bread crumbs. Cover the entire zucchini in bread crumbs.
4. Place breaded zucchini in a skillet of hot vegetable oil.
5. Cook until brown then flip to brown other side.
6. Put cooked zucchini on plate with paper towel to soak up access oil.
7. Eat and Enjoy!

thyme2garden said...

Thank you Granny and meemsnyc for your feedback. I guess I'll just have to make up for my lack of experience with more patience.

Dirt Lover said...

Oh, my Lord! I'm cracking up! A toilet seat on top of your compost pile. What ever will the neighbors think? If you have to sneak for leaves, what will you have to do for a pee?? So, anyway, I have something to say about the water you put on. When my kids were little, we had a kiddie pool that we put fish in. (Long story. Long redneck story!) The official fish dude asked if we had city water or if we were on a well. If we had city water, we just had to let it sit for a day or two to let the chlorine and stuff evaporate out, or whatever it does, so it wouldn't hurt the fish. I would think that basically there would be no difference between my fish and the microbes. Just my thoughts, I'm neither a microbe nor a fish professional!!

Anonymous said...

I didn’t read the EG's post, but I cant help myself to think that it should be bottomless barrel. You need microorganisms and little bugs and worms in there. And they can’t get inside the barrel if there is no bottom. That is my thinking, but I might be wrong.

How I compost:
Don’t chop anything, don’t think too much about "green" and "brown", add water when I remember. That is it. I’m thinking that composting is natural process that is happening everywhere and all the time without any help. So why would I do the work that is not necessary.
It takes long time to fill the barrel, that is true!

kitsapFG said...

Your doing just fine. Compost is just rotted stuff. You can do it fast and hot - or slow and cold. It all ends up being roughly the same in the end although the hot and fast is more nutrient dense and has less weed seeds. I do mine in wire bins that I turns every once in a great while - spray with water every once in a great while - and yet despite my lazy approach I get some beautiful and abundant compost every year. Happy composting!

Engineeredgarden said...

If decompostion is taking place and it doesn't smell, then i'd say you're doing good. To add to what vrtlarica said - microbes have to be introduced into the barrel system, which commonly is added by putting "compost starter" into it.

Cheryl said...

On what EG said, even a few handfuls of dirt will get you some microbes in your pile.

Personally, I like to help the compost along so I can start using it. Having a small city back yard there's not a lot of room for a big pile in a corner.

I just had a thought (dangerous). If your barrel had a removable top and bottom you'd have the best of both worlds. It would be easy to roll and you'd have the bottom of it in contact with the soil. It sounds, though, like yours is working fine just like it is.

Urban Gardener said...

I am in a similar situation. Mostly I live alone since my husband is on deployment a lot. I actually use an old garbage can for composting. I put in all of my kitchen scraps and even a lot of plant debris from the garden as long as it is disease free. For brown materials I use a lot of shredded paper, toilet paper rolls etc...
Since I use a lasagna layering method in my garden, I don't really worry about if it is broken down all the way when I use it because I know the decomposition process will continue once it's layered in the garden. I also add in free "grounds for your garden" that I get from starbucks and whole foods. And then to really give the decomposition process a boost, I grow comfrey and add the comfrey leaves into the pile as well. I had read that I should make comfrey tea, and I did, but it smalls so bad that I will never do it again. I've seen equally as good results from just mixing in the fresh leaves.
You could also offer up a composting pale to friends or neighbors that you pick up on a regular basis and trade out with a fresh clean pale on rotation so as to help fill your container faster.
Warning: composting is addictive!

Sarah Ruth said...

As a newbie who hasn't forayed into the land of compost yet, I am of no help. I did, however, want to comment on the the urine-as-fertilizer thing. It's been going around the blogging world lately, and so far, the brave souls willing to go there have seen good results. Not really my cup of tea, though maybe my anti-gardening bf would be able to finally contribute something.. :) Happy composting!

Kimmi said...

"Oh, our compost barrel also serves as an earthly gateway to vegetable plant heaven."

HAR HAR HAR! I laughed so hard I almost woke up my husband! That was so funny, I forgot everything else I was going to say!


thyme2garden said...

Dirt Lover, glad you found the story funny. You crack me up all the time with your funny stories. Also, thanks for the info about your kiddie pool and sitting water. We are going to try it, although we're a bit worried about mosquitoes breeding in sitting water.

* * * * *
vrtlarica, I think I'm just overthinking this composting a little too much - typical of a newbie gardener, right? Your composting sounds a lot more stress-free.

