Wednesday, August 3, 2011

An Introduction to Compost

What can be composted and what to avoid?

As a general rule, if it's a plant, part of a plant or was a plant, it can be composted. In addition, here are some things that are often overlooked: egg shells, coffee, tea bags, herbivore feces, chicken/duck/goose feces, plant based bedding material for the above, and shredded paper. Unused (unpainted) drywall scraps and wood ash may be used in limited proportions. Too much will through off the pH balance of the compost.

Avoid weeds that have gone to seed and keep in mind some partially developed seed-heads can pull enough nutrient from the cut plant to finish development. If questionable, lay the weeds in the sun until dry and before adding. Also avoid vegetables cooked with grease or meat should be avoided for the home composter. Finally, dog and cat feces should not be used to keep from spreading pathogens and disease to your garden/food supply. (There are sites that discuss composting dog feces for use on non-edible plants, but that is outside the focus of this blog.)

[This next paragraph involves composting meat and is not for the squeamish. Highlight the text to view or scroll down to skip.]

As a note, animals and offal may be composted, but require a large pile more suitable to a farm than a backyard. The process takes longer, but the material will break down, bones and all. Again, stick with herbivores and poultry unless spreading on pasture. If you have enough animals to be composting death loss and offal, I recommend keeping this a separate pile that is spread only on pastures to further limit a limited concern. There should still be plenty of manure, bedding, and vegetative compost left for the garden.

The largest concern of composting meat is attracting scavengers which can be a nuisance. A side benefit is hauling away the beef offal that won't be eaten can reduce processor fees as the butcher doesn't have to pay for disposal.

Does it matter what I put in?

There should be a mix of material put in the pile in order to speed the breakdown process, but also keep it slow enough to avoid odors. There are books written about this and mixing the right ratio of Carbon and Nitrogen. If you want to get into the topic that deeply, please check my booklist. However, it boils down to mixing greens and brown, wets and dries, the ying and the yang. As a general rule, keeping these at a 50/50 mix is optimum. More browns will slow the process whereas greens will speed it up (to a point), but it will still work. So don't worry about being meticulous with the mixing, just use it as a target.

So what is a brown? Think dried leaves, plant stems, wood mulch, sawdust, and straw. This is the Carbon that adds the dry matter to keep the pile from becoming a stinking slimy cesspool. The stink and slime is due to decomposition so rapid that it causes fermentation. Essentially, browns are the brakes to slow the process.

Greens are easier to think of, but are not limited by just color. A green would be any moist vegetation (cauliflower, orange peel, tomato waste, potato peelings) and also includes manure. Greens are the accelerator and speed the breakdown to compost.

As an awareness, I do want to mention that different material will have more Carbon or Nitrogen than others. The ideal ratio of C to N is between 25:1 and 30:1. For example, wood chips are 400:1, dried leaves 60:1, and grass clippings 12:1. Again, I'm staying out of this for now and would reference the book list for more information.

What about turning the pile and these expensive tumblers?

Composting is an aerobic (requires oxygen) breakdown of organic material. Over time, the oxygen in the center of the pile is depleted causing the process to slow. Adding oxygen back in to the center allows the pile increases the rate of material breakdown.

There are three typical ways to add oxygen back to the pile. First, insert a drainage pipe into the center of the pile. The downside is it can allow heat to escape, so this works best with a higher amount of greens. Second, use a compost tumbler. The limitation is the batches are small which may not be a downside. Third, is to mix/stir the compost. This is the lowest cost but highest labor.

My recommendation is to use a pile system with periodic mixing for a beginner. One could always purchase a tumbler later if mixing is too much work, but I'm sticking with, "free is good". Piles do benefit from some containment. Wire fencing (especially the 1x2" grid type), pallets tied together, scrap wood constructs, hay/straw bales, and junk tires all work well for a compost pile. Personally I like to use tires with the sidewalls cut out as they can be moved one ring at a time when turning the pile. This is much less work due to better ergonomics. In addition, the tire rings can double as potato planters to increase size and yield, but that's a whole 'nother topic.

I have experimented using a washer and dryer drum for composting. I think a pair of dryer drums could make a decent tumbler if welded together, but the washer drum was just too small to be effective. The washer would make a better planter than anything else.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

We have had way below normal temperatures the last several days, and to be honest, my plants are beginning to freak out. My cilantro is already trying to go to seed, my snow peas are going nuts, and the shell peas just seem confused as to whether or not there is enough time left to make the effort.

Luckily I delayed transplanting my tomatoes and garden cherries as it dropped down to a new record low (for the date) of 37F last night. Not enough to kill them, but a good potential to stunt my little ones. Here's to slightly warmer weather coming soon!

Do stay tuned as I have an exciting project documentation coming up. I believe I have managed to pull together the elusive cheap and durable raised bed border material. This may be new as I have never seen one built this way before nor did I find one in the first several pages of my web searching. Details and pictures soon as long as things stay on the current track.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spring is finally here!!!

Spring is in the air and the wonder of rebirth and new growth is just ramping up. What a wonderful time to enjoy the creation!

Our garden this year will be simplified over previous years. The focus is increasing seedstock of expensive items, testing growing techniques, and finding more varieties that thrive in our area. As such, one bed equivalent (4x40') is fully devoted to garlic that was spring planted. Typically garlic will be fall planted to emerge even in freezing conditions the next spring (one volunteer is already 4-5" tall). The garlic will increase an expensive seedstock, and test the growth potential of spring planted garlic. FUN!!!

My daughter and I have also planted a full bed of peas. They are grown in two rows and I will use rebar, recycled water pipe, and recycled fencing for the trellis. Some of the peas will be a bit thick as the "one at a time" lesson is difficult to teach to a two year old. Oh well, the seed was cheap and I had a good laugh about it.

One more bit of excitement is my next door neighbor is digging a garden. It is her first garden ever and she is starting the hard way with just a shovel, but making good progress. Just so you don't think I'm a jerk, I did offer to till, but she declined with the comment that she may change her mind. Always nice to talk with another gardener. I find it's hard NOT to get along with gardeners and those who fish or hunt.