Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cooking Up Some Compost

I'm still pathetic at taking progress photos. Usually I'm halfway through something before the idea of a camera even surfaces... so sorry there's not a full start to finish illustration here.

Anyway, Finally made a compost bin in the beginning of November 2010 (yes, composting the Halloween pumpkins was the final push). I, uh, "comandeered" a lonely unused plastic trash bin in the backyard for the proect. Very simple - just turned it upside down, cut the bottom off with an old bow saw, and put a cover on with one of the those swingy doors. I decided to set the bin upside down so that it's wider at the bottom and will be easier for me to lift off to get at the finished compost. A few days later I drilled some air holes in the sides with a 1/2" spade drill bit. Used stuff we had, cost me nothing but twenty minutes.

before I drilled the holes

I'm surprised how fast a compost bin can fill up, even from what I feel is a modest garden effort. Also surprising how fast the stuff starts compacting itself down as the process begins! Within two week it was filled to the brim from the last fall trimmings. A week later it had sunk down enough to add more trimmings. It sits near the kitchen door so scraps can go right in, and also near the gate to the front yard where the majority of composting material comes from.

Problem number one presented itself to me at that time and the bin was about two months old. Not enough air circulation at the bottom. I had made sure to put some woody zinnia stems at the bottom to help keep air flowing down there when I started adding material to the bin. But with all the green waste piling up in there and all insane rain we had squished it down and the woody stems got soggy and soft.

ew, anaerobic decomposition...not good.

My first day home I was compelled to fix it. Pulled everything out of the bin (interesting to see the progress of decay on the way down) till I got to the mucky stuff at the bottom and lifted the container off. Ew, it was stinky because no air was getting into it. Please note: the upper parts of the bin were fine, smells like earth and cut grass and stuff - that is good decomposition. That is how compost is supposed to be made. The stink at the bottom was my fault for not making sure enough air was circulating. Anyway, dad was starting to prune his roses that morning too so I had him save the branches and canes he pruned off for my bin. I broke them short enough to fit sideways into the bin and layered a bunch of them at the bottom to create airspace. Then I got some of the large leaves that hadn't broken down yet and made a thin layer on top the rose branches, then put everything back into the bin. I mixed all the materials up so the soggy stinky bits would air out quickly and the good bacteria would get back into them. I also drilled more holes near the bottom. About 30 minutes (minus rose pruning time).

ah, dad's roses were good for something besides making me bleed...

It was really interesting when I had emptied the bin out and could see how things were breaking down. The chunks of pumpkin (I'd broken it up into palm-sized pieces when tossing it in) where still chunks of...well they were still chunky. Very brown and gray and soft, but still recognizable. A couple of weeks after starting the bin my favorite Starbucks had given me I kid you not about 10 lbs of used coffee grounds. I put half in and gave the other half to Jean. I'd tried to sprinkle it all around evenly, but it sort of migrated to one spot and tricked me into thinking I had finished compost already. Well, I broke those clumps up and spread them around properly.

a decomposing medley of goodies :)

On to problemo number two - the compost suddenly stopped processing itself. I was getting used to filling the bin to the brim, then seeing the level drop over the week until there was a good space at the top to add more prunings the next weekend. After dealing with the soggy bottom the materials stopped compacting themselves for a couple weeks. Ah - moisture! Soon after the holidays the crazy rainy weather went away and we got our dry conditions back. Water wasn't getting in from the air holes in the sides or from the dirt under it, and I'd added more air holes, and I hadn't been watering the compost.  Ooooops. A couple of days of light sprays from the hose and a cup of water with the evening's kitchen scraps got things moving again. Five minutes for each spray down with the hose (gotta dig out the water gun head) and a minute to give it a glass of water.

Problem number three - unfortunately the convenient swingy door isn't working out. Because the bin is upside down the small end is at the top and the cover doesn't fit snuggly on it. SO when pushing the door open the whole cover sometimes slips and falls off. Also it makes access to the fresh stuff on top a snap for fruit flies and omg I'm sick of looking at mating fruit flies! Here see -

haha, made you look :9

So I took the fancy cover off and put the typical round metal lid you saw in the background in the first pic. The fly population immediately plummeted. There's still a few but less every day. I hope in summer when the sun rises so high the compost bin is in sun most of the day that it'll be too hot for the little bugger to even think of sneaking in. Two minutes to change the lid.

All seems hunky-dory now :)

So. Starting a compost bin -EASY!
Maintaining a compost bin - Easy! Yes, even after the blunders I made I still find it easy. All you have to do is make sure moisture and air are in balance and it takes care of itself. You'r gonna be pruning your plants, cutting grass and raking leaves anyway. Just as easy to put them in a compost bin as the green waste bin. If it gets out of balance you'll notice quickly enough and solutions to the problem are also simple. The longest time I spent fixing a problem was the 30 minutes to empty it, put down branches and refill it when if was too wet. That's not bad.

I supposed outside of an urban setting it might be more troublesome with some critters looking for food, but then you'd already be used to them eating your garden anyway.

It's been about three months now, I'm still waiting on my first batch of compost but it's winter so of course it's taking awhile to get going. What I want to do now it get a simple holding area made of wood stakes and wire mesh set up next to the compost bin. I'll put the compost out of the bin into there for 2-3 weeks to "age" before using it in the garden. Surfing the internet I found that in the last phase of breaking down the compost drops in temperature and can look like it's done. But if you put it into the garden during that time it drains out the nitrogen in the surrounding soil to fuel it's last few weeks of decomposition. Keeping it in a holding place while it does that should save my plants from burning or nutrient loss. I expect the holding area will take about a half hour to put together once I have the materials together.

I'm really glad I started this bin.

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