* * * * *
kitsapFG, I'm just starting to learn that regardless of speed, composting will eventually happen. Thank you!

* * * * *
EngineeredGarden, thanks for checking out my post! I'll think about the compost starter.

* * * * *
Cheryl, that's an interesting thought about a barrel with a removable top and bottom. But wouldn't things fall out of it during moving/rolling if there was no bottom?

* * * * *
Urban Gardener, I need to learn more about this lasagna gardening method. I keep hearing about it, but I don't really know how it works. And thanks for the tip about Starbucks grounds!

* * * * *
Sarah Ruth, not your cup of tea, or pee? :)

* * * * *
Kimmi, this was kind of a long post, so I'm glad you were able to read through the whole thing and find that gem stuck in the middle. Thanks for visiting and following my blog!

Urban Gardener said...

The above link is a good article - this woman apparently "invented it, but I think she maybe just gave it a name, or was the first to write a book about it. When I read the article I realized I had been "lasagna" gardening from the beginning. It's just a really simple no dig technique that is all about replenishing your soil at the end of each season.

thyme2garden said...

Urban Gardener, thank you so much for passing on the link to that article. I will now go read and learn more about lasagna gardening.

Rhiannon said...

Oh dear, you are intense!

Nobody seems to have mentioned harvested rainwater for the compost? Also good for your tomato plants, as my grandfather swears the chemicals in city water kill the blooms (therefore, he has me water just at the base of the plant).

Kevin said...

Hi Minji!

As long as it is decomposing and not stinky, you're doing ok.

We have 2 biostack composting bins that I can usually get up to 130. You need about 1 cubic yard of equal parts green and brown, finely chopped to get the pile hot. The smaller the pieces the faster they break down.

The cold pile method works great too, but is slower. I get lots of nice volunteers from the cold compost.

The pile should be moist like a wrung out sponge. Any wetter and you start running into problems with anaerobes. We turn our pile every few weeks.

I've heard that straw is the best source of browns for people lacking trees. We have plenty of leaves, so I've never tried it.

Grass clippings are a great source of greens, but mine stay on the lawn for grasscycling. Coffee grounds are great too, but you have to be careful if your soil pH is already on the low side.

I haven't seen any difference between harvested rain water and tap water. Peeing on your compost seems rather silly. Maybe if your whole neighborhood was peeing in your pile it would raise the temperature a little.

You should get worms! We have a small vermiculture operation going in our garage. They eat all kinds of things, even the shredded newspaper they live in.

thyme2garden said...

Rhiannon and Kevin - thanks for visiting my blog! You two are my first "real life" friends on my blog here. :) Kevin, I want to ask you more about your vermiculture operation later.

Linda said...

Try adding household cardboard, preferably uncoloured. Like insides of toilet rolls, kitchen paper rolls, packaging eg from Amazon parcels, egg cartons. I like using cardboard too because it reduces the amount we put to the recycling bins (there are allegations in the UK that civic recycling is just being shipped off to China to landfill)
Eggshells in my experience take forever to breakdown, so I'v stopped using them in compost. I'm still digging them up from the soil several years later.

supermandy said...

I'm a first year veggie gardener, and therefore do a great deal of reading and conversing on the subject. I can't say what the best method is, but I'vr been doing the dry method. I have an orange home depot bucket, no holes drilled, no lid. I wad finely chopping my scraps, but lately I've just been hacking the insides of the bin with a shovel like a lunatic... it's sort of fun. I, too, live in a newer subdivision (darn you clearcutters!) and have no trees at my disposal. I pathetically pick them up in parking lots when I'm getting back in my car, and stuff them into empty fast foos cups. I did mention this to a relative who said I could come to his wooded home and haul away trash bags of leaves anytime I want... he pees in a buckeat for his yard, and OMG, his grass is amazing. And I NEVER say OMG. Free Starbucks grounds are great, but I only recently discovered they are a green and not a brown. Oops! I also have a bunny, so I use her poop. I think my nitrogen level is way too high. I live in Texas and my bucket sits in direct sunlight and gets bugs. If I'm patient and find more browns, I do get nice oderless compost. I read that using unfinished compost results in high salt levels in your soil. Anyone know how to counteract my salty nitrogen rich soil? I also read that egg shells can carry salmonella and lefy chunky they take a while to decompose. The solution? Use a disposable foil muffin tray, place eggshells in the tray and pop it in the oven while it's heating up for dinner. The cooked shells crumble easily into a gritty powder. I've just written a novel here on your lovely blog. I'll hush up now. :)

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